“Let It Go” Is Not Always The Best Advice

I saw a meme on Instagram a few weeks ago. It was one of those old-fashioned-typewriter ones, with messily typed words on a white page, and it said “most people never heal because they stay in their own heads, replaying corrupted scenarios. Let it go”.

I thought “yes!”. I thought “replaying corrupted scenarios? Every hour of every day, mate.” I thought “no wonder I don’t ever feel fully healed.” I thought “yes, that advice to let it go is absolutely spot on. All this time, it’s been as simple as that! Thanks, internet meme, you’ve sorted my life right out.”

Then I realized quite quickly that the meme had no instruction book attached. I could see that without any advice on how to, in fact, actually let it go — whatever “it” might be, depending on the day of the week or hour of the day — then nothing would actually change for me, despite my illuminating meme-induced moment of insight.

Back to the drawing board.

The ways in which I believe I’ve got things wrong in my life — and the corrupt scenarios I replay in my head as a result — are legion.   And a lot of them, I know, are variations on themes that trouble every woman.

I worry that I chose the wrong career, that I’m not putting enough effort into the career I did choose, or then that I’m putting too much effort into it and neglecting more creative pursuits. I wonder, often, whether I should have prioritized different things when I was younger.

I fret that I have not been a sufficiently demonstrative mother, that I’m not soft enough. I’m worried that I am not patient enough as a mother, either, and I don’t have half as much motherly intuition as I ought to. I believe I’ve sighed and snapped more than I’ve cuddled and cossetted.

As a wife, too, I’ve got many things wrong on the micro-level and the macro. I have been unsupportive and dismissive about things when I should have stepped up, and I’ve been smothering with unrequited concern when my help and advice weren’t needed.

And — and these concerns are unique to me, these ones are not universal — in my case, I live with the knowledge that I’ve been a cheat and that I’ve lied. Those are the facets of my history I dwell on the most. Those corrupted scenarios are the ones I replay most often in my not-yet-fully-healed head. And not always when I’m awake, either.

Over the past year, with more time available for me to wallow and fret in general (a favourite hobby, it seems, given how much priority my brain naturally affords it), I’ve been gripped by intermittent dreams of such vivid intensity that I’ve woken up tired even when I’ve been asleep for many hours.

In these dreams I’m always somehow existing in twisted versions of my waking reality, ones in which I know I’ve done something terrible but nebulous, or I’m aware that something terrible has been done to me, or (a frequent contender) for reasons unclear to me I’m stuck somewhere, and the man I cheated with is there as well, and I have no way of explaining how it has happened and I know that no one will believe I didn’t intend to be there in the first place. Wherever “there” might be.

At first, I felt punished by these dreams. Why would my subconscious give me a night-time repeat of the guilty spirals my head sometimes plunges me into during the day? It seemed cruel as well as annoying.

What I realized over time though is that whenever I woke in a panicky sweat from one of these nocturnal rambles, my real life seemed like a cool bath of relief by contrast. I’d wake and expect a dream hangover, but that hangover never seemed to come. And curiously, I began to note that after a tortuous night, I’d feel calmer during the day, with fewer trips down Guilt Alley.

In a strange way that I didn’t want to prod at or examine too closely, it seemed the vivid dreams were actually healing me.

In the light of remembering that fact, and in view of the lack of clear instructions attached to the meme about letting it go, I decided to take a different approach to the guilt-based doom scroll my brain likes to put me through. What if, I wondered, this replaying of scenarios might not be as unhealthy as I thought? What if the very act of replaying them could be a form of mental healing?  

I changed my mindset to embrace this idea as much as possible. Now, when my head takes a turn down Guilt Alley, I don’t try frantically to backpedal and “let it go”. I’ve stopped telling myself that the topics I fret about are unproductive and should be banished. Instead, I’m trying to use the scenario-replays as triggers to change my behavior slightly.

So, if my brain takes me to a day of yore upon which I desperately wish I’d done something differently — said no to the man with whom I had an affair, for example, and gone home and made a cup of tea instead of breaking my marriage vows — I’ll go there.

I’ll accept that thinking about it won’t change any facts. I know that the past is the past and I said what I said back then, but I’ll take the chance to remind myself that if it happened again I would say no and that I was lucky to be allowed to learn the lesson. Fear of somehow still being the person I was is just as damaging as remembering the truth of how I behaved in the past — but the difference is that at least I can have an influence on the present.

The experiment I’m doing on my own thoughts is in its infancy so far, but early results seem positive. I have done a bit of reading around the topic, and it turns out that it has a name: reflective rumination. Crucially, it is different from brooding rumination (which involves dwelling too long and damagingly on a recollection of the past, rather than trying to heal from it). Brooding ruination is destructive. Reflective rumination, done right, can be healing even though it seems counter-intuitive.

It has, of course, occurred to me that other people may be paying slightly less attention than I did that day to collections of words on Instagram — to the eye-catching phrases that are designed to inspire but say very little. One way or another, though, that particular one seems to have helped me, even if it wasn’t in the way it might have been intended. Quite the reverse.

Basically, the next time a meme tells you to “let it go”, don’t self-flagellate if you discover an inability to do so. Maybe you’re not meant to let go yet.

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