A few summers ago, my family held a garage sale, which is often quite the production. Between my parents, my sisters and I, we have 4 separate households from which to sort through overstuffed closets and forgotten storage cabinets, hoping to find hidden treasures to add to the sale pile. I’m often surprised by just how much stuff we’re able to produce from those parts of our home we barely think about.
One of my contributions to the sale was a Keurig coffeemaker. I loved it when I first received it. But over the years, it had gone through some wear and tear. Coffee brewed from it didn’t taste as good, I could only use filtered water in the tank, and I had to reset the clock settings often due to a frequently tripped fuse in my home. I also noticed I had started drinking coffee less often, replacing it with a newfound love for tea.
Once, that Keurig was my lifeline. Working long days and early mornings created a serious need for coffee. But as I entered into a new career, I used it less and less until it just became another piece of stuff to sell in a garage sale. That coffeemaker sat on my counter for over a year with me barely using it before I realized it was time to give it up.
I got to thinking about how we cling not just to material items, but also to relational patterns, distorted thoughts about ourselves and our world, and defense mechanisms we learned in childhood that help us cope. Oftentimes, we start these behaviors or thought patterns because they work – they ease our pain or anxiety. They serve us in some way or another, meeting a need or a desire that we have difficulty fulfilling in a healthy way.
Before we know it, these habits become ingrained in our minds or in our daily practice and can develop into codependent relationships, depression, anxiety, addictions, or any number of difficulties in our lives. We can often look at these patterns and know they cause problems, but they can feel familiar and safe after being used for years.
In a different season of life, we needed these thoughts or behaviors to cope.
Think of a child who is physically abused by her parents when she speaks up to protect her brother from similar harm. We might expect that child to learn to stay silent and spend time alone in her room, avoiding interaction with her family. As she gets older, she may make herself feel better by turning to food, sex, perfectionism, or alcohol. These behaviors might have provided temporary relief for her then, but if they continued to be her only source of coping into adulthood, they could easily become addictive or problematic behaviors.
Maybe you’ve experienced a similar story. As a child, you may have learned to do what you needed to do to find ways to deal with the pain.
But these thoughts and behaviors might be holding you back and creating problems in your present-day life.
As adults, we have the opportunity to choose a different path, letting go of the old behaviors and stepping into newer ways to cope. Often, though, that process isn’t something that can happen overnight.
When I sold that hardly-used coffeemaker, it felt like I was cutting off an arm. I could think of about 100 reasons why I needed to keep it, and I almost felt physical pain at letting it go. But I needed to clear it out, to have more physical space and declutter my home.
If this is how I felt about a piece of junk I barely used anymore, how much more difficult is it to let go of the unhealthy ways we’ve dealt with pain in the past?
Sometimes, giving these up feels impossible.
Many times, these behaviors and thoughts are based on past experiences that are no longer threatening us now. It is important to learn how to let go of those things that are causing more frustration, pain, or harm than they’re worth.
But we can’t let go of these life patterns without filling that space with something different. We need to learn to adopt new behaviors and thoughts that fit in our current season of life. We need to get rid of the things that take up that mental and emotional space in order to make room for healthy self-care, more accurate views of ourselves and our world, and restored relationships.
What thoughts and behaviors are you clinging onto that helped you at a different season of life, but need to be let go of now?
Now I don’t think about my Keurig much. I drink coffee less often, avoiding the caffeine because I know how it affects my anxiety. I still find comfort in wrapping my two hands around a warm mug, but more often than not it’s filled with tea. While this material example is minor compared to changing old coping patterns, it’s reminding me to let go, to create space in my mind and heart for the things that I need in the phase of life I’m in right now.
This article was originally posted under the title "The Curious Difficulty of Letting Go" on January 26, 2017.
Are you in a season where letting go of past coping thoughts and behaviors feels impossible? Do you feel ready to let those patterns go, but you're unsure about how to get started? Have you tried different positive coping behaviors in the past, but none of them have worked? At Restored Hope, I want to help you on your journey of learning new ways of dealing with painful emotions so that you can lead a more vibrant and wholehearted life. I offer therapy at my office in Ann Arbor, where you can schedule your first appointment at 734.656.8191 or via email.