Does letting go mean giving up?

R: I’ve been reading “Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears” by Pema Chodron and have been practicing “letting it go” when I find myself hooked or angered by something in my life. The book recommends taking three breaths and letting things go when you find yourself feeling a strong negative emotion or a desire to lash out. I think this is a great idea but I’m having trouble understanding how to do this without being a pushover.

For example, if my husband does something that angers me (maybe forgetting to pick up milk on the way home), my instinct is to get angry with him and verbalize this. But Chodron seems to just suggest stopping, taking a breath, and letting it go. But to me, this seems to send a message to my husband that it’s acceptable to forget things. If I show him my frustration and anger, perhaps he won’t forget the milk next time. How can I practice taking a breath and letting it go to center myself and stay in the moment when I feel the need to express my anger and “get the message across” to my husband that I’m not happy with what he did? Can you help me understand how I can take breaths and “let it go” while at the same time not being a pushover or allowing people to “get away” with things in my life? Thank you.

Jay:  Hi. R. Your comments make perfect sense to me.

So we’re talking about “letting go of a reactive habit.” By reactive I think we’re referring to a reaction that happens very quickly. It’s triggered by something. It doesn’t really seem to have much intelligence or compassion to it. So if your husband comes home and he didn’t get the milk that you asked him to get, some reaction comes up right away in the body and the mind.

I think we can agree that the reaction is based on lots of assumptions. It’s not just about milk. It’s about someone treating me in a certain way. It’s about my feeling that I can’t trust someone to meet my needs.

I think it’s really helpful to become familiar with everything that is behind these reactions. In the situation with your husband it would be neat to listen to the fears and concerns that are behind the anger or frustration. What does it feel like to be in a space where you don’t know if your critical needs will be met at all? What does that really feel like?

If we simply act out without really examining what’s behind all the anger and frustration, nothing is learned. At the same time our blame of the other person is communicated to them. They may not hear anything that you say because all they can hear is that you’re angry at them and want to change them or possibly even punish them. This is nearly certain to cause them to react defensively, which you then feel as an attack on yourself, and so the cycle escalates.

So letting go of a habit maybe really means giving the habit some space so that it can be seen, felt, heard, experienced, understood. It doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring it or trying to be something else. It just means giving space and space has a miraculous way of including everything. That means you may not only hear your own fear but you may also hear and see your husband for what is really going on for him. Space may allow the whole habitual dynamic between the two of you to be seen very simply as needless burning up of energy due to fear of what will happen to one. I say “needless” because in the space of seeing, it is clear that what is really needed right now is open, undefensive listening, so that all parties can hear each other and be heard.

I find that in this kind of listening there may be a new kind of communicating one’s needs that the other person can hear, maybe for the first time. “Wow. You’re saying that when I don’t bring home the milk that you asked me to get, you’re afraid that you’ll be abandoned and starve to death. That’s really intense.”

In the moment of realizing that your husband didn’t bring the milk, the most important thing is listening. Listening to myself deeply. Feeling all the emotions that have been stirred up. Maybe wondering what the heck the dynamic between the two of you is right now and just stopping and listening. That may be all that is needed in that moment but it might also allow you at some later time to be able to talk more honestly about how all of this feels to you.

My girlfriend said something the other day when we were in couples therapy. It was something to the affect that if she really wanted to be heard, she had to die to her own expectations. This seems profoundly true. We don’t want to give up our expectations of other people. We think we know what we want. But I suspect that there is a great deal behind these expectations that we don’t really experience and yet we desperately don’t want that expectation to die. We’re identified with it. If it dies, we die.

So instead of living continually at the mercy of these deep expectations, why not die to them in this moment and find out right now what it is to listen empty-handedly to someone, without agenda, without anything to defend? Just interested in the truth of this moment?

I agree with you that there might need to be some “problem solving” with your husband so that the household runs smoothly. But it’s difficult to get to that point if you haven’t really been able to understand what’s moving him. Why does he not get the milk? Is he really forgetful? Is he trying to defend himself from being pushed to do things for you? Have you been able to hear him, how he sees the situation, what he’s feeling, how your reactions affect him? All of this is needed, I feel, to get to problem solving.

I’ve learned a lot from our therapist about recognizing defensive talking and finding ways to speak that don’t increase defensiveness. It’s not easy because we usually feel defensive but even if it feels artificial, non-defensive talking can help. I know there are strategies that can be learned and that’s probably good. Ultimately, if I really give up on trying to get my way, I’ll naturally speak non-defensively. Or if defensiveness is going on, I can still be honest about that. “Boy, I’m so triggered right now that I’m having a hard time hearing you. I think I need a good walk. Can we talk when I get back?”

Letting go is often spoken about in a way that people feel they are supposed to ignore their feelings or not be engaged in any way. So it’s good to bring this up. Maybe it’s better not to say letting go but rather opening up to what’s going on in a defensive reaction. Which is really opening up to everything, the thoughts, the feelings, the state of the other person, the wind, the air, the ground. And the well of compassion and interest that has been here all the time.

Please let me know if I haven’t been very clear or if you have some other comments or questions.

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