Several years ago Brian Klemmer, an experienced change facilitator, wrote a book titled, If How-Tos Were Enough We Would All Be Skinny, Rich and Happy. If you have ever experienced being unsuccessful at following someone’s instructions to “Just let it go!” often spoken in annoyance, you know that it takes more than willpower to let go of some kinds of distress.
That is true even if you really, really, really want to let it go. Somehow things seem to stick to you: hurt feelings because of real or imagined mistreatment, the thought of something bad happening to someone you love or a song you just can’t seem to get out of your head. You even tell yourself “Forgive and forget, just let it go, just move on,” but it's hard to do.
Holding On is Easier than Letting Go
The truth is that you have not been taught to use “letting go tools.” In fact, you come into the world with “holding on tools.” Your brain has evolved for survival! It notices every source of danger and stores it (or freezes it) so that you can quickly recognize danger without having to stop and think about it. It is automatic.
Automatic was wonderful when our human race evolved in the jungle and a fraction of a second could literally keep our ancestors from being eaten. The ones with the best programming survived and eventually produced you and me who live in a world with far different challenges. Part of the stress and anxiety you experience is your automatic brain responding to what it thinks is an emergency when your rational mind knows it is just a minor annoyance.
Many books describe this phenomenon. My favorite explanation is in the first chapter of Daniel Goleman’s classic book, Emotional Intelligence. He calls it “brain hijacking.” I sometimes think of it as an autopilot.
Setting your autopilot is a way to make certain you hold on to protective decisions you have made over the course of your life. Holding on is always easier than letting go. We all hold on by leaving bits of our energy with memories of painful experiences to keep them from intruding into our everyday lives. Those were the experiences we did not have the resources to manage at the time they happened.
You Try to Protect Yourself by Holding On
It takes some of your energy to hold on or freeze your negative experiences, and that energy gets stuck in place and isn’t available for you to use to handle whatever is in front of you right now. So, paradoxically, something you did to protect yourself in the past causes a problem in your present life.
Sometimes we don’t have those resources simply because we are powerless children in a world of grownups. Sometimes it’s because the adults who should have been able to protect us are not immediately available for a variety of benign or traumatic reasons.
One toddler wandered a few feet away from his watching mother and encountered a stress that was toxic for him that other children usually did not find stressful at all. He simply saw a clown who was there to entertain children. The toddler was terrified and inconsolable and set his autopilot to protect him from these dangerous creatures. That protection lasted for years and the autopilot was very difficult to reset.
Sometimes we are overwhelmed by trauma which no ordinary human can manage. This often happens to military personnel who serve in war zones and to the first responders who protect us as police, firefighters and medical professionals. When we encounter too many losses in a short period of time and can’t process them, we tend to freeze energy around them to protect ourselves from feeling the pain of our experiences.
Sometimes we hold on to something because it is incomplete and we want a satisfactory ending. This can be especially problematic when the person or event with whom we want to complete something is long gone from our lives, either because they have died or have changed so much that the original just no longer exists. It’s like wanting to complete something with a 30-year-old parent who is now 80 years old and does not even remember the incident that you have held on to for 50 years.
The more things you are holding on to, the more likely it is that some of them will be reactivated by the ordinary stress of just living. That’s when we sometimes experience anxiety or depression that seems to have no particular cause.
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