learning to process, or how to let go

One thing that needs to shift for us to live a healthy life, is to better understand what humans need. We are all different, with different needs. But we tend to be taught how to deal with the outward in life (how to pay bills, change the oil, keep a job) and learn very little about the internal maintenance required to be healthy.

As we grow, if we’re given a safe, prejudice-free space, we can explore who we are and what we need without filtering. If it’s okay for us to be loud or quiet, we’ll be more likely to feel comfortable being both. If one of these was overly-valued in our family, or we’re dealing with an unstable caregiver, we learn what is required of us early on. We may try to make ourselves small, quiet, and out-of-the-way to avoid rousing a hurting adult’s temper, or to avoid feeling rejected. (staying out-of-the-way often feels better than being asked to leave)

Many of our preferences that we could consider “personality traits” are actually other people’s preferences we adopted in an effort to survive.

Sometimes we bury what’s true about us in order to become more lovable, more enjoyable, more accepted. We can adopt our culture’s, classmate’s or girlfriend’s values and lose important pieces of ourselves.

One helpful way to get in touch with who we are and what’s important to us, is to spend time around people we can’t control. (unbroken children are good for this) When we notice something that hurts us, embarrasses us, or causes us to feel anxiety, we are on to something.

Also, a long-term relationship or partner at work can help expose places in us that got lost.

Whatever the situation, whatever we feel, it’s an invitation to step inside ourselves for a bit, and tend to ourselves.

This is more important and valuable than car, home, or boat maintenance, and often less prioritized.

Internal Maintenance:

We learn to pay attention to what’s going on internally. We notice physical responses. We give ourselves room to feel, even if our mind is limiting us, our emotions have a way of sneaking through what our mind won’t allow.  We also learn to allow feelings, experiences, conversations, to flow through us. It’s like food, we keep the nutrients and release the shit.

When we’re unable to process something toxic, these toxins can build up in our bodies and make us physically or emotionally sick. Some of these toxins are already in our system when we’re born. Some of them develop from life experiences. Trauma isn’t the external events that happened to us, but the internal damage that resulted from those events.

Typically the bigger the pain or more unexpected or damaging the experience, the longer it takes to process.

One really important part of being human is respecting how we work. We take time. We have a lot of things going on under the surface, and that’s quite amazing. We aren’t cars and houses. We can’t order a “quick fix.” We grow. And like all things organic, we sometimes need to add something to the soil, sometimes we need more sun, sometimes we just need more time to rest.

Processing our present is just as important as processing our past. Both deserve our attention.

As we practice processing, we become better and better at it. Each person will adopt their own methods. But if it’s beneficial to have a place to start, here’s one.

Learning to Process, or How to Let Go

  1. Release Emotion, if needed
  2. Report honestly
  3. Sort
  4. Let Go
  5. Move On


Express Emotion (1)

Whether it’s an experience from childhood, or something that happened yesterday at work, before we can sort in a sensible way, we have to release the emotion attached to it. Sometimes these emotions are strong, and we need to release them before we can get words out. (If strong emotion isn’t present, jump on down to “Reporting Honestly.”)

If it’s anger, you might need to yell or dance or run, scream cry, or swim until you drop. Anger, hurt, betrayal, typically benefits from a more physical or intense response, but not always.

Sometimes thoughts and accusations will come to the surface as we’re physical. I suggest releasing them if possible. I don’t monitor my thoughts at this point, or insist they aspire to my personal values. I just get them out. I know they’re not all me or what I honestly believe, but they’re unhealthy and I just need to get them out first. Sometimes during these moments I say terrible things about people I sincerely love. I just try not to filter here. And I’m always doing this step in solitude so no one gets hurt. :)


Reporting Honestly (2)

The next step would be to either speak works or write words. Reporting Honestly helps us “get the gunk out.” This is where you’re getting out the next, less-intense layer. You won’t always have an emotional response. You may not feel anger or much of anything. If you’re not experiencing pain or intense emotions, you can start here.

This is where you either write or speak, alone or with a trusted companion. You share how you’re feeling, what happened, what’s going on, but without any congruence or need to make sense. Again, we’re not speaking out of what we believe or forming conclusion yet, we’re just reporting. We understand at some point we’ll be able to see the other’s perspective and respond graciously. But First.

What’s needed:

1. ability to be honest about what we see in ourselves or our experiences

2. vocabulary to speak/write about things we can’t see or understand well

3. humility or acceptance of the human condition to respect the need to process, and sometimes that means being unreasonable or messy

4. If you’re talking to another person, it takes someone you can trust.


If you are able to do this, stop for a moment and be grateful. You’re lucky.

People who wrestle with self-righteousness will need some practice at this. It takes a while to not filter, or get offended with our own thoughts. We believe we’re “above” such petty emotions, or won’t give ourselves the space to feel ugly things toward someone we’re “supposed” to love. We have to at some point acknowledge this is one of many paths toward authentic love. Releasing something ugly doesn’t mean adopting it, it is simply acknowledging it as part of the process.

