How to Let Go
Letting go of the past to move on from difficulties.
Posted July 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
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 memories of our past and prevents us from noticing and appreciating what we have now. So let’s talk about how to let go of all the things that we tend to cling to—the past, anger, love, fear, and more.
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 person, we might not know ourselves as well if that relationship ends. Or, if we quit a job—even a job we hate—who will we be then?
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, unable to practice acceptance and move on.
The thing we probably have the hardest time letting go of is the past. We might be going through something challenging and wish for “the good ol’ days.” We might long for someone we loved to be in our lives again, miss a good friend that we drifted away from, or even wish an important person was still alive and with us today.
Here are some tips for letting go:
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 wishing that the other person acted differently does us no good. Instead, we’re better served by thinking about how we might act differently to get what we want in the future.
3. Practice self-compassion.
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.
4. Look for silver linings
When we get stuck in fear, we often only see the potential bad outcomes without looking for what could turn out good. Try to shift your mindset to let go of fear or anxiety and replace it with hope or optimism.
5. 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 things to let go of. 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—writing them down gets them out of your mind.
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.
Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
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Baumgardner, A. H. (1990). To know oneself is to like oneself: Self-certainty and self-affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 58(6), 1062.
Bénabou, R., & Tirole, J. (2002). Self-confidence and personal motivation. The quarterly journal of economics, 117(3), 871-915.
Malle, B. F., Guglielmo, S., & Monroe, A. E. (2014). A theory of blame. Psychological Inquiry, 25(2), 147-186.