Do you remember the first time you were in line for a roller coaster as a kid, or maybe the first time you visited a haunted house or watched a scary movie that you'd been hyped up about? There's a tense feeling of dreadful anticipation. You know what you're about to do will be uncomfortable and scary, but there's also a vague sense that it will be worthwhile in the end. People go to these things for fun, right? Being scared is part of the fun.
A psychologist once helpfully distinguished between depression and anxiety by explaining that depression is stress about the past, and anxiety is stress about the future. Standing in line for something scary is definitely an anxious experience. It's stress you intentionally go through, because being able to feel scared and come back from it safe actually, strangely, feels GOOD. Something deep inside our psyche takes pleasure in overcoming a challenge.
Lots of things in life work this way. Going to the doctor. Saving money. Being charitable. Apologizing. Forgiving. Loving. Letting go. If you've had a chance to do some living, you can probably feel a little heat coming off at least a few of those ideas. Embers of old pain that still linger hauntingly, or maybe new pain that still sears the back of your eyelids. It is hard to be human without discovering regret and grief. And surely, if you collect those feelings in a special place inside you for long enough, you can keep yourself warm with their bitter smoke and persist on the flickering warmth.
I've been there. I have friends who live there. Sometimes life puts you there, sometimes you trick yourself, but by the time you're losing yourself to it, it's hard to have the energy to care about doing anything else. Some people don't even know there are other options.
But you can indeed do something different. It sounds scary, but you can choose to let go of the pain. If you are revolting at the idea, loading up excuses about why your pain is important to hold on to, why it's still helping you, that's normal. Pain, both physical and mental, is meant to be instructive and informative. You are meant to react to and respond to pain, it is important. But you can separate the lesson from the pain. Most of the time, when it comes to emotional pain, it is not actually important for you to keep hurting, learning from the pain is enough.
So before we talk about how to actually let go (it's complicated), let's quickly go over what it means to learn from pain. When you cause your own pain, the lesson to learn is to be more mindful. The more aware you are of yourself, your mind and emotions, and your limits, the easier it is to avoid causing yourself pain. When your pain comes from something outside of you, the lesson to learn is to be more careful. You can't protect yourself from every kind of pain, but you can try not to revisit the same pain multiple times. Some pain is undeserved, and this pain carries the hardest lesson: you will be hurt, and you will hurt others.
There are things that happen before you are open to letting go of your pain. First, you express the pain. You scream, you cry, you fume, you argue, you make sure the world around you knows that you are in pain. Whether it's to get help or to warn them away, when your pain is overwhelming it escapes your grasp and becomes a part of the scene.
After that, you blame something for the pain. Whether it's the chair that you stubbed your toe on, the asshole who cut you off, the jerk who insults you, the monster who hurts you, or just you getting in your own way, part of coming to terms with pain is giving it an origin. This helps us ground the lesson we learned and make it useful. When we skip this step, we slip into the dangerous state of unanchored stress. This can lead to lasting feelings of prickliness, tenderness, jumpiness, and other uncomfortable anticipations. However, if we put too much emphasis on this step, we wind up making grudges and developing hate, so it's tricky. Maybe soon I'll have a good time to get into the finer points of blame, but for now, let's accept that a little bit of blame is part of the instinctive process of handling pain.
Then, perhaps the most important thing happens: you formulate a plan to respond to the pain. This is the trickiest step, it is very easy to come up with a bad plan when you are soaking in your pain. But even bad plans tend to be centered around a reasonable core idea that can be refined. "I will hurt them so they know what it's like to be hurt" isn't a healthy plan, but it's built around the core of "I will teach them not to hurt me", and even that can be distilled to "I will not let them hurt me". Likewise, "I will punish myself so I don't forget this pain" isn't healthy, but it's built around "I will learn not to hurt myself this way".
I have a saying, "If you clean your wounds in the sewers, you're doing it to feel better, not to get better." It means that sometimes the things you do to care for yourself in the midst of overwhelming emotions aren't the best things to do, but they give you enough comfort to keep going a little longer. It also means that when you are ready to really heal, you need to do it from a clean emotional space, not a toxic one. Making a plan to manage your pain while you're overwhelmed by it is like cleaning your wounds in the sewer, you'll do a mediocre job at best and might give yourself a new infection while you're at it. If this is how you have to make a plan, make it this one: get somewhere safe. Don't splash around in the sewage, don't argue with the plumbing, don't make camp. Find a ladder and climb out. Then make a better plan. It probably won't include returning to the sewer.
If you've expressed your pain, blamed your pain on something, found a way to emotional safety, and made a plan to respond to your pain, congratulations. You have extracted the usefulness from the pain. You've sucked out the cream filling, you've squeezed the juice from the rind. What remains is of little use to you now. The pain will continue to hurt for as long as you chew on it. Give yourself permission to keep the lesson, keep the experience, and let go of the pain.
It's not that simple, is it? Demanding that you let go of a troubling feeling is about as effective as trying to tell yourself not to focus on your breathing. You try, but instead, you end up fixating on the feeling and maybe making yourself feel worse. Well, there's a reason for that. The trick to letting go is that it's not about getting away from the hard feeling. It's about diving into it, deep down to the core of it, where you are feeling everything it has to show you. Then, telling your mind "OK, I've listened, now we can move on."
This hurts. This process doesn't feel good while you're going through it. It's like standing up after your leg falls asleep, it hurts even more before it gets better. I'm sorry, fellow human, I wish it were easier, but sometimes we just have to let the pain in. Inch by painful inch, with no more hiding, no more clenching against the pain, just letting it all out into your consciousness.
And then, you wonderful human, then the magic happens. When you take the full weight of your pain in your hands and consider its totality, you can tell yourself "OK, but I'm done with this now" and let it go. If you haven't done this before, I know it sounds strange, I didn't think it would work either. But it does. Over and over, it does. Even for others I've taught it to.
Once you get there, you learn that the pain isn't in letting go, it's in getting in a position to let go. It's the anxiety of standing in line, not the roller coaster ride itself. And just like the coaster, when you're done, you're going to feel an exhilaration. A rush of calmness and security washes over you. You keep the lessons you need, you are not giving up your memories or experiences. You simply let go of the pain, and it evaporates.
Sometimes, a particularly tough pain rains back down later on and you have to process it again. But the more often you practice this kind of active tending of your feelings, the easier it becomes to reach the point of letting go. And the more often you succeed, the more confidence you gain as a master of your own mind.
As always, this is just one way of thinking about things. Many people find a similar relief through rituals like prayer, confession, insobriety, or mediated cathartic release (aka "crying it out during a movie"). Each of these methods has benefits and drawbacks. My method has been effective, but it requires some careful thought and a bit of self-discipline, and I can imagine there are types of pain that aren't so simple to let go of. Nonetheless, I hope that peeking behind the curtain and seeing how I've been modeling this process recently helps illuminate it for you in a usable way.
If you need some help putting it into easy-to-remember words, try this.
"I know that I hurt.
I know why I hurt.
I've learned from this pain.
The lesson will outlive the pain.
So I am done with the pain.
and it's OK to stop hurting."
And always remember, your mind is yours. You get a say in what happens there.