The Big Idea
Who hasn’t got baggage? And we are not talking about suitcases here! We are talking about the things that we each carry emotionally and psychologically day to day. You know the sort of thing?
We reckon that’s essentially impossible to go through life without some sh*t happening. Now this stuff has an impact: it shapes us and sometimes it can even define us and our life journeys – if we let it that is. Now we are not saying that you need to be able to just throw up your arms and forget about bad stuff. By now you will know from #The52Tips that this is just not how our brains work.
Some people might suggest that you to just bury your baggage, box it away in a corner of your mind. In our experience – both professionally and personally – this not only requires ongoing emotional energy to keep the ‘lid on’, it’s rarely if ever been a healthy long term solution. Baggage has a knack of finding a way of coming out and usually when its least convenient. Also, the effort of holding stuff in can set or interfere with our general way in which we see the world (our ‘frames of reference’ or paradigms) which then can also hinder our capacity and ability to see and pick up the better stuff in our lives.
Sometimes previous hurts, if worked through, can be reframed and be used for a force for good, as in righting wrongs. But when baggage festers it tends to get heavier, become toxic and destructive to our attempts of authentically gaining positive mindsets (#Tip23 – Time to Reframe).
In his book The Art of Being Brilliant, Andy Cope recalls a story of a colleague who caught a taxi in New York. The cab had to make a emergency stop as another driver cut him up complete with a single finger salute from the offending driver. The cabbie apparently just smiled and waved. Andy’s colleague asked why this hadn’t phased his driver. The cabbie explained how he saw some people as ‘dump trucks’ who couldn’t help dump their toxic outworking of their rubbish (baggage) onto others. His killer point was a challenge to all of us: despite the crap we go through it can be our choice if we pick up others’ rubbish (by reacting negatively to it) and when and how we let go of ours. Of course there is some stuff that rightly needs professional help to appropriately process and deal with. And, again, we are not saying you should or need to just forget about it. Also some stuff like illegal offences against us needs to be addressed and redressed – for instance abuse is not something to just let go of.
This got us thinking: how much time and energy do we spend keeping stuff in and holding a grudge which not only stops us moving on but stop us picking up what is better in our lives? Especially the relatively smaller stuff. This can be particularly tricky as so often the person we are most struggling to get to let go of stuff – let off the hook (forgive) – is ourselves…
What id we can learn, as a habit, to let some hurts and offences go before they become (more) toxic? A bit like for #Tip27, what ‘one defining thing’ have you never let go of? But if you could…. what could it mean for you? Research suggest that those that can let stuff go, as in forgiveness*, can at the very least expect longer and happier lives. Being able to ‘let it go’ should protect you against becoming a Mood Hoovers (#Tip28), freeing yourself and others to be more of who you want to be and get. In other words to ‘let it go’ should bring you more life.
*Forgiveness which is a very difficult concept for many – hence why we are using here ‘letting stuff go’ instead.
Got it…What’s the Science
Here at The52Project we have already come across the limitations (as well as fantastic abilities) of our brains. As wonderful bits of kit as they are they have some modes of working that limit what they, and so we, can actually do.
The first obvious one is ‘mental bandwidth’. George A. Miller’s often (mis)quoted 1956 paper called ‘The Magic Number Seven, Plus Minus Two’ suggests that we are limited at holding certain amount of information ‘in mind’ at any one time (short term memory). More recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists suggest that this is an optimistic number and people such as David Rock propose that actually we can probably only hold one complex thing or issue in mind at any one time. The issue is that hurt leads to embedded defensive behaviour on our part, this can also ‘run’ close to the surface if we are around stimuli and situations that provoke such a defence. This can mean that a big part of our bandwidth is taken up with ‘running’ these defence circuits. This is already reduces our capacity to attend to other things that might be important. It can also mean we gear up and hold our bodies on standby in a state of apprehensive readiness to defend ourselves. But this is a stressed state. This in itself puts a cardiovascular pressure (stress) on our bodies, which if is frequent or common is not good for us. For starters, a chronic excess of stress hormone cortisol leads to a poorer immune system and a greater likelihood of developing depression and anxiety.
Also we know that the brain only has a certain amount of ‘attentional bandwidth’, we can find it difficult to fully focus on tasks if our attention is split or we are distracted. This gets even narrower when we are threatened, or feel threatened as blood is diverted from our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) to our body’s muscles so that it can be ready to Fight, Flight, Freeze or Flock. This itself can lead to accidents and errors as our diminished attentional capacity means we miss things – including good things and positive opportunities too.
