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Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

The Art of Letting Go

I’ve been a therapist for over 25 years, and in my experience, there are two things that humans are extraordinarily bad at: self-compassion and letting stuff go.

Today we’re going to work on letting go.

Let’s say your partner ended your relationship a few months ago. You didn’t want it to end, and it’s painful. You have been sad and grieving, and now you want to let it go and start to move on, but you can’t. Even though you want to stop hurting and have acknowledged the pain, you can’t stop thinking about your ex and wishing the relationship had not ended. You can’t let it go.

The things we are generally trying to let go of are things that are hurting us. It’s hard to let painful stuff go because it’s hard not to focus on our pain. We’re just not good at that. But as long as we’re focused on it, we’re definitely not letting it go.

There are two steps to letting go:

  1. Be willing to let it go. This one can be hard – it’s essentially acceptance. You can want to let it go but still not quite be willing. Letting go can feel like giving something up that still feels precious or detaching when you don’t want to be detached but you know it’s best for you.

    You have to be willing to accept that there is nothing helpful to do but let go and move on. This is the “art” part of letting go. It’s not a science. It takes getting real with yourself about the fact that letting go is self-care. You are causing yourself harm by holding on.

    To increase your willingness, focus on what you will get when you let it go. Some common options are increased inner peace, acceptance, openness to new opportunities, decreased suffering, and increased energy/less drain.

  2. Focus on something else. This is really important. To let something go, you have to stop focusing on it, which means you have to put your energy into focusing on something else. It doesn’t matter too much what the other thing is, as long as it’s compelling enough to keep your attention.

    Let’s break this one down. Start by noticing when you are focused on The Thing You Want To Let Go Of. This may take some practice. When you notice yourself thinking about The Thing, turn your attention to a different topic. Easier said than done. It usually starts by reminding yourself that the most helpful and caring thing you can do for yourself is change the topic.

    Come prepared with compelling topics to turn your attention to. They could be planning next summer’s garden, thinking through the week’s dinner menus, or singing the lyrics to your favorite song in your head. They could be noticing all of the yellow things around you, identifying every sound you can hear, or recalling everything you did yesterday from the time you woke up. You could even play the alphabet game: pick a genre (e.g., books, movies, singers), and then go through the alphabet, naming things from that genre (so a book title that starts with A, then one that starts with B, etc.).

 

The mistake we make when we’re trying to let something go is that we tend to keep focusing on that thing. If you’re holding a pencil and you’re trying to let it go, staring at the pencil only makes it feel more attached, connected, or important to you. If, when you catch yourself staring at the pencil, you instead remind yourself that it’s not helpful and to start paying attention to the loud parade that happens to be going by, you will likely drop the pencil at some point without even noticing you did it.

Of course, it’s not that easy when it’s the pain of an ended relationship instead of a pencil. The process of letting go is rarely a once-and-done process. It takes repetition. You will have to focus on other things over and over and over. You will have to remind yourself to be willing to focus on other things over and over and over. Remind yourself that it is truly self-care. It’s work, and you’re worth it.

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