Letting Go: How to Let Go (of The Past, Love, Anger, & Fear)
What does it mean to let go? And how do we do it? Here we'll talk about letting go of the past so we can move on from relationships, people, and unhealthy emotions.
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It's human nature to fight for things that matter to us. We might long for the past, wish that someone we love hadn't left us, or hold onto anger from the times that we were treated unfairly. But holding onto things and people that we can no longer have isn't good for us. It keeps us stuck in the memories of our past and prevents us from noticing and appreciating what we have now. That's why we're going to talk about how to let go of all the things that we tend to cling to for too long—the past, anger, love, fear, and more.
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What Does It Mean to Let Go? A Definition
When we talk about letting go, we are not really talking about gripping something with our hands. Letting go in psychology is more about mentally letting go—or mentally releasing attachment to something. Instead of fighting for someone to be in our lives or for something to turn out a certain way, we let go of that need or desire and instead accept what is or what needs to happen. This makes acceptance—or actively embracing experiences, thoughts, and feelings (Hayes et al., 2004)—a crucial part of what it means to let go.
Why is it so hard to let go?
We humans really like to cling to things, even things that we know are bad for us. One reason is likely because the more we feel like we know ourselves, the more we like ourselves (Baumgardner, 1990). If we already know ourselves as someone who's in a relationship with a certain other person, we might not know ourselves as well if that relationship ends. Or, if we quit a job—even a job we hate—what will we do for a living then? Or more importantly, who will we be then when we aren't the person with that career?
Knowing ourselves is such an important part of our well-being that letting go of something central to the way we see ourselves can be scary. We are uncertain of who we'll be or how we'll feel. And as a result, we can get stuck, clinging to both good and bad things in our lives, afraid to let go.
Video: The Power of Letting Go
Letting Go of the Past
The thing we probably have the hardest time letting go of is the past. We might be going through a hard time and wish that we were in previous good times. This might mean longing for someone we loved to be in our lives again, missing a good friend that we drifted away from, or even wishing an important person was still alive and with us today.
Here's another example from my own life. My partner was struggling with this recently—he's having a hard time letting go of who I used to be. I got really sick a few years ago and even though I am mostly recovered, I can't do everything I used to do. I'm not as strong so I'm less able to go on wild adventures. I'm more careful about what I put into my body so I don't really party much anymore. I'm not quite the same friend or partner that I used to be. But his struggle with letting go makes it harder for him to enjoy who I am now, and it makes it harder for me to accept who I am now. This is just one example of how failure to let go can complicate life and lead to some pretty unpleasant emotions.
Letting Go of the Future
Another thing that can be difficult to let go of is the future—or a specific idea of what the future is supposed to turn out like. Have you ever had that feeling like your hitting your head on a brick wall, trying to get something to happen but it just won't happen? Maybe you're trying to get that business started, or revive a dying relationship, create a certain lifestyle that you just can't afford but you're constantly blocked.
It can be difficult to know if you are encountering challenges and roadblocks that you can and should overcome—roadblocks that will build your character and help you reach the outcomes you envision. Or, are these roadblocks insurmountable? Are you just wasting your time and energy on this path when you should just let go, relax, and accept how life happens more naturally? It can be helpful to reflect on where you are and whether the future you're trying to create is really right for you.
As an example, in graduate school I really struggled to be like all the other students—publishing papers, giving conference presentations, and checking the boxes for becoming an academic. Boy did I try, but I just was not successful at it. At some point, I let go of the idea of becoming a college professor. And I felt a lot better when I did. Finally, I could just be me and see where it would take me (by the way, I'm glad I let go).
Letting Go of Someone You Love
Perhaps the hardest thing to let go of is someone you love. Maybe you're letting go of a relationship or maybe you're letting go of a friendship. Both can be challenging. And whether you're letting go because the other person is no longer in your life or because you have decided to no longer have this person in your life, it can be difficult to move on. Here are some tips for letting go of someone you love:
1. Expect the best
When letting go, try to think about the good things to come in the future and expect the best. If we expect to fail, we are actually more likely to fail (Bénabou & Tirole, 2002).
2. Let go of blame
When we blame someone we make assumptions about the intentions behind what they've done (Malle, Guglielmo, & Monroe, 2014). Maybe we think they were intentionally cruel to us with the goal of hurting us. But we can never know another person's intentions and blaming them just gets us stuck wishing that the other person acted differently instead of learning how we might act differently to better get what we want in the future.
3. Practice self-compassion
Regardless of who decided to let go of who, practicing self-compassion can be a useful tool to help heal wounds and move forward effectively. So try to be kind to yourself, forgive yourself for any mistakes, and accept your needs as they are.
Letting Go of Anger
If we're holding onto anger, then we're struggling to let go of something that happened in the past. Maybe we feel wronged, mistreated, or taken advantage of—all completely understandable reasons to feel angry. But holding onto anger can lead us to develop anger issues and can keep us from enjoying the present moment. So here are some tips to help you let go of anger:
1. Let go of rigid beliefs
When we get angry, we often hold an attitude of hostility, resentment, or suspiciousness (Fives, Kong, Fuller, & DiGiuseppe, 2011). Our perspectives and beliefs about what is right and what is wrong lead us to be angry about things that go against our beliefs. If we can just loosen up on our beliefs and accept that other people's experiences, opinions, and actions are okay too, then we have a lot less to be angry about.
