Learning to let go
There's a big difference between letting go and giving up
I've been talking to a lot of female friends who have recently opted out of the working world or reduced their hours in order to spend more time with their children.
As an outsider looking in, it seems like a natural evolution from one life stage to another, or the end of one cycle and the start of another. Sure enough, these women are undeniably happier and less stressed, yet there is always that unmistakable grimace - the sense that they can't separate the concept of giving up from letting go.
We hear a lot about the act of letting go and the gentle art of surrender in spiritual circles but it's a concept that many of us struggle with in a society that tells us that quitters never win and winners never quit.
Letting go, for some people, is akin to bowing out or giving up. They confuse it with peace sign and incense whateverism at best, or apathy and indolence at worst.
This is compounded by what is known as the 'sunk cost fallacy' - a cognitive bias that makes it harder for us to abandon emotional investments when we have committed considerable time to them. Walking away from a relationship after six months feels like letting go whereas exiting a relationship after six years can feel a little like giving up. You've bought the double bed - you may as well sleep in it...
It's much the same for jobs you've excelled at, hobbies you've financially invested in and friends you've shared secrets with. We persist even when we've lost interest, enthusiasm and passion, partly because we feel a certain obligation to history and partly because we have allowed our identities to be shaped by whatever it is that we are clinging to.
Hence we become less attuned to the natural ebb and flow of life cycles and the difference between giving up and letting go. Meanwhile, we devolve rather than evolve because we resist anything that even resembles change.
Daniell Koepke, the founder of the Internal Acceptance Movement, explains it best: "Giving up means selling yourself short. It means allowing fear and struggle to limit your opportunities and keep you stuck," she writes.
"Letting go means freeing yourself from something that is no longer serving you. It means removing toxic people and belief systems from your life so that you can make room for relationships and ideas that are conducive to your wellbeing and happiness.
"Giving up reduces your life. Letting go expands it. Giving up is imprisoning. Letting go is liberation. Giving up is self-defeat. Letting go is self-care."
Control is another key difference between giving up and letting go. Those who give up are trying to control a situation that they feel they have no control over. Yet, paradoxically, they never really leave it behind.
As Michael Singer explains in The Untethered Soul: "If you are resisting something, you are feeding it. Any energy you fight, you are feeding. If you are pushing something away, you are inviting it to stay."
We've all heard the saying 'let go or be dragged'. Those that give up choose to be dragged because they remain rooted to the past through regret, disappointment and a never-ending thought loop of what might have been.
Those that let go, on the other hand, are focused on the future. They have relinquished control and surrendered to their intuition instead. They know that the only constant is change and life cycles shift just as the tide goes in and out.
That's why the people who struggle most with the concept of letting go are generally the types who sit through a terrible movie because they paid €12, or persist with a boring book because they've already read 100 pages. Likewise, they tend to be nostalgists, hoarders and grudge-holders. We can advise them to 'just let it go' when they are trying to overcome a career disappointment or a romantic relationship, but we ought to remember that the concept is anathema to their guiding sensibilities.
St Francis of Assisi told us to "wear the world as a loose garment". It's a lovely idea but most of us need to remove the layers of fear-based entanglements, unnecessary attachments and misplaced obligations first.
Singer simplifies it further: "People tend to burden themselves with so many choices. But, in the end, you can throw it all away and just make one basic, underlying decision: Do you want to be happy, or do you not want to be happy? It's really that simple. Once you make that choice, your path through life becomes totally clear."
The other way to differentiate between letting go and giving up is to honestly ask yourself if you are operating from a place of fear or empowerment. Are you trying to avoid pain or are you confident that you can find joy elsewhere?
Those who can let go with ease know how to place their trust in the unknown. To paraphrase John Burroughs, they leap, knowing the net will appear. Those who have difficulty letting go tend to fear the unknown. They prefer to stay in a dead-end job or cling to the wreckage of a relationship rather than start afresh.
"Why do people persist in a dissatisfying relationship, unwilling either to work toward solutions or end it and move on?" asks Anthony Robbins. "It's because they know changing will lead to the unknown, and most people believe that the unknown will be much more painful than what they're already experiencing."
If you're looking back at a certain scenario and wondering if you gave up or let go, it's helpful to observe the way you speak about the situation that you left behind. Those who let go never deny the value of the experience.
They tend to speak in terms of the lessons they learned and the wisdom they gained. Those who have given up almost always disregard what it is they have abandoned. Former bosses are bullies, ex-boyfriends are bastards and erstwhile friends are back-stabbers.
When we truly let go, however, we transcend the us-and-them of a situation, and move forward without looking back.
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