The Science of Learning to Let Go

Whether it’s quitting a job, breaking up with someone, or leaving behind a place, we all have at one point or another to learn the difficult art of letting go.

Unfortunately, learning to let go is much harder than holding on. Human beings have a tendency to define themselves through what they own, and so we cling onto past sorrows, bad relationships, and even meaningless goals.

We hold grudges, dwell on past mistakes, and attach sentimental meaning to inert objects. This is a lot to carry around — a weight that can impede your ability to explore, create, and reinvent yourself.

Fortunately, learning to let go is a science as much as an art. Here are five simple exercises you can practice to let go of some of this weight and start living a lighter, freer life.

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1. Letting go of things

Let’s start with the most practical level of letting go. Mari Kondo built a huge empire around helping people to declutter their homes by letting go of their old stuff. Why do people find it so hard to let go of these physical things?

Sometimes, it’s because they have sentimental value. This sentimental value can stem from past experiences or future expectations. Objects with past sentimental value may include a souvenir from a holiday, a bracelet you were wearing on your first date, a cup your grandmother gave you.

Objects with future sentimental value may be a box of craft supplies for when you’ll finally start learning how to paint, a collection of books about architecture you will definitely study at some point, or a set of kettlebells for when you will exercise at home — someday. Letting go of these feels like letting go of a dream.

Other times, it’s because we are scared of being wasteful. Either we think we’ll need that thing again, or we feel guilty about the money we spent on it in the first place. This is the sunk cost fallacy rearing its ugly head.

A great way to get rid of stuff is to do it progressively. Start with the easy stuff—items such as gadgets you haven’t used in years, old papers without much sentimental value, or, the easiest of all, stuff you don’t even remember what they are or what they’re supposed to be used for. Most of us have tons of these in our houses.

Gradually move up your decluttering work towards more sentimental items, asking yourself: “Why do I care about this item?”

Often, you will realize that the need behind your sentimental attachment to a particular item can be fulfilled in other ways, such as a gratitude practice around the experience tied to the object, or writing about the memory in your journal.

This should not be an extremely painful process. If you do deeply care a lot about some items, keep them. Who cares how tidy your home is? As long as it feels like home, it really is all that matters.

2. Letting go of goals

Old goals are an invisible weight we carry around without noticing it. Although they may no longer align with our current aspirations, they persist in our subconscious, influencing our decisions and actions.

We often cling to old goals out of an artificial sense of obligation to our younger self. For instance, you may be compelled to stick to a career path that was set due to family expectations. Financial milestones — such as achieving a certain level of wealth or property ownership by a specific age — can put too much pressure on you.

The weight of outdated goals may even manifest in areas normally considered as intrinsically good, such as wanting to run a marathon when your health might not allow it or pursuing an advanced degree when your life circumstances make it impractical right now.

In many cases, specific goals can limit your learning opportunities. Some of the most interesting discoveries we make are serendipitous. Tinkering, playing, experimenting, trying new things are all intrinsically rewarding activities which don’t need an end goal to bring you enjoyment and intellectual stimulation.

Learning to let go of your goals is about keeping space in your life for doing things just for the sake of it, not because it neatly fits into a grander scheme. Simply write down your current goals, and ask yourself: “Why do I care about this goal?”

Most goals can be transformed into sustainable systems based on enjoying the process rather than obsessing over the end result. If you want to learn, you can do it without aiming for a specific outcome. If you want recognition, you can get it by consistently showing up rather than racing to get to a finish line. If you want to feel helpful, you can do that by meaningfully connecting with others instead of ticking off checkboxes based on artificial milestones.

3. Letting go of control

Everyone can see when a manager micromanages their team, when a colleague always takes the lead in conversations, or when a family member sticks to rigid traditions. It’s a bit harder to notice our own attempts at exerting control over our environment.

We might plan every detail of a vacation without leaving room for spontaneity or input from others. In our homes, we might plan our meals in advance and adhere to a strict cleaning schedule. Or we may be so committed to our fitness routine that we neglect to take breaks when we’re unwell.

