I love quotes. I have been a quote nerd since I was a kid. I used to recopy inspirational sayings from books into a journal, and then reread them over and over when I was sad or needed courage.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is:
The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let things go.
There are a few variations, but the theme is always the same. It involves my two favorite things: autumn and boundaries. What could be better?
What does letting go mean?
As always in Redefining Love, it is important to get intentional about how we define words and phrases that matter to our healing. The phrase “let it go” got really buzzy when Disney built an entire franchise around the phrase in the first Frozen movie. But what does it really mean to let go?
In Redefining Love, letting go involves freedom from toxic relationships, both internally and externally. If you stick with me long enough, you’ll know that intention and action are a crucial step in healing from trauma. Letting go is the action, but before we get there, we must set an intention.
I typically start with the external element, because it’s usually easier to see the outward struggles. It’s easier to recognize what relationships are broken, ways that others need to change, and what boundaries need to be set. Letting go of toxic relationships and circumstances requires awareness of what isn’t working in your life, and the courage to make changes.
The best way to gain awareness is to approach your life with curiosity. What does this mean? Ask yourself hard questions, and then answer them honestly. It’s incredible the lies we tell ourselves to justify staying in toxic relationships. To find the truth, we need to outline the facts. I call this an “accountability inventory.” Here are some questions you can explore and answer:
- What does it mean to be treated well by others? What does that look like to me?
- Am I treated well in my closest relationships?
- How are some ways that I’m treated well by those I love?
- How are some ways I am not treated well?
- What do I need from my relationships?
- Are those needs being met?
And of course, as with all things in Redefining Love, we must apply the same standards and questions we apply to others to ourselves as well. Here are some questions to guide you towards personal accountability within your relationships:
- Overall, do I treat others well?
- How are some ways that I treat others well?
- How are some ways that I mistreat others?
- What do others need from me?
- Am I meeting those needs?
Remember that honesty is key here. If you aren’t honest in your answers to these questions, the exercise will not work.
Don’t forget about grace as you explore your relationships. Remember that others can only treat you as well as they know how, and that you approach others the way you have learned from past experiences. This isn’t a free pass to mistreat you, or to mistreat others, but grace is as crucial a part of your healing as boundaries and accountability.
This is where things tend to get intense, and more complicated. So much of the way we interact with the world is ingrained in our subconscious during childhood, often before we even remember. This makes it difficult sometimes to identify the root of our own behaviors. We slip into a mindset that “this is just the way I am.”
So I’m going to introduce an idea that may be revolutionary to you. You get to choose your character. And (as you may have guessed), this requires intention followed by action. Before you can begin creating the YOU you want to be, you must first figure out who you are. That requires self-reflection. Here are some questions to get you started:
What are 20 words that best describe your character? These aren’t 20 things that interest you, like reading or basketball. These are character descriptors.
Imagine if you were writing yourself into a short story. How would you describe your personality? Some words you might use are: creative, sad, pathetic, brave, scared, strong, weak, drunk, successful, etc. Try to make the list without thinking. Just write the first words that pop into your head. Don’t worry about what others might think about the list. This is just for you. Write it quickly, in three minutes or less.
Why do you think these things about yourself? Did someone else tell you these things about yourself? Or did you determine this on your own? Or maybe you have no idea where these ideas came from. That’s okay, too. That’s where grace comes in. There are no right or wrong answers.
The thing about curiosity
The beauty of curiosity is, it helps you step back from a personality – your own and others’ – and take a more objective stance. When you get curious, you remove the emotion from it. By taking an “I wonder why?” approach, versus a defensive or offensive approach, you then have the freedom to explore without judgement. Which takes us back to grace. (Hopefully you’re picking up on a pattern here – all positive roads lead back to grace).
We can’t be both curious and judgmental. It just doesn’t work. Whether you are curiously examining someone else’s character or your own, in order to learn, we must remove the barrier of judgement. So, stay curious. It’s so healing and freeing.
Once you’ve examined the relationship with yourself or others with intention, it’s time to take action. This is the part where you – as Frozen’s Elsa sings – Let. It. Go. And remember, this only works if you’ve already gotten curious and answered some tough questions honestly.
How to let it go:
Gather the evidence. Pull all your data together – the information you gathered while you were curiously exploring your relationships. You can write it down, or just have a good long think on it. (I highly recommend writing it down.)
Set your intention. You’ve already determined what your relational needs are in the curiosity phase. So now you need to determine how you’re going to get those needs met. For this part, you need to stay curious, and answer even more questions. Is this relationship one in which there is room to grow, for you and the other person? What needs to change about the relationship in order for it to be sustainable? Or would it be better to love this individual from a distance?
