Letting Go…without giving up.

“ Just let it go” is common advice that often rings as defeatism. But when it’s done knowingly and strategically, letting go can be not just a pragmatic choice, but also a powerful one. 

Try as we might to stay calm, today’s workplace can be a contentious, even combative place. Typical advice on how to deal with this falls roughly into two categories: “Tough it out” and “Let it go.”

“Tough it out” appeals to the pride we take in our individual strength and self-reliance. In the USA, it fits our national narrative of rugged, tough-guy heroism. As a former Marine, I’m aware of how invigorating and useful that narrative can be. But it can also lead us astray–away from our teammates at work and our friends and family beyond.

By contrast, “let it go” can seem conformist and weak, like getting out of the line of fire (equivalent to “duck and cover”). It may feel like defeat, but often appears to be the best option when our output–and even our jobs–are on the line.

Also (and ironically) much business wisdom on letting go proclaims how difficult it can be. That’s because its authors assume we must think our way out of emotionally charged situations. But actually, thinking without feeling can hold us back.

As physician, researcher and author Dr. David R. Hawkins said:

Thoughts are like bait to a fish. If we bite at them, we get caught. 

And what we get caught in is “runaway negativity.” We all know the feeling. It occurs when emotions spark thousands of thoughts in our conscious minds, sparking regrettable reactions. And over time, those thoughts get amplified. They can bog us down emotionally and physically, keep us stuck, and create a disabling sense of helplessness.

Let me reiterate: It’s the thoughts we associate with feelings–not the feelings themselves–that tend to overwhelm us.

So handling an emotional crisis from an emotional perspective instead of an intellectual perspective–feeling instead of thinking–can dramatically shorten its duration.*

Where thoughts breed. In their breakthrough study, Doctors William Gray and Paul LaViolette discovered that thoughts are sorted and stored in the mind according to levels of intensity they call “feeling tones.” Physical sensations connected with intense situations generate stronger feeling tones, along with protective thought strategies like blaming.**

The secret to positive, powerful letting go. First, become aware of both physical feelings–such as stiffness, tightness, and jitters–as well as emotional ones, like frustration, fear and embarrassment.

Of course, physical sensations and emotions can be so closely entwined that telling them apart can be tricky. (Try this body scan to experience both physical and emotional relaxation.)

We focus on physical feelings because they direct us to effect positive, permanent change in our stress levels, attitudes and response patterns.

Here’s how: When physical sensations come up, and we acknowledge instead of suppressing, repressing or trying to escape from them, we take a big first step beyond negativity.

Suppression, repression, escaping: Oh my! These are widespread, but potentially unhealthy, responses to unpleasant feelings.

Blaming others may be humanity’s favorite tactic for avoiding unpleasant feelings. By focusing on someone else, we sidestep responsibility for our discomfort by making it about someone else. We do this to delay the unaccustomed challenge of facing our emotions.

Instead of resisting, acknowledge. When we resist our feelings, they tend to intensify.

“But wait!” you might say. “What if I feel like setting my desk on fire?”

Of course, you wouldn’t do that. But you might roll your eyes, shout, storm out of the room, or seethe for hours.

Instead, you could lighten your feelings by taking a moment to engage in the letting go process below.

The 3 Steps to Letting Go. 

Here’s an easy path to strategic, powerful letting go. It takes just a few seconds. It can avert an avalanche of self-defeating thoughts. It helps you maintain your self-control, clarity, creativity and communication skill: all important to have at hand in any stressful situation.

Imagine yourself approaching a latched gate. Picture its material, its hinges, and its latch mechanism.

Step 1: Study the gate’s components, i.e., recognize your feelings. Look for both kinds of feelings (physical and emotional). When you notice an unpleasant emotion–e.g., anger, embarrassment, disgust–note your body’s reaction. Where does the feeling create discomfort? Maybe your jaw tightens, your stomach lurches, or your legs feel shaky or weak.

Conversely, you might notice a physical sensation first. Make note of where the feeling is and how you might describe it (e.g., sudden, stabbing, dull, hot). What emotion do you associate with that sensation?

To explore the relationship between your physical and emotional feelings, try this body scan.

Step 2: Put your hand on the latch, i.e., focus on feelings, not thoughts. Acknowledge your feelings respectfully and patiently, without judging them. Stay with the feelings themselves (“Hey there, Anxiety. I feel you in my right shoulder again”), not the thoughts you might associate with them.

Why? Because stress-driven thoughts tend to be negative, and they multiply fast–hence the avalanche effect.

Also, thoughts are how we resist our feelings when we could easily, effectively handle them and move on.

Step 3: Open the latch, i.e., release the feeling. This is the opposite of pushing a feeling away. When you simply release feelings without effort, they tend to dissolve naturally. They disappear from our consciousness without nasty after-effects.

This is freedom. It’s liberating, restorative and revitalizing. By repeating this simple practice, we learn to function instinctively in graceful, constructive, healthy ways every day.

So let’s get started! Practice letting go daily, and as needed, to remind you how easy, powerful and liberating letting go can be.

* “Letting Go, The Pathway of Surrender” by David R. Hawkins, Hay House, Inc. 2012

** “Feeling Tone Theory,” Gray and LaViolette, 1982. Feeling tone theory offers insights into understanding how we form creative thoughts. It synthesizes William Gray’s emotional-cognitive structure theory and Paul LaViolette’s emotional-perceptive cycle theory. In 1983, Gray and LaViolette applied the creativity-stimulating principles of feeling tone theory at Hughes Aircraft Corporation. Resulting savings were estimated at more than $40 million.