How recently did a friend, family member, pastor or therapist advise you to “just let it go?” It’s a phrase we hear often and suggests a strategic forgetting meant to clear our hearts and minds of purposeless thoughts, ruminations, obsessions, or the painful past.
In the old days, we might use the expressions “sweep things under the rug” or “bail out,” implying a passive escape from difficulties. But letting go is something different: an act of considered disengagement; a turning away from; a conscious erasure. It can mean anything from letting something alone by not interfering with it; letting a comment or disagreeable encounter pass; dropping an argument; leaving a relationship; putting an end to obsessive thoughts, or variations on any of these.
Why have we come to embrace the concept of “let it go?” One reason is that sensory overload has put us at risk. Our nervous systems are not adapted for and can’t reasonably respond to the daily and almost constant exposure to stressors. Medical science has warned for decades that stress makes us vulnerable to chronic disease. Infection, drought, and starvation affect large populations in the developing world, but in wealthy countries conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal fatigue, cancer, heart and autoimmune disease prevail. The evidence is not yet in on just how stress relates to these conditions, or how the emotional crises of worrying about a relationship might have different biological consequences than, say, living with famine. Not all stress results in the same afflictions, and some existential conditions such as living with natural disasters are not easily amenable to psychological intervention or techniques. However, the lucky among us can alter our internal and external environments enough to reduce the level of stress we experience.
It makes perfect sense that in our technologically advanced world, we have adopted the philosophy of letting go. Tellingly, in the Disney movie Frozen the song princess Elsa belts out with exactly that title has achieved massive popularity:
“Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on!
The cold never bothered me anyway.”
(From “Let It Go,” music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)
The song is not just a catchy melody. It speaks to a wide audience of young girls and women hungry for images of female empowerment, self-acceptance, and resilience. Its message reaches beyond gender concerns. It celebrates the shedding/letting go of culturally defined roles and expresses the exhilaration of discovering one’s true self. Letting go in this sense is liberation from stereotypical norms, a revelation rather than an erasure.
But wait! Letting it go hasn’t always been the model for handling difficult situations. Way back when, popular culture encouraged a stoic attitude exemplified by rugged individualism embodied by tough hombres. Legendary characters like Paul Bunyan or real figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, or the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton depicted a heroic ideal. Their virtue lay in handling the unpredictable with a cool head and dispassionate heart. Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Gary Cooper and actors that resembled them reflected this mythic masculinity on screen.
American stoicism was not about letting it go, but rather about duking it out and winning. The idea was that character is built by a kind of gritty endurance, a soldiering on that meant one accepted what life offered, including the hardships and suffering. To be anything less was degrading, a basic weakness. The archetype was male and white, but tough dames like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford exhibited their own brand of true grit. Instead of “just let it go,” Americans embraced slogans like, “Buck up, cowboy.” Even in girls’ locker rooms posters declared: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
We now live in a different century. Not only have our expectations about the world altered, the planet itself and the societies on it are continually transforming. The rapidity of change we experience in our daily lives means that we face many more challenges to inner and outer stability. We live with a surfeit of stress. How do we cope? “Let it go” has become the motto for our times.
But letting go is not a process for sissies. It requires self-awareness, discernment, and the courage to face and acknowledge the difficulty at hand. Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist with an interest in meditation, neuroscience and the investigation of human emotions, offers some practical suggestions about how to “let go” on his helpful and informative website:
“Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving – however well-intended, skillful, and honorable – just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go. Be with these reflections – perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you – and let their answers sink in.”
Neuroscientist Linda Graham’s book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, likewise addresses the brain’s ability to grow and change in response to experience. Moving from a negative to positive emotional state requires that we redirect our stress responses by consciously practicing ways to calm our over-stimulated brain. Dr. Graham draws on her twenty years of experience as a psychotherapist to offer a series of experiential exercises designed to build skills in “relational intelligence, somatic (body-based) intelligence, emotional intelligence, reflection and choosing options, and the deep wisdom of simply being.”
“Researchers have found that people who exhibit high degrees of response flexibility also exhibit high degrees of resilience. Flexibility in the neural circuitry of the prefrontal cortex allows them to vary their responses to life events depending on their judgment of what will work best now, not simply on what has worked before. Response flexibility is the essential neural platform from which we can choose to cope differently, more adaptively, and more resiliently. It is the neurobiological basis of resilience.”
Along similar lines, Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s foremost researchers on brain plasticity, links the ability to let go of negative ideation as one of the key aspects of resilience. He identifies two parts of letting go: the physical and the mental and finds an interesting distinction in how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach letting go:
“In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) the emphasis is on changing negative or unhelpful beliefs, but in other approaches you don’t need to go so far. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, it’s enough to create this space in the way I’m describing here. In ACT the process is known as cognitive defusion.
Cognitive defusion is an aspect of acceptance, which just means letting go of internal struggle or resistance. This is acceptance in a positive sense, not just resignation – so for example, forgiveness is a kind of acceptance.”
Last, in researching this blog, I discovered a website called The Daily Stoic. Founded in Athens in the third century B.C., stoicism was a persuasive ancient Hellenistic philosophy whose most famous proponents were Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. One tenet of stoicism taught that self-control, reason, and fortitude could overcome destructive emotions. The Daily Stoic endeavors to make stoicism relevant to a modern audience and to serve “as a source of much-needed strength and stamina” during our difficult times. While modern stoicism may sound like the old “buck up” philosophy, it favors reliance on reason and self-control, which includes making choices (and letting go of unproductive attitudes) about how to attain a happier life.
To live in the twenty-first century is to live with a lot of noise, both inner and outer. Luckily, our minds are hospitable places that can grow and adapt to changing circumstances. But like all sentient beings, our physical resources are limited. When beset by the “too muchness” of life, we don’t have to choose between knuckling through or letting go. Knowledge is our friend, and flexibility may prove to be our most important skill.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”