You Can't Just "Let It Go":
What I've Learned As a Psychotherapist

You can't just "let it go"
A husband dies and a widow is left in her grief. A mother is psychotic and fills her child with the undeniable fact that the child's sole purpose in life is to live for the mother. For the thousandth time, a teenage boy asks his parents for something fair and is curtly told no, and for the thousandth time, he walks away invisible and defeated. A weary 53-year-old woman has no money, no skills, and a husband she hates who has money and skills. A 13-year-old looks in the mirror and sees the ugliness of her body weight that the kids have been taunting her about for the past 6 years.

Think of these people and others like them, and although I'm not a gambling man, I would bet you one thing: Within one year, each of these people has heard someone say, "Just let it go! Just let it go!" Before this paper is over, I hope to convince you that to say, "Just let it go" is another mark of our daily, ordinary insanity. In fact, almost every time I hear someone say, "Just let it go," I think of it as a minor tragedy.

Now I could come at this simply from a language perspective. Notice how you can put the word "just" before any amazing, difficult thing:

  • "Just get on a tightrope and walk over Niagra Falls."
  • "Just go in and demand a raise from your boss."
  • "Just tell your wife you cheated on her."

I could just simply say that "just" should be removed from our vocabulary. Instead, I want to come at this from what I've learned from 10 years of being a psychotherapist.

I believe I have learned a great deal from the immense, holy privilege of sitting with people as they describe their inner world of pain, secrets, joys, agonies, ideals, disappointments, and hopes. I have learned far more, of course, than I can say, but today, I want to just say one thing: You can't just let it go. That is what I have learned, and here is why:

If you sit for a while with the widow in her grief, the trapped wife, the young man who was always refused, the woman who lives for her mother, and the teenager who knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is ugly, you will eventually (if you do not condemn them) get to hear that they have an inner world, whose broken reality is as powerful as the brokenness of diabetes, a torn hamstring, or a broken femur. If you sit for a while with these people, you will discover that their inner landscape is filled with realities as powerful as the realities of the earth, sea, and sky.

The widow in her grief is filled with an emptiness the size of the Grand Canyon. The young man never heard is as unseen as the fish at the bottom of the sea—and he expects a "no" just as much as the fish expects darkness. The married woman is in a trap that feels as imprisoning as Green Haven to an inmate, and even though the walls don't look as gray and thick in her bungalow, the walls in her mind are as imposing as the walls in Stormville. The teenage girl is dazed by the spell of the children's teasing as is a driver making his way through the London fog. The woman taught to live only for her mother does it with the certainty and obedience with which salmon swim upstream.

A concise way to put all this is to say that people have character, and the Latin word for character comes from the word "rock." You can't just let go of a rock. It takes time, skill, effort, and dynamite to move rock. Another way to put all this is to say that our grief, fear, tragic obedience, and crazy viewpoints are rocks, flowers, mud, grass, and lakes that fill us internally—and to move them too quickly risks a landslide. If there is a landslide, we risk the emptiness of psychosis.

It is my conviction that we therapists, ministers, and help workers of various sorts—particularly those who write self-help books—often forget the daze of London fog inside the highways of our souls. This has more consequences that I can name, but I will name some of them.

The most serious consequence of our mistaken viewpoint is that we do not accurately assess what people are up against, and thus we lead the already well-blamed victims to feel even weaker, more stupid, and inhuman. For example, take the notion of secondary gain. It is a basic, wise therapeutic viewpoint that teaches therapists to look for the benefit in the pathology or (to use therapeutic terms) the pleasure of the sin. In my opinion, we have so emphasized this point that the victims will often say long before the therapist does, "Well, I guess I must want to live this way."

In light of our emphasis on people wanting their illnesses, I think we should invite William Safire or the composers of the Oxford English Dictionary to come up with 2 definitions of want. Want #1 would be the clear, precise wants we all have, as in "I want a piece of watermelon. I do not want lima beans." Want #2 should be reserved for the murky, unfair, unjust, confused, ambivalent wants, as in "I want to stay with my jerk of a husband inside these prison walls because I am absolutely convinced that I will be a bag lady on the street if I walk out these doors." In the latter, the choice is between overcooked lima beans and undercooked lima beans—and should we be really using the word "want" as in watermelon want?

If we do not change our language to reflect a wiser understanding, we continue to describe people's unconscious world as if it has a clarity and intentionality that does not feel very close to how the person feels. Then we as ministers and therapists will not come close to conveying the seductive and confusing spell of illusions, addictions, and cherished ambitions. In my opinion, this is why most discussion of President Clinton's behavior was so shrill and self-righteous—we refuse to see what the Bible openly acknowledges as the "deceitfulness of sin." We forget Homer's warning about the power of the Siren song to pull our ship into the rocks.

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