Recognizing these patterns in ourselves is challenging, as they often stem from a deep-seated desire for stability and predictability, making them seem more like necessary habits than controlling behaviors.

Most parents will also go through an acute experience of having to let go of control: the terrifying moment where they will need to let their kid explore the world on their own. It starts with their first step and only gets harder with time, until they leave for university or get their first job and move out of the house. Learning to let go of your control can be extremely difficult in this case.

To break free of the illusion of control, we need to give control to get control. In practice, it means giving people (your kid, your employees, yourself) the flexibility to play with the rules. It starts by asking yourself: “Why do I care about this rule?”

Then, instead of a set of rigid rules akin to a psychological prison, define a playground with key principles that are flexible enough to allow for uncertainty and creativity. For instance:

  • “You must finish all your homework before playing” (rigid rule) can become “Focus on finishing your tasks but remember to make time for fun too” (flexible principle)
  • “Exercise every day for exactly one hour” (rigid rule) can become “Exercise three times a week, adjusting the intensity and duration to match your daily health and energy levels” (flexible principle)
  • “No sweets or junk food ever” (rigid rule) can become “Focus on a balanced diet while allowing yourself the flexibility to enjoy treats in moderation” (flexible principle)

Ultimately, letting go of control will allow you to embrace adaptability so you can thrive even when things don’t go to plan.

4. Letting go of people

Let’s dial it up a bit. It may sound harsh, but it is sometimes better to let go of certain relationships. Some relationships may not reflect who you are today or people may have evolved in a way that has changed the relationship.

Learning to let go of a “legacy relationship” doesn’t have to be negative; it can be an opportunity for personal growth. Ask yourself: “Why do I care about this relationship?”

A helpful exercise is writing a letter to the person but not sending it to them. Thank them for everything you learned from the relationship. Allow yourself to experience the whole spectrum of emotions that this exercise might elicit, both positive and negative. Most relationships we care about are complex. Embrace that complexity.

Maintain an attitude of forgiveness throughout this exercise. Research suggests that forgiving and wishing someone well is connected to better health.

It may be that by going through this process you actually realize the relationship is worth keeping. And if that’s not the case, gently let go, be grateful for the lessons you learned about the world and yourself, and keep the good memories as tokens of a relationship that helped you grow.

5. Letting go of the past

We also tend to cling onto memories, especially hurtful ones. That’s because our brains are wired to remember painful experiences more vividly as a survival mechanism and these memories often have strong emotional ties that keep them active in our thoughts. This is supposed to help us avoid similar situations in the future.

However, this mechanism can sometimes backfire, leading us to relive the negative emotions associated with these memories repeatedly, which can hinder our emotional well-being and prevent us from moving forward.

Letting go of the past is hard because, in some way, it requires letting go of a piece of ourselves. Our experiences form the basis for who we are, and breaking free from the weight of past memories also means reinventing our identity.

To start this difficult but rewarding process, ask yourself:  “Why do I care about this memory?”

  • You might believe that remembering the pain will prevent future hurt
  • You might consider this memory to be a key part of your personal story
  • You might have a strong emotional connection to the people in this memory
  • You might be concerned that forgetting may lead you to repeat the same mistakes

Answering this question will help you replace the static memory with more generative thoughts. For instance, you could journal about the key lessons to be learned from this memory and how you might avoid making a similar mistake in the future, or you might look for more positive experiences in your life that provide healthier alternatives to reinforce your identity.

In summary, here are the five questions you can use to practice the art and science of letting go:

  1. Letting go of things: “Why do I care about this item?”
  2. Letting go of goals: “Why do I care about this goal?”
  3. Letting go of control: “Why do I care about this rule?”
  4. Letting go of people: “Why do I care about this relationship?”
  5. Letting go of the past: “Why do I care about this memory?”

In the words of  Eppie Lederer: “Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”

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