On letting go gently

16 September 2016

A few newsletters ago, I asked if anyone was willing to indulge my desire to dispense existential advice and send me a topic to consider. In response, I received the following:

The concept of letting go gently in your last newsletter intrigued me. I’ve reached a point with a friend where I feel like it’s time to let go, which is something I’m honestly horrible at. What does letting someone go gently mean to you? Is it possible to let go “too gently”?

I am not good at letting go. Whether this is due to nature or nurture or some unfortunate confluence of the two that strengthens each other’s bent, it’s a profound part of my personal makeup. It rears its head with events as big as the leaving of a loved one or instances as small as the changing of seasons. Recently, for example, I’ve been mentally digging my heels into the last days of summer. I like fall, and I’m well aware another summer will come around soon enough, but I just don’t want to let go of how it is now. I’ve learned I’ll never entirely root out this tendency, but also that I can learn to manage it.

The trick of it is the “gently” part. It’s actually pretty easy to let go of things when they’re wrenched away from you, or become too toxic for you to hold onto. Painful and unpleasant, but relatively easy in the action itself. The difficulty comes in when the process is slow, soft and internal, with no external force to make it simpler. But the thing is, that’s the only genuine way to let go. The external forces, and our immediate responses to them, are just rearranging items on the surface. This is why you can run away from something but never really get rid of it. The difference is entirely about what’s going on inside, which may or may not have much to do with what you actually do.

Dear reader, you reference a line from my recent revision of a list poem I wrote, “Things I Want to Tell My Daughter:”

Expect empathy from others. Gently let go when and where you don’t get it.

I know that in your message, you’re thinking about the practical particulars, the rubber-meets-the-road how of how one does this. Which we’ll get to next, but, first, keep in mind what I’ve said about understanding your own tendencies and habits. You need to know this before you can take the right action. Letting go is all about context.

I believe that what you’re asking here in the most functional sense is: what obligations do I have to explain my desire to detach from someone? Is it possible that in my intent to be gentle I could slip away too quietly, thereby causing confusion or appearing dishonest? Is it possible that silently leaving is the kindest option, or is it just the easiest one, and therefore most cowardly one, for me?

The answer to all of these question is: it depends on the context, and the context of letting go depends on expectations. There is a fractal set of expectations to consider: theirs and yours, and then on each of these sides you have to consider which of the expectations are valid and which are assumed. Did either you or your friend create stated, agreed upon expectations? If so, those must be addressed. For example, if this were an established romantic relationship, or there was a specific commitment for an event or financial need. In these cases, no matter if you’re over it inside, you do have to confront the expectation, and correct it.

However, often what we think are stated expectations are just what we want and decided in our heads that we should get. This is true on both sides. Is your friend putting expectations on you that you did not agree to? You’re not obligated to address that. Are you putting expectations on yourself that no one asked of you? If so, you could actually cause more damage by trying to fulfill them.

I have let go of friends when I perceived I wasn’t getting back the same energy I was putting into them. I recognized that it wasn’t sustainable and that it wasn’t even personal. That just happens with people sometimes. But still I felt frustration and resentment. It took some time to let go of the expectations I had put on them and realize those expectations were my own doing. Now, I’m better at that. I work to separate my own assumptions from communicated fact. Now, I have enough strength to be gentle. Essentially, when I said, “let go gently,” I meant without anger.

Here’s the truth, reader: in this case, you have already let go gently. You have already assessed the value and the cost of the relationship, and you have already determined that it doesn’t even out for you. You already know you are expending more empathy than you are receiving. You don’t seem angry, and you are trying to resolve the issue with kindness. This is the perfect situation in which to let go, and you’ve already done the difficult work. All the remains is the discharge of obligation. If the only obligation is assumed, on either side, there is no obligation, beyond your obligation to yourself. In short: you owe this person no explanation. The balance of forgoing the explanation, however, does means you also must honor the fact that you did let go. Harbor no resentment, nurse no residual frustration. If you hold on to that, you didn’t really let go. See how this is separate from action? Two different tasks, two different processes. They intersect at times, but they are different things.

You might not get it right right away. Let go of that gently, too. Like everything else, it takes practice. Like everything else, you get better at it as you go. Good luck.


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