An open letter to the girl I wish would practice it.
“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.” -Anne Landers
The interesting thing about being ‘stuck’ — whether on a person, memories from a past pathway in life, an idea for the self, a career, possessions, or grudges — is that many people don’t realize they are in fact, stuck.
A recent scenario highlighted to me that often people are great at convincing the external world they’ve moved on when in reality they’re still holding onto something. This is most prominent in cases of past relationships and there are many reasons for this. My recent experience is linked to an individual who has been observing my partner and I having something they want, but for some reason are unable to attain for themselves. This is not to say they aren’t having an enjoyable life, but a key component that even as an outsider I can see they desperately want isn’t falling into place.
I guess I’m hoping they read this and heed my next few words. The reason they haven’t succeeded in securing the thing they want so badly? It’s because they haven’t let go of the past. They’re still holding on to a narrative that no longer exists.
I feel confident in broaching the topic in this way as I too was once guilty of holding on to things. I still am in many ways. It’s an extremely difficult habit to break but having successfully let go of a few things over the last few years, I know the deep benefits of pursuing the art of letting go.
The Pleasure of Holding On
Why are we so bad at letting go? Well, for one thing, it makes us feel good.
It’s understandable to want to hold onto the things that at one point used to make us feel better about ourselves. We typically hold onto things that once used to bring us joy, happiness, pleasure, or some form of self-validation. We create an emotional attachment, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but at some point, they run their course. If what you’re holding onto is no longer a valid option for your life (such as an ex-partner who has moved on and then some) holding onto them will only become a burden.
Speaking from personal experience, holding on to certain things became fuel to feel something. I held a burning grudge towards someone for much too long because when I revisited the experience I still felt the sting of emotions. I felt a satisfying sense of righteouness in keeping my grudge and it felt good to feel something — even if it was toxic. When I finally managed to let go of this grudge it was surprising to revisit the scene and feel nothing towards the same individual. Instead, I felt free.
“Letting go means to come to the realization that some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny.” -Steve Maraboli
I can only imagine the intoxication that comes from reliving a past relationship that was in its early stages quite happy, brushing the resulting toxic ending (in the scenario I’m referring to, this was heavily disguised under amicability so I have some empathy for this faulty narrative still being in existence) under the carpet and creating a rom-com-esque revival in your mind of said partnership because you haven’t been able to secure a successful romantic endeavor since it ended. I can also see why you would repeatedly attempt to reach out to try and secure some, any, sort of validation for this false idea.
Sometimes holding on is simply more pleasurable because we can indulge in fantasies and ideas that we know deep down hold no weight in reality. It’s something else to hide behind, rather than face up to a tougher truth that there might be something about ourselves that we need to work on.
It’s one thing to understand all of this and another entirely to make a proactive decision to let go.
Navigating the art of letting go
There is an intense strength in surrendering the past. It takes work, and at some points, a daily conscious effort is required. Self-compassion is key, and a few other things might also help along the way:
Training the Puppy
Okay, so full disclosure, my partner recently bought me a puppy and he is quite simply The Best Damn Thing — all capitals warranted. But training a puppy is hard work. You can’t tell him to do something once and then get mad when he doesn’t do it consistently. It’s a puppy, after all, he’s just doing what he knows best. You can’t expect him to get everything right off-the-cuff.
That’s just unrealistic. Agreed?
Well, your brain is the same. Much like training a puppy, you have to consistently and repeatedly tell it what you would like it to do. If you fail, there’s no point getting mad — your brain is just doing what it knows. Instead, you have to patiently remind it of the behavior you’re looking for.
Letting go is similar. If you want to let go properly, you have to acknowledge when you haven’t. Allow yourself to feel, without resisting, condemning or judging. Trying to deny it is simply an energy drain — you’ll end up spending more energy pretending you don’t feel something than if you simply accept that you do. Once you accept your feelings, you can then work on transitioning them to a healthier space.
Oh boy, now this is the big one.
A substantial part of not being able to let go is because you’re not able to relinquish control. In the scenario that I am rather abstractly jumping around the word, ‘controlling’ has been used multiple times to describe the individual. So, to my mind, it makes sense that they haven’t been able to let go. For us control freaks, letting go can be doubly difficult. It means admitting defeat and that the person or situation we thought we had under wraps is no longer so.
