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The Power of Letting Go

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Letting go is difficult. You are letting go of the past, of control, of worry—all the thoughts that occupy you during your day. It becomes more difficult if you try to force to let go. The essence of letting go is to accept what is. You do not act or react. You recognize where you are and what you feel in this moment, and you let it happen—you let yourself be. 

Stress and anxiety have their roots in an overwhelming need to not let go despite the clear disadvantages and uselessness of holding on. If you insist on holding on to negative thoughts, people, events, or things, you may spiral further into frustration, burnout, and depression.

Jon Kabit-Zinn (founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Meditation) relates how a wild monkey is caught in India: a hole is cut in the top of a coconut, and a banana is put inside. The monkey reaches inside for the banana. With its fist closed around the banana, the monkey cannot remove its hand from the coconut. The monkey refuses to let go and is trapped.

Kabit-Zinn says, “We humans become trapped in a similar way when we refuse to let go. We cannot move on to what may be a better situation or a new way of thinking because we stubbornly hold onto the old. We get caught by our own desire, by our own attachment to things being a certain way.”

Why Letting Go Is Difficult

We become attached to our anger, resentment, and stress, even as we become attached to anything familiar. We tell ourselves that we have a right to feel that way (which we may do); then, we turn that right into a necessity. One of the famous definitions of resentment states: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” 

We also tend to belabor our failings, real or imaginary. We rehearse mistakes over and over, not looking for the lesson learned but punishing ourselves for our inadequacy. We act as if the past is still present—and in reality, the past does live in the present, as long as we refuse to let it go.

Events and situations that affect our emotions are easier to remember than those that affect us intellectually. Therefore, you likely find it harder to let go of any event or any person who causes you strong emotions; you return to them in your mind over and over.

To increase your ability to let go, recognize that:

  • Everything changes. You cannot stop change, force change, or deny change. It occurs all around you and without your participation. Whether you do or do not everything changes.
  • The past is not the future. You can only live in the present. You do not know how new knowledge will change what you think, how the experience will change what you do, or how other people will affect you.
  • Thoughts are not facts. You may wholeheartedly believe something to be true, but that does not make it true. You may believe you are inferior, superior, or equal to everyone else—but everyone else has their own scale that is equally true to them.
  • Many things are beyond your control. Your choices are bounded by whatever came before and whatever comes after. You cannot predict the future or undo the past. You cannot change people who do not want to change.
  • Kindness and compassion are never wasted. That includes kindness and compassion toward yourself. 

TIP: Letting go means you are moving on from some aspect of your past when your past defines you. Change is scary.


Exercises in Letting Go

Mindful breathing is one way to practice letting go: when you breathe in, you take a breath, and when you breathe out, you let it go.

If you are carrying resentment or anger toward someone, write them a letter that you do not censor. Describe the cause of anger or resentment. Describe what you would say to them if they were in front of you. Then, consider if you could have contributed in any way. Consider how your resentment is affecting your life now. What benefits will you gain if you release yourself from anger and resentment? Write all this down. Then tear the letter into little pieces and let the pieces go.

If you have toxic people in your life, let them go. Stop following them on social media. Put physical distance between them and you. Shorten your conversations with them. Do not cling to toxic people simply because they cling to you. 

You may believe that toxic people need you; you may believe your love will change them, or you may fear for your safety if you try to leave an abusive relationship. Reach out for help to:

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or
  • Al-Anon (hope and help for families and friends of alcoholics) at
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMHI) hotline: 1-800-950-6264 (NAMI)
  • Crisis Text Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week: text HELLO to 741741

Create a positive mantra. When you feel yourself sliding into negative thoughts, redirect your thoughts to your positive mantra. Positive mantras include “I see you,” “I am lovable,” “This too shall pass.”

Learn to say “no.” Letting go means letting go of those pressures on you that create stress and distract you from enjoying the present. You do not have to answer every call for help or every demand on your time and energy.

Introduce a new habit or ritual in your life: meditation, a gratitude journal, a new hobby, a new book, a place to walk. Give yourself opportunities to grow, expand your life, and cultivate a mindful mindset. When you introduce something new in your life, something you no longer need will give way.

Accept that bad things happen. They are as inevitable as good things. Some events are not learning experiences or opportunities for growth or “blessings in disguise.” They are sad, they are wrong; they are painful, they cannot be made better—acknowledge what they are and let go of your desire to turn them into something else. You don’t have to like the situation, you can actively hate it, but you do have to acknowledge that it exists. It is better to let go than become stuck fighting reality.

Learn to cope. You may need professional help to rev up your resiliency and coping skills, especially in the midst of a crisis. You may need coaching to find a new path when the old one is keeping you trapped. Letting go is not a single step; it takes time. 

TIP: Letting go may involve some of the same stages that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified among people who are dying (and therefore letting go of life): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance.

Key Takeaways

Your reluctance to give up on anger, resentment and even stress and anxiety is understandable if you have lived with them a long time: they are part of your identity. However, letting go enables you to enjoy the positives in your life and make room for growth that can only take place if you release the past, accept the present’s reality, and entertain a future of new possibilities.

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