Let go: How to stop past issues from holding you back

Holding on to negative emotions can get in the way of your happiness. Here, experts explain why it’s important to let go, and how.

Deep into Melbourne’s second lockdown, founder of The Resilience Project Hugh van Cuylenburg was offering advice during a chat on live radio, when presenter Dave Hughes asked if he was OK.

“No I’m not. I’m totally and utterly broken,” Hugh replied, surprising even himself.

With countless people turning to the resilience expert for advice on how to cope with the pandemic, Hugh suddenly realised he was really struggling.

Why we hold on to emotions

A few weeks later, Hugh started seeing a psychologist and began to realise he was struggling to let go of problems that had plagued him long before Covid-19 hit.

Holding on to past emotions is common, according to psychologist Associate Professor Vikki Knott.

“We tend to get especially hooked on those thoughts and memories where maybe we did something that we regretted, or we behaved in a way that wasn’t consistent with who we like to think we are,” Assoc Prof Knott says.

The problem is, if we get too stuck on those thoughts, we start to ruminate on them and they can start to feel much bigger, she says.

Common emotions that weigh us down

Through his own experiences, detailed in his new book, Let Go, Hugh began to identify the issues holding him back: feelings of shame, expectation, perfection, control, fear of failure, ego and addiction to social media.

He realised what he was going through wasn’t unique.

“The longer the lockdowns went, the more Covid strangled the human spirit, I just kind of felt the things I was struggling (to let go of) were universal,” Hugh says.

Hugh hopes his candid storytelling in Let Go will encourage others to explore their own problems that might be contributing to unhelpful thoughts and unhappiness.

Hugh van Cuylenberg

Why being vulnerable is the key to letting go

Vulnerability, which Hugh describes as a superpower, is in his view the key to genuinely confronting our emotional snags.

“Before you can let go of shame, expectation, control, perfection, ego, fear of failure, or whatever it is that’s holding you back, you have to let down your guard,” he writes in Let Go.

“You have to be prepared to be vulnerable.

“From a psychological point of view, vulnerability is simply the ability to take an emotional risk.”

Leading international researcher and author Professor Brene Brown says emotional vulnerability should be celebrated as a strength and seen as a trait of courage, rather than weakness.

Her book The Power of Vulnerability explains when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we find the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.

How being kind to yourself can help you let go

Regardless of what our issues are, the emotional baggage we have often comes from within.

Hugh urges people to be more compassionate with themselves.

“We’ve got to remember that we’re not perfect – we stuff up all the time.”

He suggests speaking to yourself in the way you would to a friend, to help you let go of your super-high expectations.

Hugh believes we all carry some form of shame – for him it was going AWOL when he was a teenager and his sister was sick.

“It was too much for me. I was 18 and I went to my girlfriend’s house every single day, and I’ve always felt like a bad person for that,” Hugh says.

He says learning to separate his actions from himself as a person and empathising with his 18-year-old self helped him let go of his shame, as well as talking about it with others.

Strategies to let go of our issues

There are a number of approaches to help reshape our attitude to the issues weighing us down.

Assoc Prof Knott suggests a strategy known as “dropping anchor”, created by author Dr Russ Harris as part of his work on acceptance and commitment therapy.

This involves:

  • Acknowledging your thoughts and feelings: Rather than trying to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, just gently focus on whatever thought you’re having.
  • Come back into your body: Move your arms and legs.
  • Engage in what you’re doing: Focus on what you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste.

Assoc Prof Knott says this strategy is handy when battling an emotional storm.

“A bit like when a boat is out to sea and it’s in a storm, the anchor’s going to keep it stable, so this is really a stabilisation technique.”

Hugh believes practising mindfulness is useful for managing any emotion that’s difficult to shift.

“Mindfulness isn’t the skill of going, ‘I’m going to be present for the next hour’.

“That’s not it. It’s the skill of when you notice you’re not present, you bring yourself back,” he says.

Hugh says he doesn’t sit with “legs crossed on a beach making weird noises” but simply walks around the block and listens – to the wind in the trees, the birds and the dog’s footsteps.

Written by Larissa Ham.