2. Use anger to move forward
Anger is an energizing negative emotion. If we suppress it, it can be bad for our health. But if we use anger to restore justice, respect, and relationship reciprocity, anger can lead us to feel a greater sense of power and control over our lives (Thomas, Smucker, & Droppleman, 1998).
Letting Go of Fear
If we're holding onto fear, then we're likely struggling to let go of something that might happen in the future. Maybe we can't stop imagining the worst possible outcomes. Maybe we're overly focused on what could go wrong instead of what might go right. Or, maybe we're worried about something in particular that we know is up ahead of us. Whatever the fear is about, excessive worrying becomes a drain of energy. We miss out on the good things happening right now and spend our time thinking about things that may or may not even happen the way we imagine they will. So here are some tips to help you let go of fear:
1. Look for silver linings
When we get stuck in fear, we often only see the potential bad outcomes without looking for the good. A notable example from my life comes from when I got sick for about a year. I was really scared that I would stay sick forever, but I kept reminding myself that this experience was giving me the opportunity to discover how to be truly healthy and well. This shift in mindset helped me get through a really scary time.
2. Practice gratitude
In addition to shifting our focus to possible good things in our future, we can shift our attention to the good things in our present. When we're in our heads, thinking about the scary things to come, we fail to notice the good things about now. So try to look around you and name a few things you're grateful for.
3. Try Journaling
I don't know about you, but I'll often hold onto fear just because I don't want to forget all the things I "think" that I need to be worried about. I can't relax knowing that things are up ahead and that I might not be prepared enough. That's why daily journaling can be a big help.
Consider writing down a list of your fears. Once they are down on paper, commit to letting go of them in your head. You can always go back and look at them if you feel you need to, but the interesting thing is that you often don't—you've let them go.
Meditations for Letting Go
Because letting go involves a mental shift—a shift from being attached to something to being okay with that something no longer being in our lives—it inherently involves mental processes and working with our thoughts. One way to work with our thoughts and develop a greater capacity for acceptance is with mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness involves observing thoughts and experiences in nonjudgmental, accepting, non-attached ways. Research suggests that mindfulness meditation can help us let go of negative thoughts (Frewen et al, 2008). By practicing letting go of our thoughts and emotions, we can potentially enhance the skill of letting go and have an easier time letting go in daily life.
Video: Guided Meditation for Letting Go
Steps for Letting Go
Now that you have a sense of how to let go in various scenarios, let's walk through a plan for how to let go. Here are the steps:
1. Reflect on whether you're ready to let go.
Ask yourself some questions about whether you're really ready to let go. Is this person or experience taking more from you than it's giving you? Are you feeling a pull away from this person or experience? Or, are you feeling like you need to stay and continue working on improving this part of your life?
I think it's worth noting that in our fast-food, swipe-left, never-ending-options world, it's easier than ever for us to give up on things too soon. We may opt to let go instead of work to fix something that's worth fixing. So take all the time you need to think it through.
2. Explore what's stopping you from letting go.
By the time you've come to this article, you've likely been thinking about letting go for a while. What has been stopping you? Are you unsure? Are you afraid? Are you not sure what the next steps are? It's okay to wait until the time feels right to you to let go.
As an example, maybe you're 100% sure you're ready to let go of a job, but you're just not yet sure what the next job will be. It's okay to work on figuring out the next step before taking the first step. Do what feels right for you, and do it in your own time.
3. Create your 'letting go' plan.
If you're ready to let go, make the decision to do it, commit to your decision, and map out a plan for how you'll do it. What will be the actions you'll take? When will you take them? How will you overcome expected challenges as you let go? The clearer you can be about your plan, the easier it can be to execute.
More Tips for Letting Go
Here are some other strategies you might want to try to help you let go and learn the skill of letting go.
1. Notice resistance. Pay attention to any resistance you feel to letting go. What does it tell you about who you are and what you want?
2. Question your patterns. Do you find that you often struggle to let go? Or, do you struggle to let go of something or someone in particular? What are these patterns and how are they helping or hurting you?
3. Ask your inner child. As we get older, we rely more on our brains and often leave our emotions or intuition out of our decisions. So pause when contemplating letting go and ask your inner child what he or she wants. See if you gain any unknown insights from the answers you receive.
4. Understand that reality is often not what we expect. TV and movies often portray an unrealistic view of what relationships are like or even what living is really like. So many of us grow up thinking and expecting that things will be different than they are. And once we discover reality, we fight it. If this sounds like you, try to let go of the ideas you once had and replace them with your understanding of reality now.
More Articles That Can Help You Let Go
Want to keep exploring how to move on and improve your life. Here are some helpful articles:
Books to Help You Let Go
Want to keep learning about letting go. Here are a few books that might help:
Letting go is a surprisingly hard mental challenge. It takes time and practice to get good at it. Hopefully, some of the suggestions in this article will help you to let go and move on with your life in ways that make you happier.