Here’s some hard truth: We can control very little in life. When faced with this realization, people usually have a few reactions. Some of us will enter control-freak mode, thinking that if we can control enough of the things, maybe we can avoid harm and death. Other people may be less obsessive about control and just worry about all the horrible stuff that can (and sometimes does) happen.
But there’s a third option: Accepting and letting go.
When we accept that we can’t control the world, we can begin to let go of the worry. Little by little, we can get to a place — which might take months or years — where we can accept life’s indignities or outright hurts. And eventually, we can let go of bigger things as well.
Like most good things in life, it takes practice and time.
Paying the emotional price
I have a hard time letting go of many things, so I get how tough this might seem. But if you need a little motivation (I did, and still do sometimes) think about it this way: Can you afford to keep paying the resentment bill? I’m talking about the cost to your mental and physical health that holding onto anger and hurt brings. I know that as I get older, I can’t — and listening to Oprah share her own story along those lines in the video above, it’s clear she feels the same way.
So, time for practice. Carl Richards in The New York Times has some great and specific instructions:
“Go ahead and pick something. A fight with your spouse, something a politician said, your team losing the big game. Pick it, drop it and then pause. For just a moment, simply pause and savor what it feels like to no longer carry that burden and pay that price.”
I like this advice because Richards suggests starting small. Picking something that gets to you from your home life, the office or politics is something we can all do.
How do you drop it? I have luck with imagining the negative thing as something physical — a ball of gray threads swirling around or a thumping red mass. Just something I can see in my mind’s eye. Then I take a deep breath in and as I exhale, I let it grow smaller, as if it’s floating away. I repeat that until the visual is very tiny and then it drifts away into the vastness of the sky. Once you have let something go in this way, when it pops up again, simply imagine it floating away (or you pushing it if you need to).
Spend your energy more productively
Once you have let the thing that’s bugging you go, Richards has some additional advice:
“I want you to invest that extra into something more productive. If it’s extra time, go for a walk. Play with your kids. Take a nap. Just do something that makes you feel the opposite of how you felt before you let go. I can guarantee you, this is one investment you’ll never regret,” he writes.
After you’ve let something low-stakes go, if you want to try it with something bigger, go for it. Or just keep practicing letting go of the little stuff — you can get good at it! I no longer get upset when I break a plate, get a parking ticket or people cut me off in traffic– things that used to make me cry or curse. Because things like this are going to happen and accepting that makes it a lot easier when they do.
Larger hurts will happen to all of us too. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel badly or get upset when they do. But if we’ve practiced letting go of the little stuff, it will be easier to eventually let go of these larger things, too — when we’re ready.
Letting go doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk with friends, family or coworkers about legitimate issues, and practicing letting go isn’t the same as forgiveness. That’s another process. But for things you are ready to let go of, releasing it can be a powerful way to improve your life.
Let go of what you can’t control — here’s how
Letting go of things we can’t control is easy to say, harder to do. But it is possible, and here’s how you can do it.