“The healing comes from allowing there to be room for all of ‘this’ to happen…”
- Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, 1995
When it comes to negative feelings, worries, doubts, or anger, how often do we hear (or tell ourselves): “Just let it go!” For those who have had this experience, has this ever been a successful way to truly let those feelings go? Through sheer force of will? In theory, that sounds wonderful—but for many clients, I’ve spoken with (myself included), this does nothing but keep us roiling in these intense and often painful sensations.
Many of us cope with difficult experiences by burying, rejecting, or repressing our feelings to “move on” with life. While understandable, this does not help us build resiliency or effective coping. The hard truth is that there is no quick and effortless way to “let go” or rid ourselves of negative emotions—but through the processes of building awareness, exploring our feelings, and developing coping skills and strategies, we can begin to accept and become less controlled by our painful experiences and emotions.
Getting to a place of “letting go” doesn’t mean forgetting, rejecting, or ignoring emotions, but internally confronting them. It’s only once we’ve acknowledged and begun to confront our truths that we can begin to move forward and navigate difficult emotions with the knowledge, peace, and contentment we seek.
Distancing ourselves from our emotions will cause us to perpetuate cycles of pain. Those feelings we suppress, reject, and deny are going to show up in our lives, one way or another. Whether it’s through the anger we misdirect onto a friend, family member, or coworker; a fear of rejection that keeps us from expressing ourselves, meeting new people, and having new experiences; or a sadness that we suppress until we fall into depression, these emotions will find a way to surface. With letting go and allowing, we can choose how these feelings come out and what we will do with them.
The importance of emotional awareness and mindfulness
To begin the process of healing and truly “moving on,” it is important to allow ourselves to feel through those feelings by practicing acknowledgment and acceptance of them. Then, ultimately, we may reach a place where we can either live peacefully with them or release them.
Using a mindfulness approach can clarify the way we feel in a given moment by simply noticing what it’s like to feel our feelings—such as which mental, emotional, and physical cues signal to us that we’re in different states of feeling. For example, bringing awareness to the physical sensations, body language, thought patterns or behavioral cues that relate to each major emotion we experience can be useful in beginning to decode the deeper levels of our feelings. Once we build this layer of self-awareness, we can then begin to make different choices in how we care for ourselves and how we might react when those feelings arise in the future.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally,” with emphasis on the non-judgment. Practicing mindfulness does not mean ridding ourselves of our feelings or thoughts, but simply sitting with them and getting to know them—no matter how big, small, wonderful, painful, or even benign they might be.
Acknowledging the ways we avoid feelings
While paying close attention and learning more about our emotions is key, it is equally important to recognize how we avoid painful feelings. Wanting to avoid pain is natural, but in cultivating awareness of the ways we suppress and distance ourselves from emotional pain, we can begin to uncover and address misalignment with our true feelings and experiences. And from our self-awareness of that suppression, we can make informed changes to our behavior to get back in touch with our feelings. We can begin to let go and allow in support of balanced, healthy lives.
For example, we might recognize that we use alcohol to numb ourselves when we experience sadness. Drinking might temporarily obscure the feeling; however, it also may cause us to make poor choices we feel regretful and sad about, keeping us in this cycle of behavior that perpetuates and potentially deepens our sadness.
A few questions to consider in doing this work: where does avoidance tend to come up in your life? Do you notice when you are distancing yourself or suppressing feelings? What is that like? What experiences, people, places, etc. bring on these feelings and reactions? When did you first feel this way?
“Letting go and allowing” does not mean accepting and tolerating abuse and oppression
An important question and consideration: are we supposed to accept, make peace with, and “let go” when it comes to systems of oppression that many of us face? Not at all—these traumas are pervasive and insidious—and they’re often what makes many of us sick, physically and emotionally, in the first place. They are constant and exhausting. For those who experience these traumas, “letting go” and “allowing” means finding spaces of liberation that will feel replenishing, restorative, and restful.
“Letting go” of the feelings that don’t serve us doesn’t mean forgetting our experiences or ceasing to fight against injustices or wrongdoings that we or others have experienced. It means taking time to recover, find sanctuary, and heal within ourselves in order to fully engage in our lives and reclaim the disrupted peace.
Exploration, understanding & acceptance of feelings
As mentioned above, cultivating an awareness and understanding of our reactions to painful or distressing feelings will give us agency and ability to change our futures.
When we think of things we’d like to let go of, what comes to mind? Sadness, anger, resentment, grief, self-doubt, embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, control—these are all very human experiences, and so universally felt. If we all share them and can acknowledge that we all deserve loving kindness, what makes these feelings so difficult to sit with and feel openly? We cannot “let go” until we’ve faced our truths and accepted them. Letting go necessitates acceptance, bravery, and strength in order to gain the clarity we need to move forward in life.
Cultivating mindfulness skills is key to taking on this phase of “letting go” practice. The more we can observe the way we feel without avoiding our emotions, the more information we have to help ourselves feel better. Sitting with and coping through our feelings can help us fortify our self-trust, emotional resilience, and coping capabilities to live a more open, peaceful, and balanced life.
One example is that people frequently report feeling emotionally lonely, unable to share their true feelings with friends and family for fear of others seeing them upset or perceiving them as “weak,” fearing rejection or dismissal. They have difficulty reaching out or confiding in others if they feel sad or frustrated; they fear asking for help when feeling bad about themselves. They feel they must perform “acceptable” feelings and social interactions (read: staying positive and upbeat) to be worthy of acceptance from others. This denial of true feelings and experiences ultimately reinforces their depression, loneliness, and doubt about their self-worth.
What would happen if we all could be honest with each other and truly share how our days are going when asked, instead of just saying “I’m fine! How about you?” That authenticity not only helps us to live in greater alignment with our true feelings and trust ourselves more, but also contributes to normalizing feelings of isolation, shame, and embarrassment as part of the natural human condition.
Questions to consider: What do you want to change? How do you see your life without this pain? Do you ever feel relief from this, and if so, what is it like to be without it? What self-narratives do you live by? How do they help and protect you? How do they hold you back? Are there parts of yourself and your life that you’d like to push away or escape from? What helps bring you back into awareness of your emotions? Is it possible to allow the feeling to be without trying to change it? What feelings are more difficult for you to sit with?
Don’t rush to change your feelings
Let yourself take time to feel, process, and increase awareness of how these feelings or experiences affect you and where they show up in your life. This is part of the process. You have permission to take your time in letting go, allowing, and accepting. You might be with these feelings (or parts of them) for a long time—perhaps the rest of your life. While it may be uncomfortable to familiarize yourself with them, rushing through processing your feelings is not an option. Emotions can’t be rushed or tempered—they require space and time, often on an uncertain timeline, to be fully experienced and understood.
Balance lies in accepting the things we cannot change about the world and our lives, while also acknowledging and accepting the feelings that arise for us as valid, understandable, and important. With both efforts, we can start to allow ourselves to “move on” with greater peace and equilibrium in our lives.
Article on Psycom.net lists 25 “Best” Meditation Resources
Mindfulness Resources for People of Color— compiled by Rakiba Mitchell, MA, LPC, NCC
BIPOC Meditation Group - Shambala NYC
Insight LA Meditation:
Affinity groups include people of color, queer, transgender, mindful of whiteness, Spanish speakers, bilingual Latinx, young adults, parents, mindful aging, chronic pain and illness, mindful recovery, and suicidal ideation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn—Creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reductionhttps://www.mindfulnesscds.com/
NPR Life Kit Episode featuring Jon Kabat-Zinn
Apps for Mindfulness/MeditationInsight Timer (Free)