Let’s talk about letting go.
As a yoga instructor and practicer of pretty much all things “woo woo,” within my sphere phrases like “let go of your limiting beliefs” or “let go of what no longer serves you” have all but broken the internet as we enter into a new year.
It’s not that it’s bad advice, it’s just incomplete.
What doesn’t fit in that highly regrammable refrain is a lot of very important information. Things are presented as if it is possible to simply will ourselves into a new life, as if the brain is the only part of the decision making, and that isn’t wholly the case. Of course determination and diligence have a place in that process, but beneath the surface of the ‘just let it go’ leaning is an entirely overlooked framework for why we sometimes can’t.
Patterns, habits, conditionings, beliefs, programmings are not just mental phenomena. We, as human beings are not only our minds and our thoughts. We are a complex matrix of muscle and bone and nerve and facia and emotion and energy and all of those are also impacted and shaped by our experience. The nervous system, in all of its incredibly intelligent, life-preserving majesty, has made choices for our survival that, like our beliefs, we can outgrow.
Collapsing in the face of confrontation, for example, is a completely skillful protective measure for a child with very little agency in a challenging environment. But as that child grows into adulthood, that physiological response that was once so supportive, begins to restrict and resist the very growth opportunities that would bring about a more fulfilling life; such as being able to stand up for and defend ourselves when necessary, stating needs or boundaries without immediately backpedaling, or sharing our voice and vision with others. If hiding kept us safe, then opening up to fuller versions of ourselves may actually be perceived by our survival instincts as a threat. And when under threat, the nervous system will protect us the best way it knows how, ie whatever has proven the most successful strategy up to this point.
And that is one reason New Year’s resolutions often struggle past the first month, and why growing into a bigger life can sometimes be met with what looks like self-sabotage. It isn’t because people are inherently lazy or unmotivated or incapable. It’s because, in addition to the mental remodeling, we also need to understand and renegotiate the landscape of the nervous system. Committing to shift an outdated story is a tremendous gift that we give to ourselves and to the world, but it only addresses one part of how we heal and is often relied upon to carry the full weight of our work. Which is like rock climbing with a string, it may get you off the ground but it wont take you very far.
In the same way that we have to grow up our narrative, we also have to grow up our nervous system.
Can we meet and appreciate the parts of ourselves that have kept us alive through countless struggles and very real pain, and slowly introduce the possibility of a new way? As we address and work with our subtler systems, we begin to weave together the multifaceted threads of our personhood, and it is then that we can begin to effect real and sustainable transformation in our lives.
Cheers to a new year and to our individual + collective (un)becoming.