Letting Go: Why, What, When and How

Letting Go: Why, What, When and How

After decades of living and learning, unfortunately, in unequal proportion, I’ve found some of my earlier assumptions need revision. For a long time, I carried the flag of responsibility: I can do anything if I keep trying. But such sustained commitment is not always appropriate for many situations, people, and problems that can be impervious to my efforts, however well-meaning, useful, and capable I can be.

Why and when to let go. The harder I used to try, often the less satisfying and effective the results. That may have been because I had not discerned what was valuable, worthwhile, or even possible. As I did more and more, I enjoyed the process less and less. With little or no impact or progress, I often wondered “why bother?”

I probably avoided using my common sense to determine what “more” meant; vagueness about how much to do avoided setting useful boundaries. As you too have no doubt found, more is not always better. Being an unbounded contributor not only distracts from self-care and saps energy but also can limit recipient’s growth; together that dynamic can breed co-dependency and reinforce self-absorption which does not benefit anyone. At the same time, be alert for narcissistic and other tendencies that could be static. Continuing accommodation, then, usually results in entrenching such behavior all the more and making efforts to assist draining or moot.

Ultimately, by trying too hard, I missed other opportunities and possibilities because of over-focus, over-thinking, and stubborn commitment to what I thought I should do. Sunk costs or the irretrievable investment of hard work and other resources still would not bring beneficial, or even reasonable, tangible or intangible results. As they say in economics, sunk costs are sunk costs.

Lately, I’ve been auditioning a more flexible credo that continues to clarify why, what, and where to let go, given the accelerating flux of life and sense of the swift passage of time. While making things happen is no longer entirely up to me, assessing and choosing worthwhile commitments certainly is. In that process, I notice I am most effective when I start with myself. I’m less likely to influence, let alone control others, and least effective in changing an entire environment or complex situation involving resources and people in large numbers.

These distinctions help me do triage, especially about expectations. Yet, it does not rule out ambitious efforts that have meaning to me and significant benefit for others. I hope these views and the following will help clarify when to let go or to not even start something.

For example, living a healthier life through appropriate eating and exercise is within my realm, though I’m not always a wise ruler. Doing a project with others is contingent on their goals, priorities, capacities, and emotions which we need to negotiate and clarify together. That path has brambles, but agreement on common goals and values improves the quality of continuing voyages, bringing increased ease, productivity, and potential joy. Periodic revisits with open, frank, kind conversation are also beneficial, especially to determine the willingness and self-awareness of others.

Finally, starting and sustaining an enterprise is even more complex, given the nature of effective communication in groups and dynamism of growth. Among other aspects, you know this process requires time, mutual clarity, patience, and resilience; external and internal resources of most people involved are also relevant. But the leavening for all this complexity is a sense of humor which also lubricates and lightens the process. I’ve noticed that when that’s lacking in others and myself, other qualities necessary for progress and accessibility can be as well.

As I let go of the illusion of control, clarify priorities and possibilities, and discern what I truly want to do, emotions provide valuable guides for action. Naming the specific emotions I have and sensing them in others helps decision making and communication. Then, unrealistic expectations can be identified, resulting in improved focus, a release of energy, and time for other matters. For example, when I feel drained, or even disengaged, I know I may be falling into a bottomless pit of someone else’s expectations, unremitting need, sense of entitlement, or demands.

How and when to let go. So, my challenge and opportunities continue to be how and when to discern what I am truly able to influence and under what circumstances. Your responses to these questions may be useful preludes to action:

  • “What do I truly want to do?”
  • “What is actually in my interest?”
  • “Is it possible for me to make any difference given this situation?”
  • “How can I clarify with the person I’m trying to help what they are willing to do for themselves and perhaps for me (within their capacity)?”
  • “Is their unwillingness to accept responsibility and do some work for their own benefit a cue to me to let go or decrease contact? Alternatively, how will I confront the situation/person to see what reasons exist to sustain my commitment?

Each choice naturally varies with my capacities and interests as well as the situation, people, or problem involved, as it will probably do in your life.

I am even learning to let go of knowing exactly when to let go. My supports are my own heart, mind, and intuition, as well as listening to other people’s voices and needs. Interpreting and checking on the meaning of their nonverbal communication are additional guides. As I take incremental steps to see what happens, I refine ideas for choices and actions relating to how and when to let go.

Although I tend to resist neat rules for letting go that are not mediated by the people involved, I am glad to share some possibilities I’ve found useful about how to let go. I hope you will consider them critically, using your good common sense, experience, and intuition to adapt and augment them.

Use strategy and set limits. Do what I can reasonably do to minimize the forces in the way and strengthen what supports worthwhile goals and values with meaning to me. Then stop trying so hard and assess what happens.

Delegate with awareness of dangers. Whenever possible, let others do things their way as long as that does not worsen the situation and continue classic issues and problems. If that behavior means I “hold the bag,” that’s another cue to re-evaluate my commitment.

Attend to process. Appreciate the process and give it, even more, attention than the intended result since most of the time goes into how things are done or shepherded. Often that’s where the enjoyment, learning, and influence reside as well.

Probe assumptions and respect priorities. Periodically assess assumptions about what and who is truly important to me without overthinking the situation. Set and act according to those priorities. Put the “other stuff” such as fears, resources, and ideas aside to address and manage when that makes sense to me. If guilt and unquestioning, habitual loyalty muddy clear thinking and limit outcomes with meaning and value, it’s time to do some digging:

  • What are my healthy (or not) motivations?
  • What are their healthy (or not) motivations?
  • With whom can I discuss this situation to decide how much is “enough?”

Substitute realistic criteria for dreams of balance. Consider and acknowledge the needs of individuals I truly care about, helping them when requested and as appropriate, while making my own concerns, interests, and preferences apparent. Balance is unlikely because it often disappears. Instead, make fairness, reasonable proportion of giving and taking, and intuition guides for involvement and investment of precious time and resources.

Know yourself. Identify the tendencies and situations in life that suggest it’s time to let go, incrementally or more dramatically. Experiment thoughtfully and kindly to see how the benefits and risks evolve. Make better choices in commitments, colleagues, and friends that are healthy, enjoyable, and productive for all involved.

I hope how you adapt and use the suggestions above and your own insights help release your “shoulding” on yourself. They may also assist you in letting go of choices related to misplaced, time, and energy gobbling obligations without promising outcomes. For future encouragement, please use and modify these questions to follow through in ways that work for you:

  • What will help you continue becoming your best and fulfilled self, better ready to express your strengths and assist others appropriately?
  • How can you use your irretrievable time and clear capabilities to be of truly productive use to others, while keeping yourself healthy and available for commitments that benefit you as well as others?
  • How can you be effective and joyful in situations that are truly promising and satisfying?

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