Letting go means surrendering control. It means accepting that there are going to be outcomes you can’t predict and you’ll feel emotions you might not want to feel.
And that’s okay. (Remember to keep training that puppy).
Forget About ‘Closing the Loop’
When it comes to letting go I’ve heard a few different phrases banded around. Closing the loop is one of them (Paulo Coelho frames this as ‘closing the cycle’) and I used to quite enjoy this until I realized how this idea perpetuates an excuse to not let go.
Metaphorically speaking, closing the loop is an old expression and means that the person who creates a situation or gives an instruction gets an answer on the outcome. You can see why this would be problematic when it comes to letting go. Following this philosophy means you’re waiting around for an answer, an outcome - for the ‘loop’ to meet its end. It makes it easy to adopt a defeatist approach to letting go, as in, ‘I’ll be able to let go once the loop closes’, instead of a proactive ‘This is no longer serving me and I choose not have it as a part of my emotional thought process.’
It also links back to wanting to maintain control. You can keep holding on for as long as you like because even if the loop gets closed by another party in the situation (as in the scenario that semi-inspired this piece), unless you get the answer or outcome you want you can convince yourself the loop is still open.
When we truly let go, we have to let go of the unanswered questions and the ‘what ifs’ of life.
We also let go of self-perpetuating loops.
Let things go. Release them. Detach yourself from them. Nobody plays this life with marked cards, so sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Do not expect anything in return, do not expect your efforts to be appreciated, your genius to be discovered, your love to be understood. Stop turning on your emotional television to watch the same program over and over again, the one that shows how much you suffered from a certain loss: that is only poisoning you, nothing else. -Paulo Coelho
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The art of letting go sees us deciding to give up on old ways of being. As I mentioned, it’s not always easy, and while I can understand instances when it’s a struggle, my empathy ducts run low when I observe an individual consistently indulging in behavior that only serves their narrative of holding on. When that narrative begins to bleed into my own life, well, I write open letter articles on Medium in the hope they’ll read it and do some backing up.
Letting go isn’t just about mental exercises, it often also requires some heavy-duty practical activities too. Here are a few I recommend:
- Get Rid of the Stuff: I especially recommend this if what you’re trying to let go of is an ex or past relationship. Just let it all go — the mixtapes/CDs, the old cards, the photos, the vintage vinyl record player of your dreams (that one was hard but I used the money I made from selling it to buy a newer one in a fun, bright color my ex would never have let me pick. And you know what? It bought me a lot of joy.)
- Forget About Social Media: Unless you’re 15, getting upset when someone ‘unfriends’ or ‘unfollows’ you is way, way, down there at the bottom of the emotional intelligence ladder. Social media is a complement to real life, not a measurement of it or a resource for self-validation (especially if you encourage others to unfriend/follow your ex and then get ‘hurt’ when they unfriend you). Drop the ego and let it go.
- Be Like Switzerland: Don’t go asking people to pick sides or back you up or whatever you might be using people for in this ridiculous pursuit of holding on. Be like Switzerland. Be neutral and accept only neutrality from those around you. I’ve often found if you’re the one holding onto something and using those around you to help fuel the holding on, they’re usually only in it for the sense of drama. Let it go.
These won’t work for everyone, and I know that every situation has its nuance. I can only tell you what’s worked wonders for me, even if it was difficult at the time.
Recognize What Letting Go Truly Feels Like
Truly letting go isn’t so much an ‘aha!’ moment as an’ Oh yeah, I forgot about that’ one.
I had a rather toxic romantic dalliance many years ago that haunted me for longer than I’ll admit. Letting go of that was like wrestling with an Anaconda, it just kept coming at me. Until a few years ago, when a friend mentioned it and made a joke (at my expense, cheers pal) and all I had for her was a blank expression. It took some jogging but eventually, my memory caught up and it was equal parts baffling and joyful to realize I’d forgotten the entire episode. My heart felt light and I gauged no physical reaction to the memory. I made light jokes about the situation and the conversation moved on. In the following days, I didn’t dwell on the memory once.
That’s what letting go feels like.
That’s the sensation you’re aiming for when you’re training that puppy of yours. Keep the gentle reminders in place until you get there.
It will be worth it.
“Let go of something old that no longer serves you in order to make room for something new.” -Roy Bennett