There’s a 3 word phrase that isn't as helpful as you think. I’ve been running across it for years both while running process groups and individual therapy sessions. Odds are good that you’ve said this yourself and heard it roll off of other peoples lips. Here goes – “Let It Go”.
This phrase makes my insides pucker and not in a good way. Let’s use another 3 word phrase and “shut it down”. By the way, Disney did us NO favors by making the Frozen song so catchy. Are you humming the tune now? Well, DON’T! It’s not doing you any favors...and I can prove it.
The list of what people “let go” is endless and as a therapist, I hear them all. “Oh, you were mercilessly tormented for years by someone you trusted but you just let it go?” Or, “Yes, my only son punched me in the face and we haven’t spoken since but I’ve let it go.” Seriously, the list goes on and on but just writing about it saddens me because I know they haven’t just “let it go”.
We could go into the quantum physics of it but let’s just say that energy doesn’t just disappear. And believe me, there was and still is a lot of energy around what you supposedly let go. The truth is, it’s impossible to simply stop caring or turn off the feelings of being hurt emotionally. You haven't really "let it go". It IS possible to become numb to it, but that isn’t really taking the pain away – it’s getting used to the pain and who wants to get used to walking around with a broken leg?
Letting it with no explanation is not only impossible, it’s dangerous. The psychology world actually has terminology to warn people of this type of unhealthy thinking. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) calls it a thinking error. Other therapeutic models might say cognitive distortions. Why all the warning flags and emphasis for such a harmless phrase? It’s because this way of thinking is actually hurting you more than it’s helping you.
Narrowing the thinking error down would put this phrase in the ‘magical thinking’ category. Feelings don’t just vanish into thin air. Reality is, when people say this phrase they’ve actually just stuffed the uncomfortable feeling way…way down. It’s a complex form of compartmentalization and in this case, very unhealthy for mental wellness.
It’s impossible to just “let it go”. However, it IS possible to work through trauma. In fact, the only way to release and heal negative emotions so we don’t have sour feelings anymore would be to “work through it”. How about that, a healthy phrase and it’s only 3 words long. Maybe Disney will fix their catchy song that’s totally wrong.
Working through a hurtful experience looks a lot different than letting it go. In fact, it’s more uncomfortable at first because opening up old wounds can feel pretty raw. Fortunately, the festering hurt will actually heal when we change the belief systems attached to whatever happened. Typically this involves moving from a victim stance to a more empowered “jackpot” mentality.
Fun fact: it’s easy to find out if someone’s REALLY “worked through” something from the past. You can tell by their emotions around talking about the experience. See the trick of “letting it go” yet? With that sneaky maneuver, people avoid talking about it. When pressing the topic, you’ll be able to see how they really feel. If they’ve compartmentalized (stuffed it down), they’ll be very uncomfortable talking about it and will expose either anger, resentment, hurt, contempt or they’ll just cry. In therapy, the crying is the most healing. From there, we can start identifying and changing beliefs they’ve carried about themselves around what happened. From here, the broken leg actually begins to heal.
It’s magical but in a great, healthy and totally explainable.
The healing part of working through things can be tricky. A good therapist can help.
Thanks for reading and supporting the Meaning to Live movement.
Until next time, awareness UP.
Jed Thorpe, CMHC