Letting Go and Holding On: The Life Skills No-one Taught You

We must forgo compulsion and turn to self-development. Carl Jung

Armando fell into a deep depression at 48 when he couldn’t play soccer any more. Orthopedists had been patching up his knees for decades when they finally said he just couldn’t keep playing if he wanted to keep walking. While he hadn’t played professionally, soccer had been his life and his identity. He’d always said he’d play ‘til the day he died. That wasn’t going to happen and he felt like he might as well be dying. He couldn’t let go of his identity as an athlete, or let go of his resentment at not being able to play.

Holding on was making him miserable and it was also beginning to take a toll on his wife and kids. His boss said he’d better get his stuff together or he’d be out of a job. But as odd as it might seem, his depression was his unconscious attempt to let go. Because he’d never really learned how to let go in a healthy way, he just gave up instead.

Armando didn’t know how to hold on in a healthy way either; he could only cling fiercely to whatever goal or idea he had in mind. He’d always brought staunch determination to everything he did—work, parenting, driving—whether it was helpful or not. If he made a mistake on the field, he’d hold onto it for weeks. While that determination had been adaptive at times, it had also caused a lot of suffering.

One of the struggles that my clients often tell me about is that they don’t know how to let go: of fear, anger, control, resentment, bad relationships, unhealthy habits, stress, or old attitudes and stories that no longer serve them. It’s even harder for them to let go when they don’t know how to consciously embrace something new and more meaningful to replace the things they need to let go of.

This isn’t to say that we don’t hold on and let go all the time. It’s just that we usually aren’t aware of doing it. Most of our letting go and holding on is done unconsciously rather than mindfully because we never developed those skills intentionally.

The sooner we do consciously develop these fundamental and essential life skills, the better off we are. Otherwise the things we cling to become heavy burdens rather than meaningful alternatives that could inspire and energize us.

In order to let go we need to see what purpose the holdovers have served for us and mourn the loss of what was once important and maybe even helpful to us. We can develop this skill by practicing consciously letting go of small things first. This not only helps with letting go of the big things later, it’s also satisfying to know that we’re progressing and holding on to something that works better.

We can understand what purpose these “holdovers” have served by understanding the story we’ve told ourselves about them. Typically at some point in our life we felt that the holdovers were necessary to survive or to be loved or to feel that we were acceptable. Like Armando’s soccer identity. It had been not only his ticket out of a poor neighborhood and into a good college, but also his path to a sense of pride about himself. But that identity became so rigid he couldn’t let go and adapt when he needed to.

We can’t delete our story, but we can embrace a new version of it. Letting go is easier when we can hold onto an attitude or behavior that’s more meaningful, an attitude or behavior that at the same time feels like it’s always been part of our makeup. This gives a sense of personal progression, a sense that we’re evolving psychologically. It often involves looking at our life story from a different perspective, seeing an aspect of it that we hadn’t lived out before. If letting go feels like part of a larger, more meaningful trajectory, it’s easier to accomplish.

Armando came to recognize that his story had always been that of the scrappy, heroic underdog overcoming impossible odds. He also came to recognize that he didn’t have to hold on to playing soccer to keep up the good fight. He did have to mourn the loss of playing and to eventually relinquish his resentment about the loss. But his story went on. Depression and rigidity became his opponents, the villains in his life story.

And getting better began to take on meaning. He started holding on to flexibility, wellbeing, progress, and the fact that his recuperation helped those around him—including the youngsters he began to coach. He put the same determination that helped him move the soccer ball down the field into his recovery and growth.

For many of us it’s the same: holding on tenaciously works for a while, but eventually we need to learn to let go mindfully and embrace more meaningful versions of our story.

If you’d like to explore these ideas more, please join me on September 15 and 16th in Portland, Oregon, and October 28 in New York City for my workshops on Letting Go and Holding On.

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