By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 32 and this week I’m talking about letting go – I’ll be discussing how letting go of the past and living in the present plays an enormous role in good mental health. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
A quick note before starting…
Before I start today – I just want to take a quick moment and say a huge thanks to all of you who reached out to me over the past few weeks with kind words about losing my cat and for understanding just how much Pushka’s passing affected me — I know not everyone gets it when it comes to people who are super-close with their pets, but she really was incredibly important to me and was an emotional support animal. We actually have a new cat now — his name is Igor and he’s an 8-month-old black and white rescue — who is certainly not a replacement, but who is definitely helping me heal. We decided that sharing our love with a rescue was the right thing to do; actually, I say ‘decided’ but my partner had a dream about a black and white male kitten, then the next day we had a look at local rescue services online and there was only one cat available in our area… a black and white male kitten! So, I think it’s safe to say the universe was holding up a great big sign saying ‘look over here!’ and so we decided to proceed with adopting him, and we’re very glad we did because he’s incredibly sweet and gentle, not a mean bone in his body, and he just wants to be with us all the time which is lovely! Anyway, I digress… I just wanted to give that quick update and say thanks, so now I’ll get on with this week’s episode about letting go!
Your past has shaped you and made you into the person you are today. But what do you do when there’s stuff in your past that has caused damage and which you’re finding hard to let go of? Well, you work through it in order to release it – and that’s what we’re talking about today: why letting go is so important in terms of good mental health and wellbeing, and how to do it. Let’s start by defining ‘letting go’…
Defining ‘letting go’ and mental health
When we’re talking about mental health, the term ‘letting go’ refers to releasing those things from our past that we might still be holding on to and which may not be in our best interests. We all have negative and upsetting experiences somewhere in our history — they’re pretty much impossible to avoid as you navigate you way through life — and if we don’t take the time to process them and deal with their consequences or impact on us, then we can find ourselves revisiting those experiences and being hurt by them months, years or even decades later.
We often hold on to things even when we know they no longer serve us, and we do so because we haven’t yet been able to accept the situation or event for what it is; there’s very often a subconscious part of us that believes we can either eventually bring about some sense of justice or it might be that to accept the reality of whatever happened is just too much to bear. Possibly the most obvious example is losing someone who you love — accepting what happened and letting go of the pain and anguish we feel while we’re grieving can seem impossible, and even almost like a betrayal. But as the author Steve Maraboli said in his book ‘Unapologetically You’:
“The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.”Steve Maraboli
Holding on to past hurts and old grievances will keep you stuck – and when you are stuck you stagnate rather than growing, which makes life miserable. Letting go is more about you than anyone else – it’s a choice that you make to take back your power by understanding the impact of whatever has happened, accepting it, learning from it and making changes where you need to, and then letting it go so that whatever it was no longer holds any power over you.
Before we go any further, please note that I don’t include serious traumatic events in the kind of stuff I’m discussing today; there are unfortunately some things in life that are horrible and when it comes to dealing with those it is absolutely essential that you get proper support from a qualified professional to work through the trauma otherwise it may have long-lasting impacts on you. With that said, let’s dig into the notion of ‘letting go’ a bit deeper.
I recently read a great article in Psychology Today from 2014 by Judith Sills called ‘Let It Go!’ which I’ll link to in the transcript (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/articles/201411/let-it-go), and in it she said: “At its deepest level, the prospect of letting go forces us up against our three strongest emotional drivers: love, fear, and rage” (Sills, 2014) – so let’s look at those three drivers for a moment.
First, rage: it can be really tough to let go of things in the past that hurt us or that we deem to be unjust, and anger can fester for a very long time, especially when you’re adamant that you were in the right. But as time goes on, you begin to realise that the only person who is affected by holding on to rage is you. If you were wronged, ask yourself this: what’s more important, being proven to be right or being at peace? Because unfortunately you cannot always have both. I’ve been in situations where I knew right down in my very core that I was in the right and I just wanted to fight and fight until I was vindicated, but it’s not always possible and so you can either drive yourself mad with rage or you can let it go, and reclaim your peace of mind. Yes it is hard to do and yes it will probably take you a few attempts, but it is absolutely possible and it is your choice whether to hold on and cause yourself more pain, or let go and be free.
The second driver that Sills talked about was fear: now, I don’t care who you are; every single one of us in this world experiences fear at some time or another. It could be the fear of losing something or someone, fear of failure, fear of the unknown… fear is everywhere and it lives deep inside us, feeding on our deepest insecurities and niggling us with self-doubts. But if you let fear control you then it will hold you back and prevent you from ever growing – I mean, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been absolutely terrified of doing something – like, oh I don’t know… putting all of my deepest, darkest secrets in podcast form and then broadcasting it to the world, for example – but I could either let fear hold me back from trying new things or I can choose to let go of fear and give it a go. That doesn’t mean the fear isn’t there anymore – trust me, it’s gnawing away in the back of my mind every time I write one of these episodes! – but it means that I know I need to let go of it if I want to grow. I talked about dealing with fear back in Episode 10 and so I’d encourage you to have a listen to that or read it (at website), especially if (like me) you deal with anxiety issues.
