When letting go really hurts it can be extremely difficult to release the attachment fully. Whether it’s letting go of an unhealthy relationship, or letting go of a bad habit, the letting go can seem easier said than done. Very often, this is because we put ourselves in illusory boxes that seem to only have narrow escapes. To succeed in letting go, we need to change our thoughts and cultivate patience and persistence. And to change our thoughts, we need to become familiar with them, separating out the judgments of good or bad. This is called a Mindfulness practice. In other words, letting go of something means seeing that you are holding on to it. And this is where mindfulness-based counseling and therapy come into play; it’s tough to mindfully look at things and truly feel the pain of grief and loss, so a counselor helps you stay focused and helps you manage the emotions that arise.
Mindfully letting go
So we keep dancing around letting go of things that you may not feel like you are able to fully let go of. As I mentioned, difficult thoughts and feelings are more difficult to maintain to remain mindful with; so we practice at easier levels, gradually working up to more difficult.
Simple mindfully letting go exercise
To begin, pick something that you enjoy, but is not life-shattering to let go of. Perhaps you enjoy watching the TV show “This is Us.” I know I do. Record it, and don’t watch it when you usually do. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, even write them down. Because you know you can watch it later, this one is quite easy but does the trick. Do you find yourself thinking about the last episode? Are you tempted to turn the TV on and skip this exercise? If you do, write down how you feel and try again–no problem! With this particular show, you may have thoughts of how you relate to the characters. That’s great for writing in a journal.
Slightly uncomfortable mindfully letting go exercise
Please understand that there can be exercises in between all of these that I am listing. You creating your own exercises is great! Sometimes even better than using somebody else’s ideas. For this exercise, find something that you have been keeping around but don’t really need. It might be a broken alarm clock that you’ve been tinkering with or a tattered wallet that you need to replace anyway. With something like a wallet, you may have some sentimental value associated with it, if it was a gift, or is more sentimental than is comfortable to let go of, then save it for one of the next exercises. Jot down your feelings about what you are going to let go of. Then get rid of it. Toss it, give it away, donate it, whatever. Just let it go. As before mindfully examine your thoughts and feelings. Don’t forget to get a new wallet or clock!
Moderately uncomfortable mindfully letting go exercise
Now we are getting into what could be some sticky territory where you may start to second guess yourself. This is OK. Notice those thoughts and feelings and consider writing them down if you haven’t before (on previous exercises). Now you can find something a bit more challenging to mindfully let go of. This time, it may not be an object that you own. It may be an idea or a place to visit. It may be a person or a relationship as well. Read more about grief and anticipatory grief for these.
Let’s say you go to a nice restaurant where you crave their impeccable Sea Bass. Get the Salmon instead. This may not seem difficult, but when you are really craving the Sea Bass, the sense of taste can be quite powerful for some. If that’s not quite up to the level of challenge I’m talking about, let’s find something else. Perhaps there is a party that you’d like to go to or a trip to a movie premiere that you’ve looked forward to. . . but not Star Wars, always go to Star Wars! It’s fine to use an object that you have an attachment to as well. I tend to donate those though; I like knowing that somebody else can benefit from what I have enjoyed. Again, journaling your experience at this level can be very helpful. Whatever it is, remember that you are practicing letting go so that when the difficult times find you, you’ll have a sense of how you may feel. Knowledge gives you the power to respond in ways that help you through those tough times.
Truly difficult mindfulness letting go exercise
Because this one may be a little more difficult, there is more to be gained from really noticing how you feel and what you are thinking while you through this exercise. It’s ok to tear up or even cry. It does not mean you’re doing it wrong, it simply means that you are allowing those feelings to have a voice; that’s what so helpful because when you let them out, they do not have to claw their way by creating more suffering. Keep in mind, this level is NOT about getting rid of something that will throw you into the depths of despair and wailing in grief. . . we are still working at a much more superficial layer than that; sentimental letting-go at most. The devastatingly difficult ones are what we are building our mindfulness up to handle, but we don’t need to create them since we all have them in our lives from time to time.
A few examples of this level are:
- Let somebody else cook dinner
- Let somebody else take the lead on a project
- Toss out or donate things you haven’t used in 6 months
- Give up a bad habit like smoking
- Forgive somebody for a moderate infraction of your boundaries
- Let go of the need to win that argument (you know what I’m talking about)
If you find this one more difficult than you thought, then reach out for support. Or just stop. There is no set speed for this; just as you’re ready.
Some examples of complex letting go
A very difficult example for some is knowing that they need to distance themselves from people that they have been close to, especially over a long period of time. This can be seen in a more extreme form in people struggling to get out of an abusive relationship . . . and who keep going back. Or when a relationship (friendship, romantic, sometimes even family) becomes very toxic or involves addictive behaviors, yet you continue to engage in unhealthy thoughts/behaviors when you are around them. While it certainly can be done, maintaining contact with these people is rather challenging, very often there needs to be less frequent interaction for a period of time, and/or that the contact is maintained in a way that does not allow the unhealthy circumstances to arise in the first place. It can be very easy to slip back into old ways with these folks that you are close to, and with whom your ego feels very comfortable with . . . Other times the distance needs to be more decisive and permanent; try to be very clear about your motivations if you decide to completely end a friendship or other relationship. Remember, the change that needs to really happen is inside of you . . . if you decide to end a relationship out of vengeance, or trying to ‘show them/teach them a lesson,’ then you will be missing the point of showing your “self” something important.
Moderation and discipline
Here’s a part that can be tricky: if you decide to maintain the relationship in some sort of moderation like we talked about above, then you need to deeply understand that nobody says you have to completely alienate a relationship for every sort of unhealthy compulsion you may be tempted towards when with them. Some will need to completely separate; it is up to the individual to decide the distance to put between themselves and the relationship they are dealing with. If you have the discipline, the follow through, etc., then you can simply enjoy the relationship in a way that is limited to more healthy activities (like grabbing dinner, or seeing a movie, etc).
Some will use the idea of only limited interaction to lollygag around unhealthy situations by saying, “Well, we only hang out x/times per year, so it’s ok because I’m improving; I mean, it’s only pot, or it’s only $500 of gambling, etc.” when they know full well that this isn’t true; that they are just making an excuse to re-engage unhealthy behavior. Remember that for some people and situations, each time you engage the known unhealthy thought process, and resulting behavior, you increase the chances of falling back to old ways. Sometimes, once you really own your life, you can interact with these folks with a decreased chance of falling backward. Just be mindful.
Learn more about Mindfulness-based Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.