Letting go. It seems to be in short supply these days. I certainly hear it from my clients: “I just can’t let go!” They might cling to anger, bad relationships, control, resentment, worry, and the stories about who they are and what the world is like.
And few of us want to acknowledge that we can also latch onto the certainty that we’re right, and that we can hold back praise and affection when we feel others are not in compliance with our principles.
Start noticing how often and the many ways you hold on unnecessarily, and you might find it surprising, if not disturbing. I mean, imagine your life without, fill in the blank, and the list starts to add up pretty quickly.
But holding on gets a bad rap. It can be adaptive, efficient and productive. And it’s essential to being loyal and living a principled life.
The irony is that if you want to let go in a healthy way, you need to be able to hold on to something more meaningful. Nature abhors a vacuum. When used mindfully, holding on and letting go are like yin and yang. But these are skills that we rarely develop consciously.
Holding on is primal. As babies we cling to fingers, torsos, breasts. We do it without thinking about it, and that’s part of the problem.
Letting go seems to be a harder lesson to learn. “Give that toy back to your sister!” It goes against the grain.
Take Armando. He fell into a deep depression at 48 when he couldn’t play soccer any more. Orthopedists had been patching up his knees for decades when they finally said he just couldn’t keep playing if he wanted to keep walking.
While he hadn’t played professionally, soccer had been his life and his identity. He’d always said he’d play ‘til the day he died. That wasn’t going to happen and he felt like he might as well be dying. Life seemed empty without soccer. He couldn’t let go of his identity as an athlete, or let go of his resentment at not being able to play.
Holding on was making him miserable and it was also beginning to take a toll on his wife and kids. His boss said he’d better get his stuff together or he’d be out of a job. But as odd as it might seem, his depression was his unconscious attempt to let go.
Because he’d never really learned how to let go in a healthy way, he just gave up instead. In its benevolent form, depression is psyche’s way of trying to get us to let go. But if often goes awry and leads to giving up.
Armando didn’t know how to hold on in a healthy way either; he could only cling fiercely to whatever goal or idea he had in mind. He’d always brought staunch determination to everything he did—work, parenting, soccer—whether it was helpful or not. If he made a mistake on the field, he’d hold onto it for weeks. While that determination had been adaptive at times, it had also caused a lot of suffering.
Holding On and Letting Go as Skills
Even if we can let go of some things, most people have not learned to do so consciously as a skill. In the same way that we learn to sew or hammer or use a wedge to get onto the green in a golf outing, we need to learn the physical feeling of letting go. The muscle memory of dropping or releasing can be called on when we become aware that we need to let go. It can feel disturbing, but once you learn to do it it’s gratifying.
It’s also important to learn consciously how to embrace something new and more meaningful to replace the things we need to let go of. This is holding on in a healthy way, not clinging or grasping for dear life.
Armando came to recognize he had always clung to the story and identity of the scrappy, heroic underdog overcoming impossible odds. That story had been not only his ticket out of a poor neighborhood and into a good college, but also his path to a sense of pride about himself. But his specific version of that identity had become so rigid he couldn’t let go and adapt when he needed to.
He also came to recognize that he didn’t have to hold on to playing soccer to keep up the good fight. He did have to mourn the loss of playing and to eventually relinquish his resentment about the loss. But his story went on. Depression, nihilism and rigidity became his opponents, the villains in his life story–not the injuries to his knees.
And getting better began to take on meaning. He started holding on to flexibility, wellbeing, progress, and the fact that his recuperation helped those around him—including the youngsters he began to coach. He put the same determination that helped him move the ball down the field into his recovery and growth.
How Do I Stop Holding On? How Do I Let Go?
- See what purpose the holdovers have served for you. What’s the story you told yourself that led you to think you needed to hold on? For instance: “If I don’t cling to perfection no one will love or respect me.” Typically at some point in our lives we felt that the holdovers were necessary to survive or to be loved or to feel that we were acceptable. But times change.
- Develop the skill of letting go by practicing consciously releasing small things first. Is it really that important to hold onto your ideas about how to load the dishwasher? Letting go in small ways helps to let go of the big things later. Practice with exhaling, letting go of the breath. Each time you consciously let go, you create new neural pathways that override old habits. And it’s also satisfying to know that you’re progressing.
- Mourn the loss of what was once important and perhaps even helpful to you. Don’t try to minimize the loss but let yourself feel it. What you held on to probably had real value at some point. Have a small ritual funeral in order to grieve if you need to. If you really let the feeling in and accept that it’s best to let go, it will eventually pass.
- Consciously embrace something new and more meaningful to replace what you want to let go of. Letting go is easier when we can hold onto an attitude or behavior that’s more meaningful. This gives a sense of personal progression, a sense that we’re evolving psychologically. It often involves looking at our life story from a different perspective, seeing an aspect of it that we hadn’t lived out before. If you make learning to let go a project, you can enjoy your progress and see it as part of a larger project, your psychological growth.