If there’s one self-help phrase that lifts my hair on edge it’s “let go.” For it’s precisely when I’m most knotted up over people and circumstances that the quaking terror of free-fall threatens to open its gaping maw beneath me.
Telling me to let go poses the chest-constricting question of where, exactly, my negative feelings should go. Can I shrug them off like a heavy jacket? Flick them off like an irksome hair on the tongue? And yet, holding tight to anything that brings on a stress attack muddies up my peace of mind. Lately there’s been an entire gamut, from doubts to deadlines to death.
So, when I ran across this fantastic quote last week, by Benjamin Franklin, I felt the ground solidify beneath me, coaxing me down from my dangling perch:
Maybe rather than let go, we must learn that changing or controlling others, and even outcomes, simply isn’t in our power.
As an optimist, I do believe that the right person or piece of information can strike us at the right time with meteoric force, and thus facilitate our change or act as midwife in changing others. The words and actions of others inspire us to shift. Case in point—stumbling across Franklin’s quote just as every synapse in my brain was set to “GIMME CONTROL O’ THAT.”
Control is my favorite illusion. If I feel that someone close to me is making bad decisions, my control-bot kicks in (it also wears a superhero cape; that’s how seriously it takes itself). With finger pointed heavenward, I proclaim, “Why, I know how to fix that!” And off I leap into the abyss of unsolicited advice or emotional inner wrangling.
As I recently sat with the knowledge that a person I’d once thought of as family chose to keep precious information about the death of another family member from me, I tried to let go the talon grip of rage as it tore at my heart. I wrestled with the choices of people who call themselves adults but acted like children; my fingers pried helplessly at the python of anxiety around my throat. In the process of co-authoring a book, I labored to be free of the dread of disappointing others, the belief that if I just worked harder and harder I would gain external approval.
So I did what I always do when I hit the bottom of emotional tolerance: I began reading a book recommended by my husband, this one called Going on Being, by Mark Epstein, a Buddhist Psychologist who has found an intersection between the practice of Buddhism and psychology.
Epstein’s ideas opened up a middle ground of understanding about my internal reactions to events and people outside my control: something doesn’t always need to be done. In fact, sometimes the best strategy is simply to nod and acknowledge said fear, pain, or sorrow and hold metaphoric arms around it, as though comforting a child. With this reading, a gentle awareness has taken root and ferned out inside me, growing stronger, pushing off the vines of anxious control.
I can nod to the desire to want to help, fix, mentor, prod, and change others inside myself as a once-upon-a-time, excellent coping skill. But it will have no more effect to change anything than a drop of water can bend steel; if anything it will simply knot my own tightly stretched cords of calm.
With tiny, new steps I’m coming to see that controlling behavior just distracts me from my own peace.
I don’t have to let go. I can let be.
Photo credit: “Blue Tiger” by challiyan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.