Letting Go

Letting Go

“By the end of the day, I feel frazzled and chock full of pent up feelings and thoughts. I don’t want to let all that out on my kids or my partner – and I hate it when I do – so do you know any ways to get rid of this stuff without exploding?!”

It’s really normal to feel like you describe. A parent is dealing with so many feelings and needs and wants in their children and partner that the stress builds up over the course of a day. Plus many people have been taught in various ways to keep a stiff upper lip and not to say anything that seems like a complaint – which just keeps things bottled up and festering.

Of course, it is important to be able to say what needs to be said to your partner or to your kids or to other people. But it’s always also helpful to be able to let go of painful feelings, thoughts, stress, or tension entirely within your own mind. Plus, you can adapt these skills for your children, from the age of preschoolers onward, which will be very, very helpful to them.

Here’s a summary of practical methods for letting go.

Relaxing Your Body

It is almost impossible to be upset when your body is relaxed. Try one of these relaxation skills, even in the middle of a challenging situation:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply while imagining that tension is leaving your body with each breath.
  • Try to inhale and exhale for the same amount of time (e.g., inhale for a count of four, exhale for four). Imagine that the breath is going in and out of the region of your heart. Meanwhile, recall or think about things that give you an appreciative, grateful, loving feeling. (For more on this simple but powerful technique, check out the books from the HeartMath Institute in Santa Cruz.)
  • For a young child, a little trick that will help her breathe deeply is to ask her to exhale fully and then hold the exhalation for a couple of seconds – when she inhales, she’ll naturally take a big breath.
  • Deliberately relax certain trigger points, such as the jaw muscles, pelvic floor, or the “third eye” between the eyebrows.
  • Recall or imagine a very happy, peaceful scene.

You can deepen your capacity to relax when the fur starts flying by practicing relaxation techniques at calmer times, like right before bed:

  • Systematically put your attention on each major part of your body, starting with your feet and working up to your head. If it helps, think a phrase like “relax,” or “locate a point” for your left foot, right foot, left ankle, right ankle . . . all the way up to your scalp.
  • Tense your muscles for about five seconds and then relax completely.
  • Imagine that you are v-e-r-y heavy, sinking more and more deeply into your bed.
  • Imagine that your hands are very warm, like holding a cup of hot cocoa (this one is especially good for insomnia).

For kids, bedtime is a great time to train them in these techniques, since they’ll put up with more mumbo-jumbo to keep you in the room. The point is that you will initially take them through some of the methods above, and then over time you will expect them increasingly to use the methods themselves at night – as well as during the day, in real-life situations.

Releasing Painful Feelings

Yes, life has its share of suffering, and we are certainly not suggesting that you resist difficult feelings or suppress them. Instead, we’re talking about simply helping them on their way.

  • In a way that’s safe, vent – and there are a variety of options. You could really let it rip about how you feel in a letter that you’ll destroy after it’s written; perhaps burn it in a ritualistic way, scattering the ashes far and wide, letting all the feelings go as you do so. Or tell a trusted friend, with the crucial intention of getting it off your chest and getting rid of it, rather than getting more worked up. Or imagine ranting and yelling inside your own mind. Or yell out loud while in the shower, on top of a mountain, underwater, or while driving a car (stay in control of the car!!!).
  • Sense the feelings draining out of your body, perhaps as if there were tiny valves at the tips of each finger and toe.
  • Exhale the feelings with each breath, visualizing them as smoggy clouds leaving your body.
  • Imagine the feelings being swept away by standing in a cool and refreshing stream on a beautiful, sunny day.
  • Imagine putting the feelings into a jar and tossing it into a river to be carried off to the sea, or placing them on a rocket ship blasting off to be burned up in the sun.

Saying Good-bye to Negative Thoughts

With this method, you get on your own side and argue against needlessly negative, limiting, or inaccurate thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and assumptions. On paper or in your head, you need to talk to yourself – and it’s the opposite of crazy!

A structured approach is to treat the thoughts that make you (or a child) upset as propositions that may or may not be true, and then list three or more ways that they are totally wrong. Try to see which of these classic mental errors might apply: treating a small problem like a big one, regarding a temporary situation as permanent, underestimating your own abilities, overestimating the scale or the likelihood of the challenge, or forgetting about resources in your world.

For example, if an 8-year-old is afraid that bad guys could break into your home, together come up with a list like this one: All our windows and doors are locked. Your bedroom is next to ours. I’m a real light sleeper. There’s never been a burglary in our neighborhood. We leave a light on. Crooks look for easy targets, not houses like ours. The dogs next door bark at anything, and they’d sure scare a burglar away. Besides, we’re not rich, and burglars go where the big jewels are: we don’t have anything they want!

Or for an adult, suppose that childcare has fallen apart yet again for a parent, and they have to take a day off of work to deal with it, and they’ve got a dreadful feeling it’ll never work out. To feel better, they could remind themselves that: There are lots of childcare situations out there, and one of them has to work. I’ve found decent childcare in the past, and I’ll find it again. Meanwhile, maybe my parent can take care of my daughter for a few days. Time will pass, and we’ll get through this. The important thing is to keep going, to love my sweet girl, and be loved by her as well.

You get the idea. This method works best when you do it in a structured and determined way. Give it a try!

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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