The holidays are just around the bend and for many of us, that means: Family Time! Family time is great except that “family time” sometimes means “forced events with difficult people time.” Sometimes we just don’t get along with people, but other times we feel obligated to help family members (or friends) who just can’t seem to help themselves.
I’ll admit, it is so hard to “let go” when we see a loved one flailing. We want to help. Of course we do, I mean, to help means to care right? Yet.. you know that other people care but yet they don’t seem to feel the same pull to jump in that you feel. How is that other people who care are able to do so at a distance?
In my practice, I often help clients through the heart-wrenching task of differentiation. This is a fancy word that can be defined as a the delicate art of letting go while staying connected. It’s saying, “I am me, and you are you. I can only control myself, but I still care for you.” I would be remiss if I were to say that I haven’t had to grapple with this process in my own life. I can vouch that it is a difficult but rewarding journey. What initially feels like a separation from a loved one, evolves into a relationship that has more room for grace, love, and joy. When we are differentiated, we no longer waste the energy that we once spent on attempting to control another.
Differentiation is not a destination, it’s a journey. There are different levels to experience and often we achieve different levels with different people. For example: When we have loved ones who struggle with self-harming behaviors in our lives, it is more difficult to differentiate from them than from those who take better care of themselves. Although for some of us, when we have grown-up with a care-taking role in our families, it is hard to remain differentiated in most of our relationships.
When we aren’t differentiated, we may find ourselves:
☐ Giving unsolicited advice
☐ Worrying about others to the point that it is causing ourselves harm (ie lack of sleep, substance abuse, weight loss/gain, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, etc.)
☐ Exploding in anger
☐ Distracted from our own lives
☐ Manipulating others to get them to make the decisions you think are best for them (“If she won’t stop drinking, I just won’t send a birthday gift this year.”)
☐ Intervening in inappropriate ways (“If he won’t get out of this abusive relationship, I’ll call his boyfriend and tell him he better break it off.”)
☐ Expecting others to read your mind (“I can’t believe my mom didn’t offer to pick me up from the airport. Didn’t she remember I hated renting a car last time?”)
Did any of that sound familiar?
If so, there are many resources available for those of us who struggle with letting go. If you have someone in your life who struggles with substance abuse, Alanon is an invaluable resource. If you don’t necessarily have addiction in the picture but the above list resonates with you, I highly encourage you to try a CoDa meeting.
While there are many books on the subject, this is a behavior that has been learned through relationship and it is of my opinion that it is best un-learned through relationship. This is why groups and/or therapy are so effective. The relationship built in these spaces become the vessel for change as you allow yourself to, for a moment, move from “rescuer” to “rescuee.” You willingly put yourself in a position to be helped. This is uncomfortable for those who have always been “the helpers.” But as we push through that discomfort, we find that underneath our controlling behaviors is an intense fear of powerlessness.
The process is hard and it is scary. But on the other side we find a freedom to live and let live. We realize that our controlling behaviors weren’t working anyway and so we release them. We realize that we can still care for others but we must let them make decisions for their own lives. We take a step back and find healthy boundaries to keep ourselves safe, physically and emotionally. We find we are able to say “no” when we need to, that we aren’t as powerful as we once believed, and that others can step-up when needed. We can hang-up our hero cape.
The amount of freedom that comes from letting go is remarkable. You are now free to be present in your daily life. Often, we find that we can enjoy those once difficult relationships more now that we allow ourselves to relinquish responsibility for their decisions. Other times, sadly, we may have to actually let go of a relationship because it is unhealthy for us to continue. That is a big decision and you can often find guidance and comfort from fellow group members or a therapist. There is no need to go through this journey on your own.
If any of this is resonating with you, I recommend that you consider visiting the above mentioned groups and find a therapist to guide you. Putting yourself in a position to be helped is the first step towards letting go. If you have any questions or comments on this article, I would love to hear them! Please send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org .
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