Letting Go of Difficult Emotions

Have you ever been told that you really need to “let go” of something? Have you ever given that advice to anyone else?


The idea of letting a painful thought, emotion or memory go is a very appealing one. Painful emotional experiences such as regret and resentment tend to have a “sticking around” kind of quality to them, recurring again and again over time. Anger, hurt, and fear can stick around long after the initial incident, sometimes even for years. Who in their right mind wants to carry that stuff around? Yeah, listen to the Disney princess and Let It Go.

Weeeelllllll, that might be one of those things that are more easily said than done. I believe that in most (not all) cases, most of us would rather let our frustrating and painful emotions and memories go whizzing away. The problem is that just because we let something go, it does not mean that IT lets go of us.

Let me use a metaphor to explain what I mean. This is not a metaphor I made up, by the way, but I have been using it for so long I have no idea who to credit for it.

Let’s say you and I are sitting and chatting about this or that. We notice that for some reason, a beautiful butterfly finds its way into the room we’re in. I see it, and, realizing that it belongs inside rather than outside, I quickly yet gently grab it out of the air, trapping it between my hands. I excuse myself from the conversation so that I may take the butterfly outside.

I then proceed to open my hands and let it go.

Something funny happens, however. Instead of flying up in the air and off into the distance as I’d expected, it stays right where it is. Irritated, I shake my hand, trying to rid myself of the butterfly. It hangs on. I’d really like to go back inside and finish the conversation, but I feel obligated to let this pesky insect go. I try to knock it off with my hand, and it starts to fly away, but then turns around and lands on my nose.

After five minutes of letting the butterfly go, I realize that I have in no way let the butterfly go. To the contrary, the butterfly is now completely controlling my behavior. In an effort to let go, I have in fact become more engaged with it.

If I were to really let go, I’d allow the butterfly to sit upon my nose and flap its wings, while I return upstairs to the conversation we were in the middle of.

The key point is this: when we “let go” of something, to be truly psychologically useful, we must let go not of the experience itself, but of our own drive to control the experience.

This is a subtle but extraordinarily important difference.

Painful memories, emotions and thoughts aren’t voluntary. We don’t choose them- they just show up. So it stands to reason, and more importantly, it is generally borne out by experience, that if we don’t choose them, we can’t really un-choose them. That’s simply not how brains work.

Very often the phrase “let it go” is used as a stand in for “get over it” or “get rid of it”.  Truly letting go of something, however, requires a very different attitude. In order to truly let go of something, we’ve got to be willing to accept it. If we can’t stand the butterfly on our nose, we’ve got no hope of letting go of it- we’ll be constantly fighting it. If we let go of control over it, though, we might be able to get on with our lives.

A better phrase might be “let it be”. Since we began this post by referencing a pop song, let’s end by playing one. This one, of course, is the Beatles song “Let it Be”, which I think is almost certainly the wisest song in the history of popular music:


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