During a parent meeting some years ago we were discussing the skill of active listening. Some call it reflective listening or deep listening, but regardless of the name the process is essentially the same. The skill is to listen and hear without judgment or without rebuttal. It is listening to understand. A mentor once taught me that to understand someone you have to lose your mind. That is, you have to suspend or contain any urge, energy or impulse to control or manipulate the Other. This kind of listening takes practice and requires significant energy. In therapy this energy is calling containing—we are managing the reaction we have well enough to hold space for the other person and what they are feeling. It is a private and deep letting go of our impulses to control or manipulate the Other, even though we justify these urges as love arising out of our good nature and our want to help the Other.
While we were discussing how this kind of listening can help those we love feel and move through their feelings, one mother, with some experience in our group offered, “Yeah. I tried this with my daughter, and it didn’t work.”
“What do you mean it didn’t work? Tell me about it.” I asked.
“Well. She was upset with me, which is nothing unusual, and I just listened and reflected it back.” She said.
“Okay. And?” I asked.
“It didn’t work. Her anger didn’t go away. In fact, she seemed to get even angrier and accused me of using psychobabble,” the mother explained.
“Do you hear it?” I gently asked her. I went on to explain that the mother was only feigning acceptance and letting go. Her real energy, and something I imagine the daughter could unconsciously sense, was to change how her daughter felt. And even if the mother was truly trying to hear her daughter with no agenda, the daughter’s increase in anger is to be expected. Often when we are allowed to feel, to be ourselves, the feelings and intensity increase before they dissipate.
We cannot simulate letting go and it is not simply a tool. Letting go is a way of being in the world. It is a way of being with others. It is in contrast to denial. With denial we create a world where it is easier to live in it. With letting go, either by faith or with radical acceptance, we come to terms with the reality of what we can and cannot control.
Letting go must often be preceded by desperation and utter hopelessness. We must come to the end of the road with ourselves and the way we see the world and when we arrive at that end, we must choose to embrace the reality of our situation. For the addict, it may mean that they realize they cannot use substances socially without falling into compulsive use, that they cannot stay sober on their own, and that they need to try another way than the way they have tried so many times before.
For family and loved ones, they must confront their grandiose sense that they are the solution. Therapists and helpers must also abandon their Godlike notions of self in order to become helpful to the clients they serve. Family members must learn to surrender the idea that they can control or cure the addict of their disease. These codependents must do an about face and look inward to focus on their disease which is rooted in their own trauma and mistaken notions of healthy attachment. All must feel and confront the naked truth that feelings must be endured and felt for recovery to occur for anyone.
A father told me about his son’s tentative progress in recovery and explained that his son didn’t like the word surrender. He asked his father and the treatment staff to use a different word when they were talking about the principles of the early steps. The idea that his son needed a different word to describe his powerlessness over things he cannot change tickled me, and I responded, “He may not be ready to try something new if you all need to invent a new, more tolerable word for him to use to understand his impulse to control things.”
Letting go and surrender do not lead to passivity or apathy. Letting go means that we let go of what we cannot control, but it also implies that we use our energy towards what we can control. The simplest way to understand how letting go is a powerful stance is to consider lying. Why do we lie? Simple. We lie to control how someone else thinks, feels, behaves, or perceives us. If we let go of trying to control these things, we are free to tell the truth. Those living with letting go tell the truth more often, set boundaries with clarity, and show up in their lives more authentically. How do they do this? They do it because they use the energy they have to combat the fear that comes from the loss of control of the other.
The wife embracing letting go who decides to leave her alcoholic husband doesn’t do it to get him to stop drinking. She does it because she can’t have the alcoholism in her life anymore. She says to her husband, “I am leaving, not because I want you to stop drinking, but because I can’t have this in my life anymore. You can keep drinking. God knows, I have tried to get you to stop for the first 15 years of our marriage, but this is not that.” Letting go allows her the energy and the courage to take care of herself. Her husband may see this as a last straw, something that wakes him up to the reality of his disease, but that is not her intent. It is only when she comes to terms with the hopelessness of changing him that she is able to do what needs to be done for her and her children.
