It rarely feels good when people tell us to “lighten up.” And the exact opposite usually happens. We’re more likely to tighten our grip and bear down harder than heed such unsolicited advice.
But despite people’s intentions when they tell us to lighten up or loosen up, there’s a lot of wisdom in those sayings.
Whenever we feel anger, frustration, resentment, embarrassment, guilt, shame, or (insert your favorite emotion here), we tend to grasp at it. We don’t just recognize our emotional response. We don’t just feel the feelings and let them go. No, we grab them and hold them tightly for safety like stuffed teddy bears that arm us against the dark and scary night.
We tend to cling to our feelings and let them run rampant throughout our system, hijacking our otherwise rational thoughts and otherwise functional organs.
Then, we wonder why we have headaches, digestion issues, stiff necks, and aching backs. We wonder why we can’t sleep, can’t focus, and can’t find the motivation to do what brings us joy.
Maybe we do need to lighten up. Maybe we need to loosen our grip on those feelings and just allow ourselves to feel them without making them who we are.
We feel anger. We don’t have to be anger. But the tighter we grasp at anger, the more we identify with it, and the more it consumes our being.
Same with sadness, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.
We latch onto such feelings until we can no longer separate them from ourselves. And then we get so disoriented that it becomes so easy to blame everything external for our unfortunate emotional state. Our feelings quickly become everyone else’s responsibility since they’re the ones who initiated them.
We know we’re responsible for our own feelings. We know that we’re the only ones who can truly control our thoughts and emotions — which can get pretty heavy and overwhelming. So, sometimes it’s easier to give up than do the hard work to process them in a helpful way.
But eventually, our inaction catches up with us and we find ourselves buried within a heap of emotions, unable to breathe let alone reach out an arm to hoist ourselves up. It’s like leaving dirty dishes in the sink for a week and having to set aside an hour to clean up the mess, instead of just washing things quickly after we dirty them. Letting a small task go unattended leads to a big pile that we later need to put in a great deal of effort to correct.
Managing feelings is like doing the dishes. If we process them bit by bit, they’re less likely to become a mound that’s more difficult to dismantle.
Though some things like dishes require a good grip to prevent slippage, our feelings do not. We do not need to hold onto feelings for fear of losing or breaking them. If we let go of a dish, it may shatter, and then we’re without a plate. If we let go of a feeling, it disintegrates, and then we’re without its suffering.
So, let’s drop our emotional dishes and let them shatter into pieces. Let’s loosen up our grip so that our feelings can unravel and free themselves from our grasp. Or to summarize what Aldous Huxley wrote in his novel, Island: let’s lighten up, my darlings.