The third and final driver Sills discussed was love: I left love until last because it’s the most challenging of the three when it comes to letting go, in my opinion. Why? Because love makes us do crazy stuff and it will make us put up with crap that we would never tolerate in a thousand years from anyone else. I’m talking about all forms of here – i.e. Romantic love, the love we have for family, in addition to the love we have for friends. When we love someone, that relationship takes its own place in our heart, and so when that love is abused or taken advantage of, or when it turns out to be something other than what we thought, or when it’s used as a weapon against us, that can be devastating, just as it is if we have love taken away through events like separation or divorce or even death – I mean, you can have a great relationship with someone then they can leave your life for whatever reason and it will still potentially be hard to let go of the trauma associated with losing them. I talked about this back in Episode 26, Grief, when I said that grief is proof of life and proof of love. You can focus on the sadness of a love being gone from your life, or you can choose to focus on the joy that it happened at all, which makes it easier to let go of the sadness before it crushes you. The same thing applies for situations where a loving relationship of any kind is no longer positive – you can hold onto the traumatising aspects of the breakdown, or you can let it go with peace and love. Look, I’m not saying just to walk away from every relationship that no longer serves you – in fact, I think we should all be trying a bit harder to work through issues like adults rather than just walking away or cancelling someone – but what I am saying is that just because there is love that doesn’t mean you should cling to a situation or relationship if it’s unhealthy. I tend to work on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ system in relationships, and I’m fairly assertive about tackling issues head-on if and when they happen because I think we need to deal with things out in the open like adults, rather than just letting them fester where they do more harm than good… but if it continues to be unhealthy and harmful after that point then thanks but no thanks; we’re done here and I’m letting go because I will not ever let myself get back to the build-up of trauma that led me to my breakdown back in 2011. Does that make sense?
Letting go is tough, but it’s also necessary – it’s survival but it’s much more than that, because ‘surviving’ to me is barely scraping your way through life; instead, letting go helps you to go from surviving to thriving, because you feel less weighed down by all that stuff that’s not in your best interests.
You don’t actually just ‘get over’ things, especially bad things that have happened – you learn to heal and you learn live with them. You find ways to move forward so it no longer has control over you. Why? Because you cannot change what has happened or hasn’t happened. The challenge is to learn the lesson first and make your peace with it before letting it go – otherwise history may be bound to repeat itself.
Like everything I discuss related to mental health and wellbeing, letting go takes time and effort and perseverance – and then when it comes to releasing past hurts or wrongs, we have to push ourselves past the inevitable resistance that happens. We often resist letting go of past hurts because we human beings are, generally, pretty reluctant to change – we might want to grow, but we also don’t want to step too far out of comfort zone because we’re hard-wired to protect ourselves and to stay safe… but as Gandhi said, “For things to change, first I must change”. Change is uncomfortable — but without change, nothing changes.
Letting go is a choice – it’s a choice you make to prioritise your peace of mind over anything else, by letting go of hurt or anger or fear or rejection or whatever crappy emotions you’ve been experiencing… and it’s a choice that is always yours.
And with that in mind, let’s dive into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to work through letting go
As I mentioned earlier, there are four main steps to work through in order to let go: understanding, acceptance, learning and letting go. Let’s go through them one by one.
- Identify what you’re feeling and why – dig deep and be really honest with yourself; don’t just tell yourself you feel upset because of one single event without seeking to understand what triggered feeling upset. For example, you might be upset about one specific conversation but if that same type of thing is happening over and over again then that’s a much bigger issue, and that’s what needs to be worked on rather than just the specific conversation that made you upset or whatever, if that makes sense. Don’t just treat the symptom – identify the root cause and deal with that, so that you can then be better equipped to let go without having more issues pop up again and again.
- Confront the emotion(s) – sometimes you just need to feel what you need to feel before you can dig into it, and that’s okay; sometimes we act like we’re not supposed to feel stuff like anger or fear or whatever, but we’re only human so you need to listen to what your emotions are trying to tell you instead of just ignoring them (because to ignore your feelings is the opposite of letting go – that’s just suppressing them which can lead to things building up, and that is never a good thing!)
- Let it out if you need to let it out – write it down or talk about it with someone you trust; I’m a person who needs to get things out in order to let them go, which many years ago used to result in unhealthy behaviours like gossiping or blowing up at people when I felt I was being pushed too far (something I still have to work hard at controlling every day) – but the choice you need to make is whether the way you let it out is going to be healthy or unhealthy. I’ve found healthy ways of channelling anger or hurt or fear like writing it down or discussing it rationally with someone so I can work through it in a calm and logical way.
- While you’re doing all this, be clear and honest about your role in whatever happened – this has nothing to do with blame and everything to do with accountability: so often we get ourselves bent out of shape about something that happened and become indignant about it, believing we are in the right, and then weeks or years later we’ll look back on it more objectively and think, “Oh, so maybe I did contribute to that…” — nobody is perfect and we tend to judge others on their behaviours while we judge ourselves on our intentions, and so it can take us some time to see the impact our words and actions might have had. It’s that old saying, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth” which means that the truth generally lies in the middle somewhere because we get so bogged down by our own perceptions. For example, if you’re hurt over something someone said to you in a heated argument, then my question to you is: why were you involved in the argument in the first place? It takes two to tango – that doesn’t make what the other person said or did okay, but understanding requires us to be honest about the role we played rather than pinning the blame fully on someone else and abdicating all responsibility. Contributing to something like an argument doesn’t make you a bad person; it just makes you a person. So, be honest with yourself.
