Typology describes the basic structure and dynamics of the various personality types. One of its most important contributions is demonstrating that human beings are wired differently and tend to see the world through the subjective lens of their own personality type. Typology also advises that personal growth involves acting authentically according to our type. This means choosing a career and lifestyle that nourishes the development of and allows for regular use of our type’s signature strengths (i.e., our dominant and auxiliary functions). This not only contributes to fulfillment for the individual, but also benefits society as a whole. Despite the usefulness of typology, there are certain psychological truths and practices that carry great promise, only to find rare mention in typological discourse. Among these is what I will call “the art of letting go.”
Ego, Anxiety, & Control
As discussed in my recent post, Ego, Identity, and Defensiveness, the complexities and pressures of modern life have a way of fostering great anxiety, as well as a desire to protect and defend our identities and egos. So in order to cultivate wisdom and move toward wholeness, it is imperative that we understand and address the foundations of this anxiety.
In my view, much of our anxiety stems from our attempts to protect and defend our ego, our identity, and our possessions, as well as our efforts to control the outcomes of life. All of these can be grouped under the same general umbrella: attempting to control. Both defensiveness and possessiveness are rooted in the more basic desire of wanting to control.
The act of controlling involves a state of tension, contraction, and closing. When we hold on to something, whether physically or psychologically, tension is produced. This relates to what we have described as grip behavior or grip experiences. Grip experiences involve a sense of urgency, addiction, obsessiveness, and need to control. The very term “grip” suggests a state of narrowing, contraction, and excessive tension.
Letting go, by contrast, involves releasing, relaxing, opening, and accepting. Eastern philosophies and disciplines suggest that letting go allows us to function like empty vessels, allowing the vital currents of life to flow through us. In such a state, one doesn’t force action or micromanage outcomes, but simply allows life to move and work through her.
Consider this example. When learning a new skill, such as a musical instrument, you may have heard people say, “You’re trying too hard” or “You’re thinking about it too much” or “Just try to relax.” Even if somewhat difficult to immediately instate, these suggestions are typically on target. Too much conscious thought or effort tends to interfere with our ability to “find our groove” or “get in the zone.” The same seems to hold true for life in general. As long as we are holding on too tightly, it will be difficult to find our “sweet spot.”
Learning to let go is rarely easy and requires ample courage. It often entails a reversal of our habitual approach to living. Jesus understood this when he said that anyone unwilling to sell everything (i.e., let go) could not enter the kingdom of heaven (i.e., find wholeness). The way that Western culture operates does not make matters any easier, since we are constantly bombarded with messages promising happiness through sensory or material means.
While dominant Perceivers (EPs and IJs) may feel they already take a rather relaxed and carefree approach to life, types with a dominant Judging function ( IPs & EJs) may find learning to let go especially difficult. Despite this, letting go can produce particularly dramatic results in these types. Some may even consider it a sort of spiritual awakening.
There are numerous practices that can help us learn to let go. These include things like Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, relaxation training, massage, cognitive reframing, etc. Some of these focus more on changing one’s mindset (e.g., cognitive reframing), others on relaxing and sensing the body (e.g., Yoga, Feldenkrais), and others on releasing emotional catharsis (e.g., Primal screaming). It doesn’t really matter where you start. Because mind, body, and emotions are intimately intertwined, improvement in one area almost always begets positive changes in others.
From a typological perspective, learning to let go involves avoiding “jumping the stack” and grip experiences. It requires leading with the dominant function, rather than allowing the inferior function to define and attempt to control outcomes (for more on this, see my post on integrating the inferior through the dominant). By foregoing the temptation to jump the stack and micromanage outcomes, we can retain a state of openness and relaxed awareness associated with the art of letting go.
Misconceptions about Letting Go
Many people worry, as I once did, that letting go requires relinquishing all of one’s current interests, pursuits, and ambitions. This is completely untrue. The truth is you can learn to let go while retaining many of your current pursuits. The primary difference will entail learning to hold those pursuits more loosely, with more of an open hand. In short, it is not so much what you do as how you approach it.
Another common misconception is that letting go means being weak, spineless, or submissive. Again, this could not be farther from the truth. Take Jesus as an example. While it does appear that he submitted to crucifixion, his life was certainly not characterized by weakness or sheepishness. Here we must recognize the difference between weakness and meekness. It is possible to be meek without being weak, to be strong without being defensive.
When we let go, we gain access to a deeper source of strength than that associated with the ego. This strength allows us to be firm and committed to truth and justice, only without the suffering that arises from excessive ego control. While being simultaneously strong and relaxed may seem paradoxical, it is a beautiful reality for those who have experienced it.
The Spiritual Role of the Unconscious in Jungian Psychology
Integrating the Inferior through the Dominant