Letting go

Release and let go

What is letting go?

Letting go of something is a metaphorical term that means releasing it from your mental state rather than your physical grasp. To many psychologists, letting go of something means generating the emotional headspace that you need to recover from a situation or state. When it comes to personal and close familial relationships, the ability to let go can be challenging and even traumatic. That is why we feel such emotional strain when we feel grief. Numerous psychological explanations of grief refer to it as the first stage of letting go. However, to let go of something need not be as the result of bereavement. It could equally be the loss of a job or a relationship. There again, people also try to let go of their own emotions, especially when they are having a negative effect, such as jealousy or frustration.

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Why is letting go of the past so difficult? 

 Moving on from one emotional state to another is often healthy and beneficial, especially when you have been suffering from a sense of loss. However, letting go in this way is not always easy because we often want things to stay as they are or – more accurately – to revert back to how they were. As such, to let go is – in many senses – to accept the current state of affairs. This is why it is so often difficult because, even when we know it is probably the best thing to do, it means acceptance of the past for what it truly is – something that has gone.

Can letting go help your mental health?

To let go of something that has happened does not mean that you have forgotten all about it. However, it does mean that you have been able to move on from it, and that it no longer has control over you and your wellbeing. By accepting your present, your mental well-being can improve dramatically. Many people who are not able to let go – or are perhaps not yet ready to do so – can get into loops of negative thoughts and emotions which feed on themselves, driving their emotional state down. Conversely, letting go allows you to move on and for your mind to escape such negative feedback.

How can you find ways of letting go of love?

If you are dealing with breakup or in the process of managing divorce, then remember that your emotional state will be much like the grief in someone who has lost a loved one. Denial of the true state of affairs is common initially in these situations as it is traumatic and emotionally challenging. This is then usually followed by feelings of anger and then sadness. By accepting all of these stages as they come, and recognising them for what they are – common emotional reactions – you can proceed towards letting go entirely. The final stage of a pattern of loss comes with acceptance.

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Can writing help with letting go?

If you are struggling to let go of something, then writing down your thoughts and feelings in a journal can often be a big help. You can do this directly or write it in the form of a letter to your future self if you prefer. Another good idea is to write down your journey towards acceptance as a story with a character who feels as you do. It helps you to disassociate yourself with your experience and see it for what it is, and getting a more removed perspective on a situation can help bring clarity and thereby facilitate letting go.

Why is letting go so important?

There are many things that we carry around with us that might be referred to under the rather clumsy term of 'emotional baggage'. More precisely, psychologists would refer to such emotions as things like unfulfilled hope, a sense of loss, attachments to significant others or even unrequited love, in some cases. The whole idea of being able to let go of a dysfunctional situation is to rid yourself of these so-called negative emotions. By doing so, we can feel freer and less weighed down by them. In this sense, letting go can be life-affirming and a way of refocussing our lives more in the here and now than in the past. The ability to let go certainly helps many people to feel better about themselves and less trapped by their pasts. However, you have to be ready to let go, or it will not necessarily work out with these positive outcomes.

Why does letting go hurt?

In some senses, the act of letting go draws a line under the hurt or negative emotional states that we might have previously felt. Nevertheless, when we let go of something – especially a close emotional bond we have had with another person – it can cause sensations of pain that resemble grief in many ways. This is because when we let go of something that has been dear to us – and may remain so – it is really about accepting that it has changed irrevocably. Either we have moved on, or the other person has. In this sense, choosing to let go is a bit look choosing to accept the loss of a loved one, something that can be incredibly painful, just like passing through the various stages of grief. Only when one has finally let go in an emotional sense will this pain subside although the memory of it can last a long time.

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Is letting go the same as moving on?

When you let go of something from an emotional perspective, you are ready to move on from it, too. Let's say that you are made redundant from your job and out of work for a period. If you remain upset about the loss of your job and the perceived injustice of your situation, then you are probably not going to be in a fit emotional state to seek other sources of employment and to nail any interviews you might get. In short, you won't be able to move on. However, if you can let go of the anxiety you may genuinely feel about losing your job and get into a psychologically fitter state as a result, then you are more likely to move on and find a new role that suits you. In other words, they are not the same thing, whether you are talking about jobs or other sorts of life losses. Without letting go, however, it is much harder to genuinely move on.

