I often write about how essential it is for perfectionists and compulsives to let go of unimportant details and stubborn clinging. Too often we get caught up in rules, schedules, unrealistic goals of perfection, and rigid ideas, and lose track of what’s really satisfying.
A related danger is that instead of letting go in a healthy, positive way, we end up giving up. Giving up has a negative edge and can lead to a pretty miserable existence. Rather than really letting go, giving up holds a grudge.
But when things feel really bad, it can be hard to distinguish giving up from letting go. While it’s completely understandable, the consequences for taking the wrong path can be painful.
Giving up is what Buddhists call a near enemy: a way of thinking or behaving that looks skillful, but is actually harmful.
When we give up, we abandon hope. Giving up leads to cynicism and a proudly miserable existence. The thinking–conscious or unconscious–goes something like this: “I’m too smart now to hope that things could be the way they should be. I know better.”
When we give up we stop caring. Compulsives care too much, and not caring so much may feel like a relief. At first. It’s that Near Enemy thing.
You may rationalize that giving up is actually making progress toward a more balanced life. But it’s really just swinging to the opposite extreme.
Giving up puts nothing worthwhile in place of what you’re giving up, and it may leave you feeling empty. This may be the reason that when many people give up they substitute drugs or drinking or overeating as consolation prizes, compensation for having to surrender something they had valued.
The Results of Giving Up
Giving up can lead to victim mentality. Consciously or unconsciously we may broadcast a message: “I want you to know how badly the world has treated me, that it won’t listen to me, and I’ll show you with my misery.”
Giving up plops down in a childish tantrum. It’s passive aggressive, and can hurt both us and those around us. It’s a way of expressing anger that things aren’t the way we think they should be.
And compulsives have some pretty rigid ideas about the way things should be. “If things aren’t going to be the way I think they should be, I’m checking out.”
The pay-off for this is short-lived. Giving up eventually leads to depression.
If we’ve clung to something that’s hurt us, letting go of it is skillful and a relief. When we let go we release an idea, a person, or an object that didn’t fit with us, and we return to a state that feels more organic. (I gave some examples of this in my last post about dealing with perceived chaos.)
But letting go may require mourning, grieving the loss of something that had been important to us, or at least seemed to be. Letting go may make us sad, but it should not be depressing. Ultimately, grieving moves us forward.
Maybe things aren’t going to be the way we think they should be, but that doesn’t mean they will be terrible. Maybe they will even be better. Maybe it was overzealous to try to get the world to bend to our control and achieve perfection.
The Results of Letting Go
Letting go has a much different feeling: Released, not resigned. Restored, not reduced. It brings hope. It feels more like liberation than pushing away.
Letting go returns us to a more natural state of being rather than carrying around something that’s been a burden, even if it was gratifying at times.
Letting go moves us closer to where we actually want to be: happy and productive, rather than miserably banging our head against the wall of reality.
Lester Can’t Let Go
Take Lester. His girlfriend Janis left him just as he was turning 38. Something about his being too rigid and controlling. She’d told him before but he could never understand what she was talking about. He just knew what worked and what didn’t, and so he always told her what she should do. What was wrong with that?
He hadn’t expected Janis to leave, and he had a really hard time letting go of the relationship. He obsessed first about why she would want to leave when he did everything for her. Then he obsessed about how awful she really was. Sloppy. Out-of-control. Emotionally reactive. Then he obsessed about what he could possibly have done wrong.
Lester Gives Up
Since he couldn’t let go he eventually gave up. This was the second time a woman had left this way. As hard as he tried to be a good partner, they never appreciated what he did for them. “This is really stupid. I might as well just give up hope on having a relationship and quit trying. I can just buy sex when I want it. It’s so much simpler.”
But he didn’t just give up on finding a girlfriend. He gave up on people.
And why not? People are unreliable. They don’t show up. They don’t do what they say they’re going to do. It seemed to him like the best thing he could do was to isolate as much as possible. Put up the brick wall and get as comfortably numb as possible.
Sadly, this led him to being a curmudgeonly, misanthropic and disdainful reclusive who knew better than everyone else.
But isolation is a painful way to live and he began to get very depressed. What had been light drinking became problem drinking. He became suicidal. He knew he was in trouble and sought help.
Recovery from such a serious situation is not simple, and takes time and work. But here are some of the main things Lester did that can serve as examples for others.
How to Let Go
- Grieve what is lost.
- The girlfriends were gone. There was no getting them back. He came to appreciate what he had taken for granted about them and relationships in general
- Recognize the passing nature of disappointment and distinguish it from permanent, global disaster.
- Things hadn’t work out as Lester had hoped with his girlfriend, but that didn’t mean good things wouldn’t come his way eventually.
- Recognize any old anger or hurt beneath the disappointment.
- Lester had to let go of the resentment he had held for not being appreciated. That resentment wasn’t helping him. He also had to face much older hurts from his family rather than covering them over.
- Understand what you were trying to achieve by holding on.
- Lester had to ask himself, “what was so important that made me feel I had to control them?” He eventually concluded that while his ideas were valid, he clung to them so adamantly because he needed the security, and the identity, of being the guy that knew what was right. He did have values and energy to offer. He just had to stop clobbering people with them.
- Accept some risk. Vulnerability is essential for a good life.
- There were no guarantees that he wouldn’t get disappointed again, but being disappointed was not nearly as bad as being so depressed. He acknowledged that giving up was too depressing, and that even though people could be jerks at times, he couldn’t live totally alone.
- Embrace something more fulfilling.
- He came to appreciate not being depressed, and being even mildly happy again seemed like something he could put in place of being in control all the time. He sought roles where his advice was welcomed, and used it sparingly.
- Grieve what is lost.
Attitude is Everything: The Good Sacrifice
Letting go may feel like it’s something we should do. Like eating vegetables. It may feel like sacrifice. And sometimes we do need to sacrifice something to feel better. But most of us reject the idea of sacrifice because it reeks of the worst aspects of religion and ritual.
Still, there’s a different way of looking at this.
Sacrifice used to denote “to make sacred.” When you sacrifice something in the right spirit, there is meaning in the loss. You do it knowing that it will get you closer to something of far greater value.
Shutting Down Hope vs. Remaining Open to Other Possibilities
We all want to give up at times and often do so for short periods of time before we regain some perspective and open up again–if we don’t we block the possibility of what we had hoped for.
Much of the literature I love portrays the real disappointments of life in a real world. It describes how the protagonist had imagined they could only be happy if things went just as they planned. But after these particular hopes are dashed, the protagonist still finds something of value that he or she hadn’t expected.
But that can happen only if we let go and remain open. Not if we give up.