IF a hurt means that we have learned to appropriately fear and prepare for action in a situation, that of course can be useful in the short term. Unfortunately hurt can all too often cloud our judgement of what is important and really going on – this can be the start of obsessive and ruminating (going round and around / over and over) thoughts that leads to acute anxiety and phobias – which in turn demand even more of our finite bandwidth. Again we are NOT saying that is necessarily your fault. Also, some hurts are objectively ‘legitimate’ – like again abuse.
So if we hold onto some hurts (especially relatively minor ones like being cut up on the road) then we are more likely to give this importance (salience) and we also train our brain to look out for and ‘see’ more of those kinds of threats (thanks again to our Reticular Activating System). This in turn can mean we ‘see’ (perceive) this – to the point of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can become an embedded behavioural outlook or mindset (paradigm), which yes can run subconsciously, but will still require background energy to run too.
Either way this is stopping you from using your finite mental energy resources on heading off ‘genuine’ / ‘legitimate’ threats and seeing the best or opportunities in the situations that we face. Andy Cope suggests that successful and happy people (i.e. those that are being brilliant – the top 2% of the population) are those that choose to ‘see’ the World in such ways because they can let go of stuff. If we are hanging onto some baggage, this is going to hinder our ability to do the same. If you are thinking this is just wishful thinking then I guess you have a point. BUT what’s the alternative if all reality is perception and therefore subjective anyway? What kind of life would you prefer? Who would you rather be?
We suggest that one of the keys to this #Tip is when and if you ‘pick up’ some stuff in the first place. Andy’s taxi passenger friend has been moved to change his habits and behaviour. Rather than just picking up others’ negative ‘dump truck’ fallout, he now chooses whether it is worth while even picking it up i.e. he ‘lets it go’ as soon as he can. It is interesting that his taxi driving mentor in this was someone who immediately choose to do something positive in the moment that many of would have taken offence. Instead of retaliating with swearing and associated sign language himself – he pleasantly wave instead. We suspect that this positive act is also helping by interfering with his brain encoding such incidents as real threat. Instead he is distracted by and to a more positive behaviour and outlook, that becomes more of his experience and reality. If we can do something similar then this would mean we are habit stacking random acts of kindness too (#Tip26 – the Ripple Effect). Such random acts of kindness (grace) will give you boosts in Serotonin and Dopamine whilst the aggressor only gets more of what they give out on themselves. So who’s the winner? The one that holds onto negative stuff or the one that let it go?**
So we can have agency, at least for some things, to choose what we let go as well as what we pick up. Even when we have picked some things up, we can try to choose to let it go – ideally as soon as possible. Again positive distraction and more positive replacement behavioural ‘go-tos’ here (like waving) can be very useful. In fact this an approach used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The real challenge in this #Tip is what you can let go? What judgements made by others on the value, worthiness or capability of your life – like Mike because of his dyslexia – have been controlled and defined by? And what could it do for you, your health and your outlook if you could ‘let it go’?
** For the less generous hearted you may still be pleased to remind yourself that there is possibly nothing more difficult and frustrating to someone being stroppy with you than smiling and waving back at them – but we suggest exercising caution here: petrol and fire comes to mind….
Watch our #Tip31 on the Instagram Live Recording….
6 Ways Forgiveness Leads to a Happier You – magazine article.
This #Tip definitely comes with a health warning: if it raises some issues for you, do seek professional help from your GP. You may also wish to find a therapist or councillor to help you. In the UK you can find accredited professional practitioners here: https://www.bacp.co.uk
Of course there are other things that you might benefit from letting go: destructive or unhealthy relationships, longing for a certain career, the perfect partner, those old letters or clothes, the (overbearing) control (micromanagement) of your team, that hurtful nickname or the repetitive adjective we use to describe ourselves…. By choosing to let these go you can release them, and more importantly you yourself to new, healthier leases of life. You don’t have to do this alone – do seek support from others appropriately.
Some quotes that we particularly like on letting it go include:
“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.” Eckhart Tolle
“In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past, but will find yourself.” Deepak Chopra
“Sometimes we need to let go of something good, to be able to pick up something better.” [anon]
If you have been affected by this #Tip do seek support. Here are some useful places to start:
We’ll add these soon…
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