When I was working with a young man many years ago, his mother said to me upon hearing about his struggles in our program, “I don’t want to let go anymore. I let go before and I don’t want to have to let go today.” Like many of us, she had learned to let go on one level and her circumstances were reminding her that it was a daily project to live in this new sensibility. Similar to how diets often lead to weight gain and abstinence without recovery lead to binges, if we see letting go as a destination, we miss the idea that it is not a means to an end. Letting go is the end itself. It is a fundamental shift in a way of being that few of us were taught and have had any experience with
The poet Rilke invited, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Letting go is this: it is living in the reality of this world and giving up our illusions, or more accurately our delusions, that we have control over others.
Joseph Campbell’s studies on myths revealed what he called the hero’s journey; one can think of it as an algorithm of sorts. Campbell identified a pattern in myths that can become a template for our lives. Included in his explanation, we find some insight about the process of letting go. He explains that the myths teach us that, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” While this insight speaks to the depth and breadth of what it means to let go—he calls it “the life”—his teachings reveal something interesting about what precedes our letting go…he calls it the belly of the whale. The protagonist in these stories and myths often refuse the call and seek to live by their own efforts in the ways they have been taught. This refusal leads to failure and despair. Freud taught if you want someone to grow, give them something they will fail at. The belly of the whale is the darkest part of our journey when all optimism is lost to darkness. We are sure we will die, or we might even think that death is our only option—and in Campbell’s terms the transformation is so fundamental it is likened to a kind of death. This despair or death becomes the birthplace of a new hope. It is when we will open ourselves to help from others and even consider something new, like a new life.
Psyche, in her quest to recapture the love of Eros, was given seemingly insurmountable challenges by Aphrodite to earn the right of her love’s hand. Each task was so impossible that she had an urge to kill herself. And it was at this darkest moment, that magical helpers appeared to make these tests surmountable. Ants and whispering willow reeds came to rescue her when all seemed lost. Psyche, by her best efforts, could not do this alone and could not complete the tasks with the means at her disposal. Her own thinking was inadequate for the tests and she had to come to a place where she would listen to something new.
This is how it is with us. We must come to the despair felt when what we know and what we can do by our own efforts fails us. In a sense, we must die—or that part of us, the life we had known, must be abandoned. In its place is a new life, a new version of ourselves. Helpers, therapists, recovery coaches, mentors, sponsors, and friends farther along the path can give us a hand. But we must be willing to let go for them to help.
A friend once told me the story of the lifeguard and the swimmer to explain the power of letting go. The story goes like this: A strong, young man got caught in a riptide at the beach one day and yelled to the lifeguard for help. The lifeguard looked up and saw the man and continued to look out over the rest of the beach. The swimmer yelled again, only this time not so loud, and the lifeguard’s glance showed that he heard him again, but the lifeguard didn’t move. A third time the man yelled, and this time the plea for help was weak and almost inaudible on the beach. At this, the lifeguard jumped down from his tower and swam out and rescued the swimmer and brought him back to the beach safely, After the crowd cleared a young girl on the beach asked the lifeguard, “How come you didn’t save him when you heard him the first time? I saw you look at him. I know you heard him.”
The lifeguard answered, “When he yelled the first time, he was too strong for me to rescue him. It I had tried, he would have drowned us both. I had to wait till he was weakened by his own efforts to rescue himself for me to be able to help him. Only in his weakest state would he have allowed me to save him.”
That is how it is in our lives. We must often exhaust ourselves with our own efforts. Whether the addict or the family that loves them or the therapist that treats them, we must often find despair before we are willing to loosen our grip on our current ideas in order to grab the hands outreached to help us. Letting go is a difficult concept because it is counterintuitive. We must embrace the despair that we feel and that others we are trying to help feel. Sitting with others in their despair is important because it teaches them to sit in it also. It is this soil where our new life is planted. Stories and metaphors may be best to explain it. It is a feeling, a way of being that is not captured in explanations. But when you feel it, you know what it is, and you know the power it has to save lives.
Dr Brad Reedy
Owner and Clinical Director, Evoke Therapy Programs
Dr. Brad Reedy is a Co-owner of Evoke Therapy Programs, an experiential program for adolescents, young-adults and families. He served on the Board of the Utah Department of...