Negative emotions like fear, guilt, anger, and resentment are tough ones to shake. We get so used to them that we stop noticing how much they paralyze our lives because when we can’t release and move on from them, that’s exactly what they do.
If there’s one positive lesson that can help everyone in recovery, regardless of their personal journey, it’s how to let go. You’ve probably heard this recommendation before, especially if you’re in a recovery program based on the 12-step philosophy. As the serenity prayer reminds us, we find peace when we accept the things we cannot change and remain focused on the things we can.
Even if you are involved in a treatment program that follows a different approach to the traditional 12-steps, knowing when to let go allows you to approach each day with a focus on your personal agency.
Interestingly, when you keep in mind that you can’t change everything, you will begin to realize other ways in which you are powerful. Anxieties, obsessions, and circular thoughts about things you can’t do anything about release their hold on you, which in turn allows you to center your real capabilities. There’s no wonder that people seeking calm, from zen Buddhists to stoic philosophers, have been honing the art of letting go for so long.
Have you ever sat and thought about the similarities between the thoughts that keep circling round and make you miserable? If we were to guess, we’d say they’re either related to things that happened in the past or to imagined situations in the future. We can become obsessed over things we feel we cannot control, but the thing is, in reality, we only have power over the present moment.
When we recognize this, we can refocus. What’s the plan today? What can you appreciate about what is going on right now? If you’re worried about something that hasn’t happened yet, what can you do now to prepare for it? When you ground your thoughts in this space, the weight of the past starts to lift off your shoulders, and you’ll start naturally reframing your agency over the future.
We are our own worst critics and harshest judges, and more often than not, those negative thoughts that stick around in our heads are directed back at us. It’s helpful to remember that cause and effect in the world is extremely interconnected at times like these – not everything is your responsibility, and not everything is black and white.
You can start retraining your inner dialogue to become more supportive rather than beat yourself up about mistakes you may have made. Negative thoughts like “I never learn”, “I’m always like this”, or “I’m a bad person for doing this” are not supportive. Instead, extend yourself some kindness for what was genuinely challenging you, and think about the learnings you can take with you moving forward.
Most forms of meditation are helpful in letting go, but there’s a reason mindfulness crops up so much. Evidence shows that this form of reflection is particularly useful in letting go of negative thoughts. It is exceptional in how it centers on self-compassion and the present moment and helps to maintain a balanced viewpoint when difficulties arise.
This system of meditation doesn’t require you to clear the mind to succeed; instead, it’s full of strategies that help you reflect on how and why you feel that way. Knowledge is power when it comes to your internal world. You will learn a lot of actionable exercises early on that will help you observe yourself without passing judgment.
It makes sense that we’re each the center of our own worlds, but sometimes our egos hijack our minds in ways that aren’t helpful for anyone. Simply practicing humility and widening your empathetic world outward to your community can introduce valuable perspectives to the things you want to let go of. This is not to say that experiences are there to be measured or that others’ challenges invalidate your own. But, it helps to keep in mind that you aren’t the only one struggling with negative past experiences or future fears.
Letting go is a mental exercise that takes time and effort. Our minds can, unfortunately, be good at holding on to painful memories and feelings, so it’s okay to start with little things and build up from there – you’ll move onto bigger things when you’re ready. Approach your journey in letting go with the same mindful self-compassion, attention to the present, humility, and perspective that you do everything else, and let practice do its work. Keep going, keep positive, and you’ll see the difference.