Field Notes

I can’t let go! What’s my problem and what do I do?

November 29, 2019 - 0 Comments

Over the decades (five, to be precise) of seeing clients in private practice and, of course, many people in public settings, I can say that the difficulties of letting go confound most people, regularly, and rather frequently. The difficulties are particularly pronounced when my clients see for themselves that it makes no sense for them to hang onto a person, a relationship, or a situation that is damaging or futile, or both. What is going on?

Let me get at this conundrum this way: First, allow me to try out some explanations as to how being human works. It has been amply demonstrated in many different fields of human sciences that humans are “hardwired,” as it were, for survival and protection. If something scares or hurts us, our default is to get rid of it, get away from it, and/or do whatever is possible to quell the fear and pain. This makes great sense, doesn’t’ it? Or does it?

Now, here comes the complication to the simple evolutionary logic of survival. Note that the hard-wiring is part of our autonomic nervous system. As such, we don’t have to consciously choose to fight, flee, and freeze. This automatic mechanism works very well when we run into animals like a tiger who views us as a meal possibility. There is a clear and accurate perception of reality: this tiger wants to eat you. But what about our encounter with people who at first share our cherished longings, dreams, and promises, thus becoming our significant others, but then later they don’t turn out to be what we hoped for, and in fact they proceed to evoke increasing and cumulative hurt in us? This is when we may find ourselves in the rather strange situation of not being able to let go of the hurting relationship and the particular person who appears to be the source of hurt. What sense do we make of holding onto what hurts and pains us? …very confusing at the least and for sure.

It is said to be difficult to remove pain from the ‘phantom limb’ of a person who has suffered the loss of a limb. I would suggest to you that analogous to this phantom limb phenomenon, you cannot let go of something or someone that you don’t really have in the first place. That is, this person whom you thought you knew well didn’t turn out to be the way you imagined, and to that extent, this person is like a phantom limb. The person you imagined is not really there, and you are grieving a loss that is about an imagination of the other and desired life possibilities. The loss represents your dreams and hopes that you projected onto this person. The loss is of a future that will apparently never be. Separating out who this person is from your dreams and hopes is crucially important in your “letting go.” What this calls for is coming to know this person deeply: really coming to see who this person is for himself or in herself, that is, apart from your hopes and dreams, your imaginations and aspirations. Most importantly is the coming to know of the inner representation of this person. The person who exists in your consciousness. This inner person, really an internalized other, has thoughts, emotions, body sensation, life force energy, and intentions. The person in question is a source of confusion to you, like a phantom limb.

Another key point is that while all of the above takes place, there is a further and crucial experience taking place, namely the inner world experience of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and life force energy. More about this a little farther along.

“Understood! But what do I do now? How do I deal with this “phantom limb” of my lover (my child, my friend, my boss . . .)?” Fantasy departs and reality steps in when you really get to know something or someone. See this inner person as much as you are able. Attempt to shift and put yourself into being this person. Own the thoughts, emotions, body sensations, life force energy, and intentions of this inner egoic structure that is hydrated by this ‘other’ person. Give this person a voice. Let them speak. It doesn’t matter what they say or feel. What matters is getting to know them from the inside. Eventually, if they are the entity that is holding on, and you are able to ‘be’ them. You will eventually facilitate a different relationship between this sub-identity and its polarity,  the ‘victim’ of their actions . When you can do that, you will begin to feel a loosening of the grip of this internalized other.

The above process can apply internally to the relationship amongst sub-identities that are there within your psyche. Here is a small sample example:

Critic (C): Once again you have done this badly

Criticized (CZ): Stop criticizing me!

C: I am trying to help you do things right

CZ: You are not helping me, at all!

This is likely a familiar pattern for many. This same pattern gets played out in our closest relationships, as well as in our inner world relationships between parts that make up your various egoic structures. What I recommend as a small experiment is to ‘search’ out these conflictual identities within and to see them from the perspective of your meta-communicator, the part of you that is aware, your consciousness. Even just sitting in your consciousness as a place of observation is a process of learning on all levels. Eventually, it is possible to have what in Buddhist teachings is referred to as ‘no mind.’ Perhaps this term is a bit unfortunate as it doesn’t sound very appealing or useful. It can easily fall into the same zone as the word, mindless. I interpret “no mind” as the mind that is so open and clear that, when you look at it, you see nothing! An apt visual metaphor is clear blue sky. When you look at it, you see nothing there. But if clouds or the sun show up, then, of course, you see clouds, or the sun. The process is leading ever closer to an accurate perception of reality. Put another way, you see clouds or the sun because the sky is clear and empty. Likewise, your ability to be open and see clearly, beyond illusions and delusions that are constructed by your desires, longings, hopes and dreams, and personal history, will help you to comprehend the many parts of you that are suffering and in a chaos.

As your consciousness develops, increasingly you can investigate, as in the sample dialogue above, your inner critic as well as your inner victim, the latter being the part of you that feels helpless and hapless. Or as in the preceding example, the rejecting lover and the rejected lover. The perceived power is often viewed as resting in the Critic or the rejecting lover, and the lack of power is residing in the part that is subject to the criticism, or the rejected lover. Most people are identified strongly with the one who is criticized, rejected, or in other words, the lesser, and who will frequently state, “I can’t let go.” The truth is that the criticized one lacks the ability to let go as they do not have hold. The holding is in the grasp of the Critic or the rejecting lover.

Most do not even entertain the possibility that the Critic/rejecting lover is really a disowned part . If you really want to ‘let go,’ then you must put yourself into the part that appears to have the power. Experiment with being this part temporarily and as fully as possible, in the service of its growth and your own wholeness. The discovery there is most often that this part is also profoundly stuck and has no option other than the constant complaint about the failures of the Criticized. Feeling into this part and eventually helping it to grow, that is developing choices that it has never had, is crucial. This is associated with a growing knowledge of your personal history that has led you to where you have been, likely for many years.

The relationship between these two parts needs help to grow. The two sub-selves and their relationship is stuck at an early developmental stage and is in essence a ‘bad’ marriage. I should add here that most all marriages/close relationships have some very difficult and dark aspects that would certainly benefit from growing beyond where they are. This means looking into your darkness: your Shadow. What I am talking about, in simpler terms, is known as growing up. Problematically, the avoidance of such inner investigation is associated with certain self-soothing habits that may work in the short term but most likely that will likely guarantee endless recurrences. In other words, visits to the underworld, your personal shadow, and working in this zone has huge potential. Not doing so also has huge potential. This latter is the potential of ongoing repetition of the difficulties that are the core of your suffering.

Particularly in going through this process it is central to stay with and study the associated body sensation. Through doing this you can learn about the process of feeling, which invariably has a beginning, middle, and end. It is the effort to not feel, which will guarantee the repetition. To go beyond repetition, you must stay with the body sensation and associated feeling and let them run their course. Learning that you can indeed feel all the way through what you thought you could not stand that is eventually a hugely empowering experience.

The central message in this Field Note is this: get to know the marginal and unloved and apparently unloveable parts of yourself, get to know the relationship between the parts, the truth of their intentions, which are almost invariably good even while their ‘methods’ are demonstrably unskillful, and pay attention to their relationship and what is trying to happen. This is the way to liberate your self from ongoing repetition of suffering. Perhaps it is best to say that it is not so much letting go that occurs, as it is the emergence of an entirely different consciousness.

As I will be on a break over the new year, I will also take a break from writing a Field Note in January. The next Field Note will appear on the 1st of February.

Best wishes to everyone for a great season!

And as always, many thanks to Heesoon for her help with this Field Note.