At some point in your life – probably many, many times – you were experiencing an unpleasant emotion as result of a challenging experience and someone advised you to, “Let it go. If you could just let it go, you’d be happier.” You might have even encourage yourself to “let go.”
I don’t think this is very helpful.
Intellectually, we all know that we’d happier and more productive if we could “let go” of whatever it is that’s fueling an unpleasant emotion.
But knowing what we should do and knowing how to actually do it are two entirely different things.
Fortunately, the process of letting go is quite simple.
It’s not easy. It takes practice. But the process involves only four simple steps.
To help you remember these steps, you can use the acronym “SCIL” (the ability to let go is indeed quite a skill).
Before diving into the process, I’d like to point out the most important element of letting go, which is to refrain from trying to “let go” at all.
The words “let go” often evoke an attitude of “ignore” or “get rid of.”
So instead of trying to “let go,” the effort should be to “let it be.”
The core of the following process is letting the inner world be exactly as it is – and even exploring it with curiosity – without trying to change or get rid of anything.
1. S = Stop engaging with the perceived cause of the unpleasant emotion
Whenever you are experiencing an unpleasant emotion, you should try to create some physical space between you and the perceived cause of the emotion, even if this only possible for a few minutes.
In the case of a distant cause like a loss, or a challenging situation that’s far away, this step is rather easy. However, this step can be challenging at times, both at work and at home.
But it’s very important to do start with this step because engaging with the perceived cause of the emotion really fuels that emotion and can result in us saying or doing things we later regret. This step alone has saved many relationships from being ruined.
In the case of a difficult interaction with a colleague or family member, you might need to politely request some space by stating something like, “Please excuse me for a few minutes. I’d like to continue this discussion after I’ve had some time to reflect. Let’s resume at (name the time).”
You might need an hour, or a day, or longer, depending on the strength of the emotion. But if all you can realistically get is a few minutes, that’s better than nothing.
Wherever you go, it should someplace where no one will interact with you.
You can do Steps 2 and 3 either walking, standing, or sitting. For Step 4, sitting is best.
2. C = Control the breathing and name the emotion
A large body of research suggests that consciously controlling the breathing helps reduce the strength of unpleasant emotions and induce the relaxation response in the body.
Research conducted at UCLA by Matthew Lieberman suggests that objectively naming the emotion present in the body diminishes activity in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain largely responsible for creating the actual response in the body that we refer to as an “emotion.”
Whenever an unpleasant emotion is present, you can combine these two techniques to quickly reduce the strength of an emotion.
You can achieve this by stating the following words in your mind as you consciously breath in and out a little more slowly and gently for 5-10 breaths, “Breathing in, there is anger. Breathing out, letting the anger be.”
3. I = Investigate the emotion
This step takes the idea of “not ignoring or trying to change an emotion” to another level. Now, you actually investigate the emotion, with the curiosity of a child, as though you are a scientist researching your own body.
You no longer need to consciously control the breathing. But you should use the breath as a timer for how long you apply the awareness of the emotion.
Your only goal should be to investigate the emotion for the duration of one, natural in-breath, and then again for one out-breath. You could ask the following questions to guide your awareness.
What is the emotion actually like? Where do you notice it most? Are there any other places you notice the emotion? How is the emotion changing?
Although you’re not trying to change the emotion, if you perform Steps 2 and 3 as described, you will notice that emotion transforms more quickly than when the steps are not applied.
I recommend staying with the process of investigation, one breath at a time, until you notice that the unpleasant emotion is no longer present and you either feel a neutral or pleasant emotional state.
4. L = Look deeply at reality
For Step 4, if you’re not sitting already, I recommend sitting and continuing to be aware of the body, one breath at a time.
Without losing awareness of the body sitting and breathing, you can now investigate your thinking, which is the true cause of unpleasant emotions.
Intellectually, we all know that what happens to us is not the cause of our emotions. Our thinking about what happens to us causes our emotions.
Step 4 helps us transform this from intellectual knowledge or theory, which doesn’t help us, into wisdom. Wisdom is what gradually starts to prevent the recurrence of the unpleasant emotion you just experienced, and eventually reduce the strength of or prevents more and more of the unpleasant, unproductive emotional reactions you have.
To begin investigating your thinking, continue to be aware of the body sitting and breathing and, in your mind, ask the question, “Is there any thinking now?”
You don’t need to answer the question. Just hold that questioning attitude in mind without losing awareness of your body sitting and breathing. (If you get pulled into your thinking and notice the unpleasant emotion arising again, return to Step 3 until the emotion passes).
If you stick with this for a moment or two, you’ll begin to see your thinking quite objectively, as though you are watching the thoughts go by on a TV screen, or listening to a voice on a radio. You may even clearly see the moment a thought disappears.
This practice helps you to see the connection between thinking and the emotions the thinking creates. You can see that even when you’re alone in a safe place, with nothing happening to you, your thinking can cause an unpleasant emotion to arise. This wisdom gradually helps you to engage with people who you used to perceive as the cause of an unpleasant emotion because you know that they are not actually the cause. Your thinking is the cause.
This practice also helps you to see that your thinking is not you. You can see thinking very objectively, as though your thinking is a TV or radio show. The more clearly you see this and the more often you see this, the less power your thinking will have to create unpleasant emotions.
With practice, these four steps become easier. Gradually it will take less and less time for you to “let go” by realizing freedom from your reactions to what happens to you. You might eventually find that what used to take days or weeks to “let go of” only takes a few minutes.
How much happier and more productive could you be if you were be free from unpleasant emotional reactions in minutes instead of hours, or days, or weeks?
Matt Tenney is the author of The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule and Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom. To connect with Matt, visit www.MattTenney.com.