Figure out what needs to happen within that relationship in order for you to feel emotionally safe. (If you don’t feel physically safe, then it’s absolutely necessary to love from a distance. At least until some major problems are resolved, hopefully with the help of a professional.)
Or, if you did an internal inventory, what needs to be changed about your sense of self that sets you free from toxic patterns and habits? Set an intention for the new way things are going to be.
Do a “worst case scenario.” What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if you made this change? Let your imagination go wild. Will you lose the relationship? What would that look like in real life? Will the person be angry with you and spread horrible stories about you to others in your community or support system? Will people take sides, and you could be left all alone?
Or, if it’s an internal boundary, what are you holding onto about yourself that makes you feel safe? What will be left of your identity if you change this pattern or habit? Will you feel like you disappear? Will you be outraged at yourself?
These are triggering questions. If you are concerned about what might happen to your emotional stability while doing this work, I strongly encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional – a therapist, counselor, or coach. If for some reason this isn’t an option for you, call on your support system – friends and family who are emotionally safe – and move through this step with them by your side. There are also help lines such as the 988 support line in the U.S. that is staffed 24/7 with people who will stay on the line or help you find someone local who can help.
It’s hard to think about all the things that can go wrong, but it’s so important. Why? Because this is how you identify your worst fears. And your fear is what’s keeping you stuck. Your brain doesn’t like change. At some point in your past, this response kept you safe, and now it’s stuck in panic mode. Your subconscious settled on this pattern or habit as a protection mechanism. The only way to turn it off is to find the switch. You do that by digging.
Stay in grace. Hopefully you’ve been giving yourself and the other person grace throughout this process. Nobody is perfect. Not you, and not them. If you haven’t been, this is a good time to take a breather and remind yourself that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay for you, and it’s okay for the other person. Both of you are responding from a place of trauma and trigger.
Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know. Forgive the other person for not giving you what you need. Breathe yourself through it. Sit in the pain and disappointment, taking slow, deep, healing breaths, until you feel your trigger subsiding. Once you’ve reached a place of calm, you are ready for the next step.
Do a “best case scenario.” What if things became okay? What is the absolute best thing that could happen if you made this change? Could the relationship heal? Maybe you’d set boundaries and keep that distance, and you became strong and confident and it no longer hurt anymore? Maybe you could run into that person on the street and feel nothing but peace with what was and appreciation for what is?
Things rarely turn out as bad as we anticipate they might. But, even if they do, it’s possible that both could occur simultaneously. The worst could happen, but you heal and grow anyway, and then the best happens – you become a calmer, happier, more centered person.
Think about the possibility of healing for a moment. Consider the possibility of both happening – the best and the worst. Think about how amazing you’d feel if you went through your worst, came out the other side, and were stronger and better because of it.
Practice. You’ve set your intention based on your curious exploration of the relationship. You’ve considered the best and the worst possible outcomes. And through it all, you’ve given yourself and others grace. Now what? Now you practice.
If you haven’t already, find a safe person to talk to about all of this. Maybe that’s a therapist or coach, or maybe it’s a trusted friend or family member. Just make sure it’s not someone who has a personal stake in the relationship, because they will not be objective.
Then, practice setting your boundaries. Say them out loud. Read them if you must, or rehearse them until you feel comfortable saying the words to the other person. If you aren’t comfortable saying them to someone you trust, you’re not going to be comfortable saying them inside a toxic relationship.
What if the boundaries you need to set are within yourself? What if you decide you’re going to tackle some of those rotten words you used to describe yourself? You still need to practice. You need to say kind things to yourself in the presence of someone you trust. Because if you can’t say it out loud to someone else, your subconscious brain is never going to buy it.
Sometimes, when we are dealing with the relationship with ourselves, simply saying it out loud and getting that reassurance from someone else is enough. But often, especially for deep, layered traumas, it takes quite a bit more practice. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a trauma-informed help to process through it.
How do you know if it worked?
This is an easy one. Are you still stuck? Do you keep repeating the pattern? Do you still feel shame or self-disgust? If your answer to this is yes, then you have not let it go. When you know, you know. When you’ve truly released something, you feel a sense of weightlessness, a sense of freedom that you’ve never known, or haven’t felt since before the trauma.
Don’t give up.
If you’re still stuck, it isn’t that the situation is hopeless. It’s that you haven’t yet found the right action, or you haven’t yet discovered the true root of the problem. This isn’t an overnight process. Remember that grace I keep talking about? Yep, never stop handing out grace. That’s what will get you through until the next layer is unearthed.
Speaking of layers, once you’ve resolved one issue, you may have a stretch of relative calm. But eventually, another layer will be reached, offering another opportunity for growth. Let it happen. Ride it out, follow the steps, and let it go.