letting go

On Learning about Letting Go

Let­ting go of the belief that the way you see things (the sto­ry you tell your­self) is either real or true is difficult–it’s the hard­est les­son. It is when real­i­ty con­flicts with the sto­ry, how­ev­er, that a real oppor­tu­ni­ty for growth and shift­ing occurs.

hardest lesson
Drop­ping the Sto­ry… and the Blame

Giv­en how 2020 went, a lot of peo­ple are ques­tion­ing their beliefs, their goals, and their place in the world. 

Or bet­ter, many are afraid of “what’s out there„, what’s next. So I decid­ed to take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss let­ting go, and “What’s going on.”

On both a theoretical and practical level, the only thing “going on” is what’s going on in you.

This is not an ego-dri­ven statement—not meant to sug­gest that “your” way is the “right way.” 

A client said, “Sure, we could get on the same page, so long as it’s her page.” This is NOT what I mean. 

I used to tell my clients that the hard­est thing they’d ever have to accept is pre­cise­ly this: 

What goes on for you, inside, is all you. All the time. Not true, not real. Just your sto­ry. So the big ques­tion is, is your sto­ry help­ful, or use­less?

We make comments to ourselves all the time

You can call the inter­nal com­ments your sto­ry, or your nar­ra­tive. It’s not true—it’s made up of frag­ments of expe­ri­ence, strung togeth­er like beads. You chose which things to notice (and add to the nar­ra­tive) based on the sto­ry itself. 

Our sto­ries, left to them­selves, are self-ful­fill­ing prophesies. 

Most­ly, we have quite judge­men­tal sto­ries going on in there—most of us would nev­er talk to anoth­er per­son the way we talk to our­selves. But some­how, we trot along, fram­ing our lives through ridicu­lous nar­ra­tives, until a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion upsets our applecart.

The Glitch and Letting Go

Here’s a quote from a book called Lan­guage Struc­ture & Change, by Efran, Lukens and Lukens, in a sec­tion enti­tled “The Mean­ing of Psychotherapy.”

In ther­a­py, two or more indi­vid­u­als meet and form a nov­el cou­pling that enables them to carve out new dis­tinc­tions. In the process, as we have not­ed, they breathe life into alter­na­tives that had no pre­vi­ous exis­tence. At its best, psy­chother­a­py begins with a par­tic­u­lar “glitch” in a client’s life and moves towards redefin­ing and expand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of liv­ing. (pg.197)

Our lives are made up of the “stories we tell ourselves.”

This idea comes from nar­ra­tive ther­a­py, which sug­gests that change comes from let­ting go of an inel­e­gant sto­ry and replac­ing it with a more use­ful one—the “new dis­tinc­tion” of the above quote. 

The “glitch” is the point we all reach when the sto­ry we are telling our­selves can no longer con­tain the present real­i­ty. At that point the choic­es are two:

  1. Try­ing to force the new expe­ri­ence onto the “old page,” or
  2. let­ting go by writ­ing a new page.

When I look at our situation ‘objectively,’ I recognize it’s all your fault.”

The norm is to “judge the glitch.” Inte­ri­or work is difficult—pointing a fin­ger at the sit­u­a­tion or the “oth­er” is easy. A “cloak of objec­tiv­i­ty” is thrown over the sit­u­a­tion. “Why can’t you see this?” 

Answer: they’re not you, and they have anoth­er story.

Let me give you an illustration.

letting go - hugging
No one loves me like I love me

Sue” was wid­owed at age 35. Here is her real­i­ty: she was mar­ried for 10 years, and then her hus­band died.

Her inter­nal theatre—her sto­ry, how­ev­er, was not that simple. 

Rather let­ting go of that sto­ry and writ­ing a new one–perhaps a “Here I am, start­ing over,” sto­ry, she chose to try to main­tain her old sto­ry (mar­ried woman) and also added in two oth­er roles (wid­ow, sin­gle woman.)

In her head, she was playing three characters—three wildly different characters–each with their own agenda.

  1. there was the base­line, “mar­ried woman,” who want­ed every­thing to be the way it was—she called this her “white pick­et fence story.”
  2. there was the griev­ing wid­ow, whose default is “help­less, lone­ly, horny, in need of a shoul­der to cry on, like­ly forever.”
  3. she was (in real­i­ty…) a sin­gle woman look­ing to have sex, date, flirt, have more sex.

As she had not shift­ed her inter­nal the­atre to match her new real­i­ty, the three char­ac­ters were at war. They each had their own agen­da, and there was noth­ing but confusion.

Here’s what happened, as she attempted to re-enter the world:

The wid­ow,” need­ed to be held and com­fort­ed by a man. She had nev­er learned how to arrange for this with her male friends, so she met her need through barter.

You hold and com­fort me, I’ll return the favour with sex.” Since she thought she’d be griev­ing for­ev­er, she expect­ed a long line of strange men to enter her life—as she bartered away her soul.

