How to Let Go & Why It’s So Important for Wellbeing

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What Is Letting Go?

Letting go is a spiritual and/or psychological process that requires relinquishing or lessening our attachment to outcomes, desires, and expectations and accepting what is.

At its core lies the concept of nonattachment, a principle that is central in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. Nonattachment entails freeing ourselves from clinging to both positive and negative experiences, allowing for greater emotional flexibility and enhanced resilience.

Nonattachment features centrally in the Tao te ching. In this text, the philosopher Lao-tzu (2017/400 BCE) advocates a mindset based on acceptance and yielding and on an absence of striving and conscious effort.

In Daoism, letting go centers on the idea of offering no resistance to the natural order of things (Schaffner, 2021). It promotes a sophisticated form of submitting our will to cosmic forces by accepting what is and loosening our attachments to specific outcomes.

If we free ourselves from as many of our desires, assumptions, and attachments to specific outcomes as possible, we gain equanimity and inner peace, which allow us to accept more calmly whatever happens in the here and now (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.).

A key Daoist concept is wu wei, or “nonaction.” It has also been translated as “nonpurposive action,” “nonassertive action,” and “effortless action” (Schaffner, 2021). Wu wei is perhaps best understood as a state of freedom from the dictates of desire. It can be described as a spiritual state that is marked by simplicity, quietude, and the absence of self-serving desire.

The injunction to let go of our desires is even more important in Buddhist thought, where it takes center stage. In Buddhist frameworks, letting go necessitates above all the quenching of the flames of our cravings. If we learn how to let go of our sensual and worldly wants, we will also learn how to let go of our attachment to our egos, the root cause of all our suffering (Keown, 2013).

Gradually, we will be able to see ourselves as part of a larger whole rather than as a distinct and separate entity (Schaffner, 2021).

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to bring to a halt the cycle of suffering and rebirth, which is fueled by our cravings (Keown, 2013). Our suffering can be ended by practicing nonattachment and understanding the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Letting go of our desires and attachments, which include attachments to our very sense of self, is therefore the most central imperative in Buddhist thought.

Research in psychology has explored the benefits of nonattachment and acceptance for mental wellbeing. Sahdra et al. (2010), for example, have developed a Nonattachment Scale. They understand nonattachment as a release from mental fixations and have also shown that it is psychologically and socially adaptive.

Moreover, research by Bhambhani and Cabral (2016) has highlighted the role of nonattachment as a mediator between mindfulness and reduced psychological distress.

A recent therapeutic invention in which letting go features centrally is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Steven C. Hayes developed ACT in the early 1980s. It is an evidence-based intervention that seeks to blend Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with mindfulness-based approaches.

Acceptance and letting go are at the heart of this new therapeutic school. Unlike CBT, ACT does not encourage us to rationally challenge our negative thoughts and feelings. Instead, it asks us simply to recognize, accept, and then let them go (Hayes et al., 2016; Hayes, 2019).

Why Is It So Hard to Let Go?

Letting goLetting goBuddhists would argue that our cravings and attachments are not just completely normal and, indeed, a significant part of what makes us human, but also the root causes of all our suffering.

We can also say that attachment is the flip side of care. When we truly care about something or someone, or about a specific outcome or goal, we quite naturally become attached to it. We care about our deeper values and anything that is related to these values. Violations of values are often particularly hard to let go of.

What is more, sometimes we can get stuck and remain attached to outcomes, people, or our pasts even when these attachments no longer serve us. In some cases, our attachments can even become counterproductive or maladaptive.

Unhelpful attachments can be a form of psychological inflexibility or even of obsessions or fixations. Or they can just signal that we may find it extremely difficult to move on from something, be that a person or an act of injustice in our past.

We may also have to learn how to let go of certain social expectations or cultural narratives that do not serve us.

Do you remember Elsa from Disney’s animated film Frozen? Elsa discovers the full extent of her powers only when she lets go of her attempts to fit in and to be a “good girl” who conceals and never feels. Her memorable scene of self-acceptance and subsequent transformation into a powerful queen with special protective gifts is all about “let it go,” which is also the title of the most iconic song from this film.

You may enjoy the following video, which illustrates why letting go is hard. It also includes a section on the Sedona Method, a very concrete tool for practicing letting go.

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