- If you need space, make space – sometimes you need to step away from a person or a situation so that you can process things more rationally, so if you need some time or space then do what you need to do; I’m often saying not to rush into decisions and taking the time to think things through when you need to, and that can take time so give yourself time and space
Next, let’s look at acceptance:
- Accept things as they are, not as how you wish they were – you cannot change what has happened because what is is what is, and you can only move forward from here, so the only real options are to fight until you run out of steam (which will be painful and fruitless), or work on acceptance.
- Reframe whatever happened – for example, if you made a choice that turned out negatively, look at what that choice has taught you and consider what you will do differently in the future if ever faced with a similar experience. We are never going to get things right 100% of the time, and we learn because of our mistakes (which I talked about back in Episode 2: Mistakes), so learn what you need to learn and let it go – it’s done and it can’t be changed. And what about if what happened has to do with something another person chose to do or not do which affected you? Accept it. In most cases, we don’t know what the person’s intentions were or why they made the choices they made, and that doesn’t make it right or wrong – it just makes it a choice that was made. If it can’t be changed then we need to deal with things as they are now so we can move forward, otherwise we’ll be stuck in the past, so for your own sanity make your peace with it. You may not feel able to forgive, and that’s fine, but you can release your anger or hurt and choose to move forward with your life.
- Focus on you – ‘acceptance’ and ‘letting go’ has nothing to do with anyone but yourself; you will know by now that you cannot ever change another person (and if you don’t, I will continue to remind you in every episode of this podcast!), so when it comes to dealing with this stuff the focus needs to be 100% on you. If you’re working through a situation where someone has hurt you, it’s not going to do any good to focus on what the person did or didn’t do because (a) it’s done and (b) their actions are completely out of your control – yesterday, today and tomorrow. So instead you have to focus on accepting what has happened, processing your feelings and then releasing them.
- Give yourself time and take things one day at a time – there is no rush!
Third, let’s discuss learning. To me this is pretty straightforward — if you’ve spent enough time in understanding what the impact has been (including being honest with yourself and identifying your role in the situation) then it should be clear to you what you need to do differently in the future for a better outcome. That might mean making different decisions or it might mean staying away from a particular person who is toxic. This has nothing to do with blame and everything to do with one of the most fundamental things that I talk about in every episode: the only things you have any direct control over are your own words, actions and feelings, so with that in mind it is up to you to make choices about how you’re going to move forward that are in your own best interests. That’s the acceptance part coming into play — until you can fully accept that it is what it is, and learn the lessons that you need to learn, you’ll remain stuck… so make the changes that you need to make.
The fourth and final step is letting go, which you should hopefully find to be a lot easier to do once you’ve fully worked through understanding, acceptance and learning – if you’ve been truly honest with yourself then you should hopefully find that you’re ready to release what has happened so it no longer holds any power over you. Letting go doesn’t mean that you forget; it means that you accept what happened so that you can get on with the rest of your life.
What happens if you’re still stuck?
If you’re still stuck, then you need to understand why. Generally we find ourselves struggling to let go and move forward because we haven’t fully worked through what happened and accepted it, or we haven’t yet learned what we need to learn in order to let it go. We need to be completely honest with ourselves about how we feel but we also need to accept that there is no possibility of the past event or situation ever changing because it has happened and the past cannot be changed. You can fight that truth as much as you like but all that will ever happen is that you will exhaust yourself; nothing will change. I talked about Baggage in Episode 7 which has some more detail about digging deep into deep-seated baggage so you can work through it, so check that episode out for more information.
If you are really stuck, get support – therapist or counsellor; sure you can talk to a friend or a family member for support but it is better to talk to a therapist of counsellor because what you actually need is objective support, and being objective is pretty hard for most of us when it comes to someone we have an emotional connection with. You do not have to and should not go through this alone!
Summary and close-out
Because when it comes to letting go, what it all boils down to is this: letting go is a choice you make to release the past so you can have a better present. If you let the past control your present or determine your future, you’re setting yourself up for misery — and life is too short and too valuable to be miserable. An unknown author once wrote, “The past should be a learning experience not an everlasting punishment; what’s done is done” and the fact of the matter is that no amount of ruminating over the past will change what has happened — it will just rob you of today. It takes real strength and courage to know when to let go and then to actually go ahead and release those things that might have haunted you or held you back, but when you do you will feel lighter and freer than you ever could have imagined… and that will help you to start to see all of the wonderful possibilities that are just waiting for you.
That’s nearly it for this week’s episode. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the one and only Oprah Winfrey, and it is:
“Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.”Oprah Winfrey
That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about support – I talk about the importance of getting support for your mental health a lot, so in the next episode I’ll be discussing the different types of support available, what to expect, and how support can help you to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).
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Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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