I’ve been in the middle of a major life transition lately, which has meant some very painful lessons in letting go. Maybe you know what it feels like: letting go of dreams, of ideas, of the way you thought your life was going to go. Letting go of what people might think of you, what others expect of you, even of physical possessions.
And the nature of letting go is such that, just when you think you’ve got it down, life calls you to let go of something else. Often you don’t realize you are holding onto something so tightly until it has to be pried from your white-knuckle death grip.
As painful as letting go can be, I am grateful for the continued lesson.
The better we can get at letting go, the happier we will be. (Tweet that)
I was talking to a friend on the phone this week and she was telling me about her own season of letting go, which took place a couple of years ago. For her this included filing for Bankruptcy for her business, changing all of her personal daily habits, and carefully tuning out what some opinionated friends and family members thought about her choices.
Worst case scenario. That was the term she kept using that felt so familiar to me.
“This was the worst possible thing that could have ever happened.”
And yet the worst thing that ever happened to her turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to her. She remembers standing in her kitchen—barefoot and eight months pregnant—realizing all of the carefully order pieces of her life were about to fall apart. Standing there, she thought: don’t try to swim. Just let yourself sink. In other words, she realized, if she could stop fighting the metaphorical current and sink to the bottom of the ocean, she would eventually hit bedrock.
At least then she would have something to push off of to find her way back up.
There is incredible power in just letting go.
Is there a chance you’re holding onto something that isn’t serving you anymore? Might you be fighting for something, grasping for something, white-knuckling something, or even feeling a tremendous anxiety about losing something that you have no control over in the first place? What would it look like for you to just let it go?
The Hidden Power in Letting Go
There are a dozen reasons why letting go is so important, but the most obvious one is that we just don’t nearly as much control over life’s circumstances as we would like to think. We have some control. A little bit of control. But actually, most of the control we think we have is an illusion. Whether we get the job, lose the job, have the baby, get married, get divorced, make that business work, make that book sell—most of this is out of our hands.
There are some things we can (and should) do. Be wise, do our research, make our to-do lists, check our little boxes and follow our plans and strategies. All of that is great. But then, sometimes, we get sick or someone sabotages the work we’ve done or we’re taken advantage of or the money dries up.
It’s like swimming in the ocean. It’s just more powerful than we are.
But there is great news about discovering how little control we have over our circumstances. It calls us to discover the only power we do have—which is not over outcomes, but attitudes. We are the only ones who have the power to think that thoughts in our minds. And our thoughts are incredibly powerful.
One of the most powerful ways to train your brain to be happier is to monitor and change your thoughts. The average person thinks 50,000 thoughts per day and up to 70 percent of them are predominantly negative. And this creates neural pathways that do not serve you well. —Deane Alban
When we can learn to LET GO of our negative thoughts and negative reactions and bad attitudes—even when life doesn’t go the way we want it to—we regain so much of the power and control we desire to experience in our lives.
Letting Go of Negative Thoughts
The other day I was walking into a yoga class and happened to be feeling really sorry for myself. I kept thinking, my life is falling apart—my whole life is falling apart. You know how this goes. Once you get a thought like that in your brain, it’s like a tape recorder on repeat. It just keeps playing, over and over and over again.
My life is falling apart, my life is falling apart, my life is falling apart.
By the time I walked into the class, I was feeling really low.
Then, at the beginning of the hour, the instructor asked us to set an intention for our practice. He explained how this could be a goal we wanted to accomplish, or an attitude or idea we wanted to infuse in our lives. And since I’ve been doing a lot of work around changing my negative thought patterns, the phrase that came into my mind was: your life is coming together. I was shocked.
Your life is coming together, your life is coming together, your life is coming together.
Often the opposite of what we tell ourselves is actually true.
Once I began to rehearse the “your life is coming together” thought, rather than “your life is falling apart”, it calmed my mind and spirit. It didn’t change my circumstances. Not even a little bit. But when my perspective changed, my attitude changed, and when my attitude changed, the way I felt about myself changed, and when that changed, everything changed.
There is incredible power in letting go.
Can Letting Go Make You Happier?
It’s funny because most of us think the thing that will bring us happiness is the object of our desire. In other words, we think, “if only I could get that husband [or baby, or job, or house, or get into that college, etc]” then I would be happy. All along, it’s the “if only” that’s keeping us stuck. “If only” prevents us from receiving what could make us happy: gratitude for what we already do have.
You’ve heard the Mary Oliver quote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
And this isn’t just fluffy “woo woo” self-help mumbo jumbo. It’s science. A great deal of research in the past decade is showing just how malleable our brains really are, and what can happen when we are strategic, consistent and intentional about changing the way we process the input that comes into our lives.
Happiness training is like fitness training.
