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How to Move On: What It Really Means to Let Go

Woman walking on the beach

“Don’t let the darkness from your past block the light of joy in your present. What happened is done. Stop giving time to things which no longer exist, when there is so much joy to be found here and now.” ~Karen Salmansohn

If you are lucky enough to spend time in mindful communities you will hear the phrase “letting go” used frequently. The practice of letting go is used to support our acceptance of the way things are, and I believe it's a cornerstone of creating a happy, full life.

But what happens when you're being asked to let go of something that is deeply emotionally charged or something that directly relates to how you identify yourself?

When we have a deep emotional attachment to an event or circumstance in our life and we're being asked to let it go, it can often feel like we're being asked to move on and forget about the past, person, or event that we're deeply connected to. 

In 2010 my oldest son passed away unexpectedly. At that time I had been a practicing yogi for almost ten years and had navigated what I thought were significant opportunities for practicing detachment and letting go.

For example, during my divorce from my son’s father I let go of my long held dream of having a happy marriage, white picket fence, kids, and a dog (though I did get the kids and the dog).

Following my divorce, when my middle son, at the young age of fourteen, had to be sent away to a drug treatment facility, I let go of the typical teenage dreams of homecomings, proms, varsity sports, and so on; after all, I wasn't sure he would live to see those years. Not only did Daniel live through those years, he has since become a vibrant soul, who never needed all those typical experiences to thrive.

So when my oldest son passed away while home on leave from the army I felt I had a head start in the letting go department, and therefore, I would find my way to healing more quickly. Not true.

Some attachments are so deeply woven into the fiber of our beings they seem almost impossible to let go.

Fortunately (but not really), we live in a culture that allows 365 days to ‘let go' of the death of a loved one.

After Brandon died everyone was patient, loving, kind, and willing to support me going through the first year. However, on day 366 our culture seems to think it's time to get over it, let go, and move on.

Even with my prior experience of letting go, it took me almost three years to really figure out what it means to let go when what you're letting go of is an essential piece of your heart, soul, and identity.

Below I have identified three action steps you can take to use your practice of letting go to deepen your personal growth and attract joy and happiness in your life.

1. Future thinking—believing you can’t be happy or you’ll be happy when…

As a bereaved parent I struggled for a long time with believing that I had ‘the right’ to be happy. I struggled with reconciling happy moments in my life (with friends or my other children) with the deep grief I felt for losing Brandon.

Once I learned that life isn’t making a choice between the two emotions, but rather learning to balance and integrate them both into each situation, I was able to let go of my belief that I couldn’t be happy and begin to hold both feelings.

Another way we set ourselves up for struggling with letting go is defining our happiness in terms of if-then.

If I get the raise at work, lose ten pounds, meet my soul mate, then I’ll be happy. Those events may change certain qualities about your life, but the achievement alone doesn’t bring happiness.

When you find yourself if-then thinking, bring your focus back to the present and appreciate what is already wonderful in your world.

2. Past thinking—attachment to how things should be

As we grow up we often become attached to how we think our life should be, and we create beliefs about universal truths.

Perhaps you believed you should get a college degree, get married, have two kids, and live in the burbs. But instead you are struggling to make ends meet, don’t have a significant other, and live in your parents’ basement.

Staying fixated on how you think your life should be focuses your attention of lack rather than abundance, and on wishful thinking instead of reality.

Recognizing should-be thinking is a powerful way to shift our thoughts toward appreciation for what we do have, enabling us to come from a place of gratitude. Gratitude is a key element to joyful living.

It’s harder to let go of should-be thinking when our thoughts involve universal truths. I believed, and it’s a commonly accepted truth, that children will outlive their parents. But no one ever guaranteed me that Brandon would outlive me. The universe did not break a sacred promise with me when Brandon died.

The reality is, and I know it’s hard to hear and harder to accept, how things should be are exactly how they are right now. (I know, I don’t always like it either)

3. Definitive thinking—believing there are some wounds you can never heal from

Do you remember how you felt when you were twelve and your first boy/girlfriend broke your heart? It felt like a wound that would never heal! But it did, and you learned so much about love, life, and your own capacity to be resilient.

Unfortunately, we often experience other events in our lives that feel much bigger than that and leave us with a void that feels insurmountable. Perhaps it’s abuse, or the abandonment by a parent. These types of events leave us with wounds that are carved deep into our souls and can be much more challenging to overcome than your seventh grade love.

The human spirit has the capacity to overcome almost anything. When we let go of the thought that we can’t heal from something that has deeply wounded us, we open ourselves up to the growth potential this event holds.

It might take a lot of time, help from professionals, and deep soulful work on our part. But healing from these types of wounds can be the most transformative and powerful things we do in our lives.

What Letting Go Is Not

Letting go of an ideal, thought, or experience is not some laisse-faire, woo-woo thing.

Letting go often takes work on our part and requires us to do some introspection about what’s true and what we’re actually attached to. Neither is letting go the same as moving on without doing the work or simply forgetting about an important life-changing event or experience.

Another important aspect to recognize about letting go is that it’s not the same as forgiving someone who has wronged you. Forgiveness is an important aspect of wholehearted living, and it’s separate from letting go of attachments that keep you from becoming the incredible individual the world needs you to be.

Letting Go Is a Work in Progress

Begin the practice of letting by noticing the small ways in which you let attachment create unhappiness in your life. For example, what do you do when you’re really looking forward to your morning cup of joe and realize you’re out of coffee? Or when a friend cancels a date that you’ve been looking forward to?

Learning to let go of the things that are not serving you will free up energy and resources and you will begin to reap the benefits of a grateful, joyful life.

Woman walking on the beach image via Shutterstock

About Paula Stephens

Paula Stephens, M.A. is a speaker, author, yogi and the founder of Crazy Good Grief. She is studying to become endorsed as a Buddhist Chaplain and currently works as a volunteer chaplain and yoga teacher at a jail near her home in Denver, Colorado. She is also a hospice chaplain, wellness coach, and ERYT Yoga Instructor.

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