Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Power of Letting Go

Letting go is always the right thing to do.

Do you remember learning to swim or to ride a bike? That terrifying moment when - if you were like me - you finally conquered the fear of being underwater or of controlling the bike yourself, and leapt, hoping that you'd remember your lessons and that instinct would take over and keep you safe? Do you remember the moment of realizing that you were doing it? Holy cow! I'm swimming! I'm riding a bike! Even if you'd tried a thousand times to do it before but failed each time, you knew, in that moment, that you'd finally gotten it. You were swimming! Your were riding! And the world was suddenly a much larger place. Do you remember the irrepressible grin? The feeling of swelling pride in your chest?

Then, do you also remember the fear and anxiety that kept you from making that leap, so many times? The times whoever was teaching you let go of the bike and you were overcome with panic and wobbled and crashed; the times you almost put your head under water but stopped yourself at the last minute? The times when you thought "I can't do this?" and felt that mixture of fear, shame, and even relief, when you contemplated giving up?

Even as adults, we go through this process many times over our lives. When we think about making a major life change: changing jobs, starting our own business, leaving a relationship, telling someone new that we like them. Buying a home, getting married, having kids. Life is all about confronting those basic fears. The fears of feeling pain, of making a mistake, and of undertaking something at which we'll be proved incompetent.

But as we learned when we were kids, the other side of the coin of the fear of letting go is the jubilation when we spread our wings and fly. When we're pedalling furiously, and look back to realize our dad had let go of the bike minutes ago; when we're swimming like a fish underwater, suddenly realizing that we are, in fact, not drowning.

In my life, the most amazing things that have happened to me have been direct results of me facing the crippling terror of letting go of something. Whether a relationship, a job, or a story about myself and what I am and am not good at, the best things in my life have come when I've chosen to hold my breathe and dive under the terror, even if I've tried hundreds or times before and failed. Several times recently I've found myself sitting in the darkness of my own fear while simultaneously choosing to do the thing I was so afraid of. I've been sweating and chilled, I've been on the verge of hyperventilating, I've even been in the place of begging myself not to do this terrifying thing, the child part of me and the adult part of me literally involved in a dialogue about who was going to make the decision. And then, I've been on the other side, jubilant and glowing, or at times even still unsure but so proud of myself for walking through the fire to the other side that it almost didn't matter whether or not I succeeded at the challenge.

Over a year ago, I gave up something that, for some reason seemed impossibly hard for me to let go of: a person who was terrible for me. Most of us have been there: wondering why we were so attached when the relationship was clearly toxic. We may have worked through it in therapy, talked to our friends for hours and hours, written reams of journal entries. How many rough draft of letters have we written, ending it, then decided that things weren't so bad after all? How many times have we rationalized it to ourselves, using the language of psychology and spirituality to convince ourselves that we were "learning so much" from the situation? For me, the fear of leaving was so terrible that it literally froze my limbs and my heart. Then, things went from bad to worse and I had no choice. The pain was excruciating. But then, lo and behold, I flew!

Looking back now, I only regret that I didn't leave much sooner. I flew, and landed heads and tails above my old life, in some other world, one that I'm still mapping out. Like in video games when you reach a new level where the landscape is completely different from the last one. I feel like I've just stuck my head into sunlight and am blinking in the sun, after years of being in a dark labyrinth.

And the only reason I'm here is because I let go and I leapt. Not knowing where I would land. Not knowing if, at least figuratively speaking, I'd survive. Worried to distraction, tears, and cold sweats that I'd end up alone, unloved; roadkill on the highway of love.

When we let go, we fly. Even if we just take a couple of flaps and end up two feet away from where we were, not sure if we have the courage to try again, we still made a change, one that might have wide-ranging implications, if we just had the patience to let the ripples wash up against distant shores. My lesson in all this has been that taking the leap is always better, no matter how terrifying. In fact, the more terrifying it is, the more worthy the leap.

If you're contemplating making a big change, I say: do it. The fear won't kill you, even if it feels like it might, but the consequences of not making that leap might be a lifetime of regrets. Really, what's the worst that can happen? (On the other hand, maybe it's not such a good idea to think about that.....)