Shawn Achor is considered a leading expert on happiness. He taught positive psychology at Harvard University and wrote the bestselling book The Happiness Advantage. According to Achor, “Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym. Recent research on neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change even in adulthood—reveals that as you develop new habits, you rewire the brain. (source)
When it comes to happiness, what if the biggest thing getting in our way isn’t our circumstances, but how we think about our circumstances?
When our external circumstances don’t turn out the way we think they will and we can’t let go of the old ideas, plans, dreams, or stories, we begin to feel bitter, anxious, depressed, and even angry. The story we tell ourselves is, “my life is falling apart” instead of, “my life is coming together.”
Learning to let go, I’m convinced, is one of the keys to happiness. This is because invariably letting go of something tangible means letting go of some delusion that drove us to covet that tangible thing in the first place (e.g., wanting to become famous because you need others to love and worship you to be happy). And letting go of a delusion is always a good thing because the delusions we believe are what set the height of the ceiling on our happiness. — Alex Lickerman, MD
Have you put a ceiling on your happiness because of your unwillingness to let go?
Letting Go of People, Dreams and other Good Things
I don’t want to avoid talking about how truly difficult letting go can be. Especially when we are asked to let go of something it seems we never should have been asked to let go of in the first place. Losing a loved one, a parent, a child, a spouse; losing something to theft or carelessness or irresponsibility on the part of someone else; losing ourselves in the wake of trauma…
These are the circumstances around letting go that can make the whole thing seem unfair and even cruel.
How are we supposed to respond when we have to let go of a good thing?
I don’t have all the answers to this. As I navigate my own season of grief, I’m thankful for great resources and great friends who share their wisdom with me—many of which I’ll share with you in this post. That said, if there is one thing I’m learning, it’s this:
It’s okay—necessary, actually—to grieve what you are losing.
With all the talk about changing your attitude and re-programing negative thoughts, I don’t want it to seem like I’m saying letting go will always be happy or easy. It won’t. And it’s normal, healthy, and totally expected for you to grieve the loss of what is gone (or soon-to-be-gone). We sometimes try to circumvent the grief process because it is painful and messy and doesn’t fit in well with our nicely ordered lives.
We feel guilty for grieving. We don’t know how to grieve.
But there is no skipping the grief process. There is only moving through it or staying stuck in it. And when we try to suffocate grief and keep it under the surface, it tends to manifest itself in some very strange ways. It’s okay to grieve the loss of what you are losing.
Letting Go Can Protect You
A willingness to let go can be an incredible skill of protection.
Imagine you’re in a car dealership, looking to buy a new car. You see one you like. In fact, you love it. You love it so much, you can hardly imagine going home without it. You’ve already planned the dozens of road trips you’ll take in your car, thought about how good it will look parked in your driveway and imagined driving over to each of your friends’ houses to show it to them.
Now the salesman walks up and you’re in a vulnerable position.
I don’t have to explain the logistics of this to you. You know how it goes. Because you’ve become so attached to the car, you lose your power in the negotiation. If you don’t find a way to mask your attachment to the car, or manage it—or, even better, to let it go—you’re probably going to end up paying more for the car than it’s worth. This is common sense and it’s part of why there’s incredible power in letting go.
You can never lose something if you never had it to begin with. You were never in control and never will be. Let go of that illusion so that you can cut your losses and move on. Acceptance of the inevitable—as difficult and painful it might be today—is the first step toward an authentic trade-off. “We trade a life that we have tried to control,” Melanie Beattie reassures us, “and we receive in return something better—a life that is manageable. —Sarah Ban Breathnach
When we live unattached, we can’t be bought or persuaded or manipulated or pushed around. We can’t be tossed around by life’s shifting circumstances. Our integrity, our character, our soul, our self—these are the things that are left when we’ve let go of everything else.
3 Things to Remember When Letting Go
When you’re in a season of letting go, there are a few practical things to remember.
First of all, sometimes we don’t get a choice in letting go, and sometimes we do. When we do get a choice—to quit the job, leave the relationship, move to a new location, end the business partnership, fire that employee, transfer schools—how do we know when it’s time to let go and when it’s better to stick it out?
Here are a few resources I hope help you answer that question:
- Too Good To Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirschenbaum
- Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud
- Essentialism by George McKeown
Second, remember when you’re letting go of anything that it’s a natural, normal part of life. If we try to prevent change from happening, we actually block the flow of life, and therefore block good things from coming into our life.
Whether we like it or not, endings are a part of life. They are woven into the fabric of life itself, both when it goes well, and also when it doesn’t. On the good side of life, for us to ever get to a new level, a new tomorrow, or the next step, something has to end. Life has seasons, stages, and phases. For there to be anything new, old things always have to end, and we have to let go of them. —Henry Cloud
And finally, since change is a natural, normal part of life, we do not have to make enemies out of the things we choose to let go. We can simply say, “thank you so much for what you have been to me. I need to move on.”
A Few Extra Resources:
- The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Droidge
- Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan
- 40 Ways to Let Go And Feel Less Pain