When is letting go of the past the right thing to do?

This is a highly personal question to answer. Some people will take longer to recover from a sense of loss or unfulfilled desire than others. People who consider themselves to have a thick skin can go through very tough emotional situations and seemingly let go of them within days or even hours. The phrase 'water off a duck's back' metaphorically depicts how some people are better at shaking off their emotional states than others. If it suits you to let go immediately, then do so. However, this does not mean that a longer period of reflection without letting go may not suit you better. By taking our time not only will we feel more comfortable when we do let go – so the process doesn't feel rushed, for example – but we may also learn more about ourselves which could, in theory, mean that we don't make the same mistakes again in future.

Is letting go a way of freeing yourself?

As you have read, when we let go, it enables us to move on from psychological states and to make alterations in our lives, such as the ability to love again or to be more emotionally available to others. In this sense, letting go is about freeing yourself. This is because some emotional states related to personal losses or anxieties can feel like entrapment. For example, if you cannot talk to people who show any intimacy with you because you are constantly reminded of a former partner, then it is likely you have not adequately let go of that relationship. Whether this is because they have died or because you have split up is irrelevant – you still feel a sense of loss that you are clinging on to for whatever reason. It could be simply that you are not ready to move on, but when you truly let go of the former relationship, you will be free to enjoy developing a new one if you choose to do so.

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What tips for letting go are there?

If you would like to let go but can't, then accept it could be that you are not truly ready yet. Practice self-compassion and try some mindfulness exercises because these can help you to reach a more peaceful emotional state that may help you to identify what is holding you back from letting go. As well as writing down your thoughts and feelings, try to observe your negative thoughts as they occur rather than being swept up in them. Another important thing to do is to realise that you cannot change situations – not fully, at least – and the only thing you are in control over is how you feel about them. After you make that leap, it is simply a question of how long it will take you to let go, not whether you will or not.

Is letting go of children possible?

Many parents of children who have died would agree that the sense of loss and the depth of the grief they feel surpasses anything else they have felt and this can stay with them throughout the course of the rest of their lives. Equally, parents who split up and no longer reside with their children – even if they have regular access to them – often report an ongoing sense of loss. When children grow up and move out, it can also cause exceptional heartache among parents even when they know it is the right thing to let go. That said, despite the fact that it is often harder to let go of children because of the strong emotional bonds we form with our offspring, it certainly is possible. Remember that when you let go of a child, it is not that you have abandoned or forgotten them, merely that you have psychologically accepted the change in your life that means they can be let go.

Can letting go of someone lead to more contact?

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the ability to let go of someone may mean you can enjoy their company more. If a friend or a relative is feeling overpowered by you emotionally or that you do not give them sufficient space to express themselves, then they may well end up avoiding you leading to a downturn in the healthiness of the relationship. However, when you accept this and let go of them, it can often mean that the situation improves. Conversely, rather than pushing them away, when you let go, it can result in a much closer relationship that is built on a firmer foundation of mutual understanding.

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Letting Go Summary

When we can let go, we free emotional headspace that means we are more likely to be able to enjoy life in all of its glory once more. People who have lost in love, for example, may feel so emotionally pained from the experience that they quite understandably want to avoid falling in love again so that they never have to experience such trauma once more. And yet, when we let go of such emotional states, it is possible to recover and then move on from them, which means being able to experience all that life has to offer.

Not only is this a good thing from the perspective of leading a full and meaningful life without the psychological damage that losses can cause, but it also means basically having a bigger sense of happiness about ourselves. In this sense, the ability to let go is a bit like a psychological discharge of negativity that means we can restore ourselves and move on. It is important to note, however, that everyone will approach their given situation differently and there is no right or wrong way to let go in the psychological sense – that we can eventually do so is what counts.

There are plenty of self-help books which enable people to let go or at least to understand the processes involved better. Some people seek professional help from counsellors which can be a good way forward. That said, chatting to a friend we trust about our losses and how we feel about them can also enable people to let go more easily than they otherwise would have been able to. In the end, it is a personal journey which may take months, years or even a lifetime to achieve.

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