The sin­gle woman” thought hav­ing sex was quite OK–she loved sex–but inter­est­ing­ly the sin­gle woman also had a trick up her sleeve. She only want­ed to have sex with men who want­ed a rela­tion­ship that would lead to mar­riage. If she dis­cov­ered (after the fact) that the per­son was not “into” mar­riage, “part of her” would declare that her lat­est round of casu­al sex was “wrong.”

The mar­ried woman” popped into the equa­tion, loud­ly express­ing the opin­ion that, when “the sin­gle woman” had sex, she was cheat­ing on her (dead) hus­band. So, she’d kick each guy to the curb before any­thing “seri­ous” could hap­pen, and crossed her legs. Tightly.

That is what a Glitch looks like

Objec­tive­ly,” pret­ty sim­ple. “Sue” want­ed to be held. The “glitch” arose when the wid­ow and the mar­ried woman showed up on the sin­gle woman’s date.

Sue was try­ing to achieve some­thing that her cur­rent story–her cur­rent self-def­i­n­i­tion–had no room for.

It was not her actions that were block­ing her—it was her inter­pre­ta­tions—the sto­ry she told herself—that got her into a pickle.

So, what did “Sue” do? She wailed, “It’s not fair! I shouldn’t have to deal with this!”

Nice, except that present real­i­ty is what it is. 

Our work in ther­a­py was to peel back the lay­ers of her sto­ry. We explored how, by let­ting go, Sue might “be,” right here, right now, as “it” is.

Now, let me hasten to add that the goal of therapy (and life!!) is not to find the true story. 

There is no true, “objec­tive” real­i­ty. All there is is what­ev­er sto­ry you are telling yourself—your sto­ry, and whether it’s use­ful or get­ting in your way. 

If your life seems stuck, you must change your story by letting go.

Here’s a bit about how this works in a relationship:

A quote from Snow Crash, by Neal Stephen­son. Let me set the scene for the quote.

The main char­ac­ter is a com­put­er pro­gram­mer named Hiro. In this quote he’s talk­ing to a 15-year-old piz­za deliv­ery girl, Y.T., about his ex girlfriend—Hiro’s hop­ing to get back togeth­er with her.
We pick it up on page 409.

Y.T. says, “Did you hook up with your old girl­friend yet?”

Hiro: “No, but I have high hopes for that. Assum­ing I can stay alive.”

High hopes for what?”

Our rela­tion­ship.”

Why?” she asks. “What’s changed between then and now?”

This is one of those utter­ly sim­ple and obvi­ous ques­tions that is irri­tat­ing because Hiro’s not sure of the answer.

Well, I think I fig­ured out what she’s doing — why she came here.”

So?” Anoth­er sim­ple and obvi­ous question. 

So, I feel like I under­stand her now.”

You do?”

Yeah, well, sort of.”

And is that sup­posed to be a good thing?”

Well, sure.”

Hiro, you are such a geek. She’s a woman, you’re a dude. You’re not sup­posed to under­stand her. That’s not what she’s after.

Well, what is she after, do you suppose …?”

She doesn’t want you to under­stand her. She knows that’s impos­si­ble. She just wants you to under­stand your­self. Every­thing else is nego­tiable.

(empha­sis mine)

Again, it’s about letting go by figuring yourself out

A client report­ed 10 failed rela­tion­ships in the past few years. He said, “I could always find some­thing wrong with each of them. I’d wait for them to change, but they nev­er did.”

My ques­tion was, “Wrong in com­par­i­son to what?”

Of course, the answer was sim­ple. Wrong, in terms of who he thought they should be. Wrong, in terms of not meet­ing his fantasies.

I asked him what he did about the behav­iours he thought were “wrong.” Did he talk with the woman about his con­cerns? He replied, “No. I go home and ana­lyze the situation.”

I won­dered aloud if he, as a part of his analy­sis, did the fol­low­ing: he first pic­tured his girl­friend engaged in the prob­lem behav­iour, then saw him­self inter­act­ing with her, and then real­ized she’d nev­er change. He said that this was pre­cise­ly what he did, and that this made him sad, as he’d have to leave her.

He was stunned when I suggested to him that the entire process he was engaged in was simply him talking to himself.

His girl­friend is not in his head. The per­son in there is him, in drag, play­ing the role of his girlfriend.

Back to the idea of “objectivity.” 

We des­per­ate­ly want to believe that we have infal­li­ble mem­o­ries and make total­ly impar­tial judg­ments. In “truth,” our “mem­o­ries” change all the time and are extreme­ly incon­sis­tent and unre­li­able. And our judg­ments are all about mak­ing what we see fit what we expect to see.

When we expe­ri­ence another’s actions, we don’t sim­ply expe­ri­ence the event. We inter­pret it. 

This means we make a judg­ment about their intent.

