Learning to let go

Reading time: 8 minutes

Learning to let go is much harder than holding on. In the words of Ann Landers: “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.”

Why do we cling onto past sorrows, bad relationships, old things, meaningless goals? Isn’t our tendency to define ourselves through what we own rather than who we are hurting us in the long term?

“You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened… Or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.” — Tupac Shakur.

If only it was that easy. As human beings, we hold grudges, we attach sentimental meaning to inert objects, we like to revisit the past and worry about the future. How can we learn to let go?

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Let go of the past

All human beings have been emotionally hurt at some point in their lives. Our ability to feel pain is universal. However, research suggests that when emotions hinder our ability to heal from a painful event, it’s an indication that we aren’t moving forward in a growth-oriented way.

Practicing emotional agility is one of the most practical ways to let go of past experiences which are preventing you from moving on. It consists in:

  • Connection. Talking it out with someone you feel safe around. Share your experience and your feelings. Don’t keep it all bottled up.
  • Contribution. The next stage is to help others who have gone through a similar experience. There is no right time for this stage, and for some people it may be never. Not all painful experiences need to turn into a contribution opportunity, but it can be helpful in some cases.
  • Compassion. Be kind to yourself. Make sure you are making progress, but don’t rush it. It’s not a race. Journaling can help to explore your inner world and make sure you approach your journey from a place of self-compassion.

Sometimes, you need to create physical distance. Staying in a place where something hurtful happened can keep on bringing the painful memory back.

Let go of the illusion of control

Many parents will experience the terrifying moment where they will need to let go of their kid, and let them explore the world on their own. It starts with their first step and only gets worse 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.

As Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, puts it: “Like every other mammal parent we need to raise offspring who can fend for themselves out in the world without us. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that our job as parents is actually to put ourselves out of a job.”

But it’s not the only area where we struggle to let go of control. Managers who micromanage their teams, people who keep grabbing control of the conversation, and those who stick to rigid rituals—these people are all after a sense of control. How can we let go?

Beyond giving ourselves 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. Instead of a rigid framework, define a playground with key principles.

It works for conversations too. Instead of asking closed questions, ask open questions. While it may give you the feeling of losing control, you are still the one choosing which questions to ask, which is extremely powerful.

Let go of things

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 will 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 to be wasteful. Either we think we may need that thing again, or we feel guilty about the money we spent 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?” Very often, you will realise that the need behind your sentimental attachment to a particular item can be fulfilled in other ways, such as a gratitude practice or calling/visiting the person it makes you think of more often. (this also works to a certain extend for people you love who have passed away, visiting them physically or in your mind, which is called “inner wisdom imagery” by psychologists)

This should not be an extremely painful process. Learning to let go of things is mainly about questioning the actual value of your stuff and letting go of unnecessary things. If you do deeply care a lot about some items, keep them. Who cares how tidy your home is? As long as it feels comfortable, it really is all that matters.

Let go of people

It may sound harsh, but it is sometimes better to let go of certain relationships. Some people may belong to a past which doesn’t reflect who you are today, other people may have changed in a way that has changed the relationship.

“Letting go doesn’t mean that you don’t care about someone anymore. It’s just realising that the only person you really have control over is yourself.” ― Deborah Reber.

Learning to let go of a relationship doesn’t have to be negative, it can be an opportunity for personal growth. First, it’s important to let yourself feel all the range of emotions the relationship brings about—the good and the bad. Most relationships we care about are complex. Take off your love or friendship goggles and embrace that complexity.

Then, take time to reflect. What did you learn from this relationship—about the world, about yourself? Some people find it useful to write a letter. Whether you give/send it or not to the person, it may be helpful in articulating your thoughts and emotions.

Finally, practice forgiveness. It may be that by going through this process you actually realise this 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.

Let go of goals

Yes, a system without a goal is like a marathon without a finish line. But not everything in life needs a system. 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.

In some cases, specific goals can limit your learning opportunities. Some of the most interesting discoveries we make are serendipitous. Keep a bit of space in your life for doing things just for the sake of it, not because it neatly fits into a grander scheme. Learning to let go of your goals is about embracing your inner child.

Hello! 👋 I'm Anne-Laure Le Cunff. I write about what I learn as an entrepreneur and neuroscience student. Do you want to make the most of your mind? Subcribe to Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter with neuroscience-based insights on decision making, continuous learning, thinking, creativity, and productivity.

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