What this looks like for me is almost a stream-of-consciousness moment. I either write or speak just about anything that comes up. Sometimes I actually stop because I don’t like the thought in my head. Sometimes it sounds quite cruel and unkind and ungracious. When someone dear to me hurts me, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt, even internally. But when anger and hurt comes up, I find it’s beneficial to release it here, where it’s safe and not likely to turn into an offense. Often when I say, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m tired of this relationship,” the next sentence is, “I forgive them.*”

[*sometimes even forgiveness is humiliating. I realize that I’m holding someone else to a higher ideal than myself. I have to forgive people for the smallest of things, even just simply being a human being around me when I’m tired or more irritable. Sometimes I’ll say “I forgive so-and-so for being dumb,” or “…for acting like a twenty-year-old.” (which they are.) I don’t reserve forgiveness for only actions that justify forgiveness. If it bothered me at all, I forgive. Even “nothing,” when ignored, can turn into an offense.]

When I’m reporting, I don’t expect myself to understand. If you’ve ever seen a live report of something unusual happening, the reporters say things like, “It appears there was an accident…” “It looks like a building collapsed here…” But they don’t really know what happened, they’re just reporting. This is kinda what this part of the process looks like. Don’t take yourself too seriously or act like you’re an expert yet. Things should make more sense down the line, you’ll get some clarity, but right now, you don’t really know what’s going on inside. You just know something happened and you’ll get there eventually…


Sort (3)

This is a typically a little more calm and clear. This sometimes is unnecessary. If something minor happened, sometimes we can tell all that needed to happen was a release of emotion and then forgiveness, and that’s it. Over.

Sometimes when dealing with the ending of a meaningful relationship, or a severely hurtful situation, or trauma from childhood, we need to revisit things as they come up, and come up again, and come up again…

You can call it anything; I call it sorting.

This is when I can see how some wounds from my past are popping their heads up in my present.

Typically our strongest emotions gather around unhealed wounds. So, if you’re feeling something strongly, especially if the present situation doesn’t really warrant strong emotion, it’s probably because a current situation is leading you back to something unhealed.

With a clear head, this space is a gift. If we’re stressed for time or energy, this can feel like more evidence that we’re perpetually in a state of disarray and we can want to just slide this one under the bed: out of sight, out of mind. :)

[Side note: it does take practice to respect the crazy in each of us enough to deal with it. If we’ve cried the last three days over something we deem “unworthy,” we can begin measuring, and not allow anything else “silly” to move us. Please don’t do this.]

I sit with a notebook and ask questions or write down what seems like a helpful “clue” into what’s happening under the surface. This is when I see the good that came from the friendship, which might be over, and I hold it tenderly, and let it go.

I can also see patterns of how I pretend in an effort to be easier to love. I am always trying to make myself more. Sorting helps me see this, which slowly helps me stop this unhealthy pattern. Sorting helps me let go of the worthless…the lies I’ve believed about myself and others. I can also hold onto what I want to keep, both from that relationship or situation, or just what’s true about me.

I am learning that I don’t need to make myself smaller to make myself easier to love. No one’s easy to love. The easiest people to love have nothing to do with the receiver, but the giver. If the giver has a heart full of love, nothing can stop them. Just let them love you.

If they don’t, then there’s really nothing you can do to make them love you. They can’t.

Wanting someone to love you that doesn’t have love is like trying to squeeze salt from a lemon. Being loved has very little to do with us and everything to do with the Other.

I find acceptance of such things as I sit and “sort.”

I forgive myself and others. I let go of people, places, and things. I find acceptance for myself and others. I find gratitude for what I do have: enough.


Letting Go (4)

Sometimes sorting is the last step. You let go of something and that’s that. But sometimes we need to circle back to this step and hit “repeat.” And circle back. And circle back again.


Trying to explain “processing” in steps is impossible.

We’re not simple and easy and there isn’t a formula.

I am jotting down these notes because I’ve got quite a bit of practice and I’m realizing many people don’t.

Internal Terrain is different for everyone. Letting Go looks different for everyone. Sometimes you’ll move through a very healthy and robust 1, 2, and 3…and then you see someone who once loved you (and you still love) and it can feel as if no interior work even happened.

Trust me. You are not starting over. It’s just more things came up and you’re in a better spot to deal with it, acknowledge and face it, and then let go and move on yet again!

With my dearest losses, I circle round and round. It seems there’s bit of me scattered everywhere sometimes.

But I believe with the depths I’m also finding more and more of myself with each dive. And I don’t think I’d be doing this work if pain wasn’t leading me to the deep. So ultimately we can be thankful when things resurface. It’s not that good things haven’t happened, it’s just that there’s another piece to explore.

Rebecca Solnit says, “Explorers are at home in the unknown.”

Learning to navigate the unknown within ourselves does require a bit of an explorer mentality. Many calamities happened within, and as we grow, we learn how to excavate and clean up the debris.

Please don’t rush this beautiful process. Please give yourself as much time as you need. You are worth it.

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