She’s look­ing at me like that (the expe­ri­ence) because she hates me. (the judgment).” 

What we’re doing is look­ing at the screen inside our heads, punch­ing the “match expres­sion” but­ton, and in the blink of an eye, we’re look­ing at sim­i­lar expres­sions, to which we have already attached mean­ing.

Each of those events, how­ev­er, are in our mem­o­ry bank because we placed them there using the same process. 

Typ­i­cal­ly, the judge­ment and then the con­nec­tion was made inter­nal­ly, with­out ever check­ing with the oth­er person.

Anoth­er part of the “inter­nal judg­ment” process is observ­ing another’s behav­iour and think­ing, “What would I mean if I did that?”

Lets take an exam­ple. Stan­ley yells as Susie enters the room. Susie goes inside and instant­ly real­izes she yells in that tone when she’s angry.

She replies, voice on edge, “Stop yelling and tell me why you’re angry with me.” Stan­ley looks con­fused. He says, “I wasn’t yelling at you, and I’m not angry. I’m frus­trat­ed that this light switch won’t work.” 

Susie says, ” I hate it when you yell at me and won’t admit you’re angry.”

We all know where this is going.

This Endless Moment

Note: If you want to learn more about this top­ic, and want to look at it from a West­ern per­spec­tive, have a look at my book, This End­less Moment.


To get back to the Snow Crash quote: What an amaz­ing world it might be if we stopped try­ing to fig­ure every­one else out, (inter­nal­ly, of course, with­out ask­ing the oth­er per­son) and sim­ply con­cen­trat­ed on let­ting go and fig­ur­ing our­selves out. 

Y.T. is right. The wise soul sim­ply observes what she is doing, and in that process get to know her­self. Every­thing else is nego­tiable. From a place of self-know­ing, there can be an invi­ta­tion to dia­log, to shar­ing, to admit­ting what we’re doing.

Imag­ine what might hap­pen if you say,

So, I’m con­fused. I just saw you do (what­ev­er) and I went inside and judged that you were (what­ev­er) and I notice that I’m scar­ing myself (or mak­ing myself angry, or I’m get­ting ready to leave, what­ev­er) and I’m won­der­ing what’s going on for you?”

You will notice that the lan­guage is “I” lan­guage.

The per­son speak­ing is report­ing her expe­ri­ence. She is admit­ting to the judg­ments she is mak­ing as she pre­tends to under­stand what the oth­er per­son “meant.”

Hav­ing done that, and here is the mark of wis­dom, she also admits that she doesn’t have a clue as to what is going on for the oth­er per­son, so she asks.

Now, she may dis­cov­er that her per­cep­tion and judg­ment were accu­rate. By ask­ing what is going on for the oth­er per­son, how­ev­er, she has moved from a “You did too!” “I did not!” kind of con­fronta­tion to an invi­ta­tion for her part­ner to explore what is going on for him.

In the end, we are self-defin­ing creatures. 

We cre­ate our real­i­ty through our stories—and do so all the time. As does every­one we come in con­tact with. And then we pre­tend we “under­stand.”

The key to a suc­cess­ful, wis­dom-filled life is to admit the exis­tence and preva­lence of our fan­tasies. We live in a world we cre­ate; we estab­lish the rules and the bound­aries, and then we try to make oth­ers play by our rules. And all the time, they’re doing the same to us.

This is what the authors of Lan­guage, Struc­ture and Change are get­ting at. Note the idea of “expand­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties.” They men­tion “alter­na­tives that had no pre­vi­ous existence.” 

They are sug­gest­ing, as am I, that far from there being lim­it­ed choic­es in life, the lim­i­ta­tions we find our­selves con­fronting are con­struc­tions, deter­mined in advance by the sto­ries we tell our­selves. Or, as the expres­sion goes,

Argue for your lim­i­ta­tions and they are yours.”

We have the poten­tial, in dia­logue, to exam­ine and re-exam­ine the sto­ries of our life. We can lis­ten to what we tell our­selves, how we describe our sit­u­a­tion, and we can under­stand that, far from see­ing our lives objec­tive­ly, we see them “objec­tive­ly,” and find our­selves liv­ing self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cies that are lim­it­ing and lim­it­ed in the extreme.

Stu­art Wilde coined the term “fringe dwellers” for those who under­stand about “objec­tiv­i­ty” and per­son­al responsibility. 

Self-responsible fringe dwellers don’t try to change others. They observe and change the stories they tell themselves.

Exper­i­ment with wak­ing up to your own sto­ries, deter­min­ing what you believe and how you act—wake up to how you lim­it yourself. 

We encour­age you to find “alter­na­tives that had no pre­vi­ous existence.” 

And then, drop us a com­ment and tell us about it!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is known on the web as the Sim­ple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Pri­vate Prac­tice Coun­sel­lor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the lat­est being The. Best. Rela­tion­ship. Ever.

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