Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Letting Yourself Go

A few months ago, in a somewhat mysterious response to a newsletter I sent out, a reader sent me an email admonishing me- “Whatever you do, don’t let yourself go!” It seemed unrelated to the subject of my newsletter (which was about not waiting for our proverbial ducks to be lined up before we do what feeds our hearts and souls.) I didn’t personally know the emailer but, for a moment, I wondered: had she seen me recently and observed something I should know about? I’m guessing that she wanted to encourage me to do what she believed was necessary to find a new mate since I am single once again.

Admonishments to avoid “letting yourself go” have always make me simultaneously cringe and wonder: What might it look like if we really did let ourselves go?

We’ve all heard the phrase, sadly too often from women referring to other women. Years ago, watching the taping of an interview with a well-known author, I was startled when another woman leaned over and with a conspiratorial lift of her eyebrows said, “Oh my. She has really let herself go, hasn’t she?”

To remain silent implied agreement. On the other hand, I didn’t want to verbally stomp on the woman who’d made the remark (well okay, part of me did- but I know that that kind of reaction is unlikely to do little more than elicit shame and defensiveness.)

I looked at the woman being interviewed. She’d been on a multi-city speaking tour and flown in from the west coast for the interview. She had gained weight since her last publicity photos had been taken, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

So, I just said, “She looks weary. It’s hard to take good care of yourself when you are travelling and giving so much to others.”

Women still tend to be judged largely (and sometimes exclusively) by their appearance. For my purposes here I’m not going to analyze why that is, or try to figure out how much of that has to do with species survival (appearance of healthy fertility) or the proclivities of a youth obsessed culture. At fifty-six, I have a whole new appreciation for trying to figure out what it means to “age gracefully” while wrestling with the contradictory temptations to embrace or resist “letting myself go.” What is reasonable self-care versus denial of reality? To colour grey hair or not? To slow down or try to reverse the slowing metabolism weight gain or accept a few extra pounds? (It took me thirty years to find the courage to have my ears pierced so the debate about plastic surgery is not even on my radar!)

Some of this is, of course, about health. But a lot of it isn’t. Every day millions (both die-hard materialists and those who see themselves as “spiritual”) are dieting, exercising, using creams and supplements and treatments with the not-so-secret agenda of preventing visible signs of aging.

But, what if we were to consider consciously “letting ourselves go?” What if learning to let ourselves go is about the freedom that comes when we stop considering, worrying about, anticipating or trying to guess how others might see, evaluate or judge us? About anything- our physical appearance, our spiritual “progress,” our relationships, our opinions, our work or how we spend our days. What if “letting ourselves go” is the gift of aging as we come to know and accept who we are in our strengths and weaknesses, as we give up hoping to wake up tomorrow as someone different- someone thinner or smarter or more “spiritual?” What if “letting ourselves go” is about letting go of the aspect of self that is preoccupied with looking “good” in the eyes of others or according to some internally held ideal?

This freedom grows in little ways. Some days I dress up. And some days I go out (as I would not have done a decade ago) with my hair hastily pulled back in an elastic band, face scrubbed bare, in a sweat suit and what my sons would call “old lady running shoes.” And I am delighted to find that the choice about how I present myself is increasingly determined simply by how I’m feeling, with no regard for what the clerk at the post office or the man at the juice bar might think of my appearance.

The phrase “letting yourself go” implies a kind of giving up, a stepping away from some effort deemed necessary to live fully. But what if the things we are stepping away from (worrying about what others think, crazy cultural standards for physical beauty, measuring our own or another’s worth by their possessions, or “success,” or impeccable meditation posture etc.) are things that in fact inhibit our ability to live fully, at peace with who and what we are? Such peace need not preclude change and growth, but it is not driven by a desperate desire to be other than we are.

So to the reader who emailed her well-meaning warning: It’s too late. I am, each and every day, learning to let myself go. And I like it. So much less trying, so much more joy. So much less fear, so much more love of self and life and others- just as we are in this moment.

Here’s to letting ourselves go!


  1. Sent this out to girlfriends this morning. This came back from one of them:

  2. Beautiful. Thank you! :-)

  3. Terrific post, Oriah. I was having similar thoughts after finding out a close friend, who is a year younger than me (41) got Botox. I actually think women who have wrinkles are more interesting.

    I find aging very interesting and don't feel the need to fight it. I'm looking forward to letting myself go even more :)

  4. Well,there are limits to letting your appearance go. I try to be clean, not scare small children, and show some degree of respect for the situation I am in (e.g. funerals and other people's big events).That said, one of the benefits of knowing without a shadow of doubt that you look like an old lady, is the freedom that it brings. When you stop competing and comparing yourself with others, you can know yourself and them in a different way. I never dreamed that my life would be so rich.

  5. An excellent post, Oriah. I am the same age as you are. For much of my life I was concerned with what others might think. It's been a gradual process learning to let go of that and I'm still learning, but I too have experienced the exhilarating freedom of being 'unencumbered me' and wish I could make that my daily reality. It certainly frees one up to fully enjoy life!

  6. Oriah, I love this! Recently, I noticed that my inner critic was looking at everyonewith a gimlet glance. I heard my thoughts and it wasn’t pretty, her hips are huge, she shouldn’t wear a top like that. I was shocked to hear the subtle and not to subtle background chatter that filled my head. It was like annoying elevator music...irritating and almost imperceptible, but constant. I knew that same voice. It offers opinions about me as I look in the mirror. I vowed to stop. It's a practice. Letting myself go is an inner shift of acceptance. Here's to letting go of some standards that are cruel and often unattainable. Love your fresh perspectives.
    Nancy Hill

  7. Oriah, hello! I have written an inspirational book for teenagers and would like to include your poem, "The Invitation" to close the last chapter. Please let me know if this is OK! Visit http://www.jigsawbook.com for more information on the project.

    Mike in North Carolina

  8. Mike, please email me at mail@oriah.org

  9. Lovely! Thank you so much for sharing this.

  10. I took the comment completely differently. I thought she meant "Don't let your real self go", hold on to who you are, that beautiful, wise, witty, compassionate, challenging, juicy, scrumptious writer that you are. The woman whose "Invitation" helped me save myself. And it was this line that saved me, "I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy." In other words "whatever you do, don't let yourself go" be faithless and therefore trustworthy. Thank you!

  11. Insightful and eloquent post, Oriah. I love that you have suggested a re-interpretation for the phrase "letting yourself go", and for me it fits, it makes beautiful sense. "What if learning to let ourselves go is about the freedom that comes when we stop considering, worrying about, anticipating or trying to guess how others might see, evaluate or judge us?" Just the thought of it feels liberating, and I look forward to learning that as I move into my 50s. I could see you developing an entire workshop or weekend retreat from this concept, by the way!

    You might enjoy an article written by Dr. Bill Thomas -- if you are not acquainted with him already I'm sure you'd like to be. His ideas on aging are deeply inspiring for me, and I think they would be for you, too. Here's the link -- hope it works. You could also just try Googling Dr. Bill Thomas and "Eldertopia", or search for the article on their web site, Changing Aging.

    Eldertopia http://bit.ly/vEovJQ


    1. Thank you Jesse- shall have a look- have not heard of this work and it becomes more relevant with each passing year :-)