Why Are We So Afraid to Let Go?

What does it really mean to let go? When we turned this question over to our editors and readers, their responses proved that grief, catharsis, and rebirth come in all forms—whether it's finally moving on from a failed relationship, rebuilding oneself after a painful trauma, or quietly saying goodbye to the person you once were. Our series Letting Go highlights these compelling and complicated stories.

Why Are We So Afraid to Let Go?
Photo: Outdoor Voices

When we landed on "letting go" as a series topic (and our first-ever writer's prompt), the wording was intentionally vague and open to interpretation. This idea of release, after all, is endlessly applicable and often poignant: It might have something to do with the stages of grief or relinquishing toxic relationships that no longer serve you or even something relatively banal like dropping a bad habit.

As such, the submissions for Letting Go have been beautifully diverse; there are infinite lessons to be found in each of them. But as I started to read through everything, I began to realize that in actuality, there really is a common thread that connects them all, and it has to do with control.

Consider this my personal take on the topic (or one of them, anyway—you'll catch the other in an essay later this week): To me, a highly sensitive person who has spent years grappling with the validity of her emotions, the words "let go" are a reminder that there is beauty in succumbing to our feelings, that doing so consistently teaches me more about myself than deferring to my analytical mind. Coming to this conclusion is one of the most freeing, self-affirming paradigm shifts I've ever experienced, and now I see my sensitivity for the gift it is. It's where my empathy, intuition, and creativity all live. But learning to see a trait that I had always considered a weakness as my superpower was a complicated journey. To do so, I had to relinquish control.

It's not an easy ask for human beings, who have been historically conditioned to emphasize logic over feeling. "For centuries, Western culture has been fairly obsessed with rationalism, a philosophy that places a premium on reason over sensory and emotional experience," says Heather Silvestri, PhD, a New York City–based psychologist. "Although rationalism dates back to the ancient Greeks, it was rebranded by Descartes in the 17th century, and the idea that we should exercise our minds over our emotions has a lot of cultural currency even today."

It's a notion that laughably ignores the fact that we are, by nature, emotional beings—and puts those of us who are more sensitive than others at a serious disadvantage, since it primes us for self-resentment. What's wrong with you? I'd ask myself this whenever feelings inevitably came up, which would only ignite more anger. And that's the irony of it all: In trying to repress my emotions, I only made myself more emotional. In trying to exert control over myself, I only felt more out of control. And so the spiral continued.

"By elevating reason over emotion, we create a false sense of control by convincing ourselves that we can, with enough strength and composure, gate-keep our emotional landscape," says Silvestri. "But the belief that we can game our emotional experience such that feelings are under our complete control actually sets us up for problematic emotional outbursts. Repressed emotion is like a beach ball held underwater: the further down you push it, the higher and more forcefully it's going to pop out into the air." I love this metaphor, because it describes the physical sensation that plagued me on a moment-to-moment basis during this fraught time in my life: a pressure behind my sinuses, a dam forever in danger of bursting.

This, says Silvestri, is the basis for many situations in which we find ourselves struggling to let go—the toxic friend, the growing up, the trauma. These experiences are dripping in abstract feeling, so when we try to analyze our way out of it instead of just allowing ourselves to experience the emotions for what they are, we subject ourselves to an overwhelming and often fruitless feedback loop. Often, much of this is an attempt to reestablish control over circumstances that are out of our hands. "When we have trouble letting go of a perceived wrongdoing, a past event, or a relationship, we are attempting to force a narrative in which we can be the sole director—not only of our feelings, but also of the course of our life," she says.

The solution is counterintuitive and often painful—especially if you have a longstanding habit of repressing feelings, which may in turn be uncomfortable to experience. But it is effective. "Somewhat ironically, the best way to be an active agent over your emotions is to accept that some of your experience will feel messy and that you can contain any unpleasantness by utilizing your rational faculties," says Silvestri. "I reassure people that no one has ever died from intense emotion; it's what you do with your feelings that matters and has consequence." By allowing yourself to feel while also eliminating self-judgment from the equation, you gain the clarity to react more effectively. In other words, you have to lose control in order to gain it again—this time, in a lasting (and far more productive) way.

And even if it's messy and difficult, it's ultimately so worth it. "There is enormous freedom in catharsis—the act of 'letting go'—because in so doing, you are allowing yourself to be fully human rather than forcing a false narrative on yourself," says Silvestri. It's true: Since accepting my emotions as the most revelatory and intricate parts of me, I have, most importantly, found compassion for myself—and in turn, I've learned to love the messiness, too.