Let. Go. What images do these two words conjure up? 

A red balloon drifting up and away. A dry, golden leaf falling from a tree. A glittery trapeze artist high above a crowd preparing to release the hands of her partner. A bird flying away from it’s open cage door. 

The idea of letting go can have many different definitions depending on the context. To relinquish, release, surrender, and set free or become free from, are all concepts associated with letting go. The implication is that the opposite—a withholding, holding on, or grasping—may be having an undesirable impact. What do we tend to hold on to? Something familiar, stable, and predictable? Something from our past? A relationship, expectations, patterns of thought, beliefs, or behavior? Perhaps stories we’ve been told or assumptions we’ve made? Or something more tangible like a job, a house, our prized possessions, or an old pair of worn and comfy slippers? 

At times letting go may feel liberating. Other times it feels scary and involves considerable risk. It can be associated with fear… fear of the unknown, fear of loss, fear of powerlessness, fear of separation, fear of losing control. Letting go is a challenging skill which requires discernment, courage, and trust. Many of us have experienced holding on in a way that keeps us stuck or feels grasping, striving, and desperate. We may have held on to something at our own expense, to the point we end up exhausted and diminished. What causes us to hold on or hold back, and what might give us the confidence to let go?

Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist and attachment theorist, conducted a famous study in the 1960s where she observed children’s interactions with their mothers in “strange situations.”  Through her research, she determined that children can be either securely attached or insecurely attached.  Security refers to a child’s ability to interact with new people and explore the world (aka “strange situations”) with curiosity, then return to a source of safety and familiarity with confidence in knowing s/he will be met and embraced. Insecurity, on the other hand, happens when as children, we lack a basic sense of safety in our primary relationship, and as a result are unable to explore and experience the outside world in a healthy way. Essentially, when we establish a secure base (or one is established for us) we are better able to let go, to venture out, and to explore the unknown while maintaining connection to a sense of security.

According to the earlier understanding of attachment theory, our sense of security may begin with our earliest and most primal relationship. However, the field of attachment theory has continued to evolve, and more recent research suggests we have many opportunities throughout our lives to reestablish a sense of security in different ways. Cultivating relationships with others, for example can be a tremendously healing process, resulting in new connections in our brain and an enhanced sense of safety in the world. Creating a renewed relationship with ourselves can also promote more authentic self-confidence and the peace of mind that accompanies it. Even nurturing more acceptance and trust beyond ourselves may allow us to operate from a place of security which results in our ability to know what and when to let go. 

We all encounter moments in our lives when we must find a way to let go. We may be forced to relinquish certain people or relationships. We may be challenged to release our expectations, disappointment, resentment, or guilt. We may decide to resign certain narratives or stories entrapping us, and choose to set ourselves free from what no longer fits for us. We may realize it’s time to surrender the thought or behavior patterns which keep us down and hold us back. We may have to let go of what feels familiar and safe and predictable, so we can step into the potential of the unknown.

There is no instruction manual or guidebook for how to let go, though some may try. A concrete right or wrong way for how to let go does not exist. We each reach that point in our own time and have to discover our own way of letting go. However, in order to embark on this process, and to be willing to accept the risks which come with it, we must create our own secure base from which to begin. The security which comes from our relationships with others, our relationship with ourselves, or our relationship with something greater allows us to access the confidence required to truly let go. This secure base, whatever its source, offers a sense of safety that provides us with a profound assurance, acceptance, and trust.

It is said, “We cannot direct the winds, but we can adjust the sails.” Unable to direct the winds, the circumstances, or the decisions of others, we can choose to let go of our futile and ineffective attempts. We can surrender our delusion of control over external variables, relinquish our tight grasp of what feels familiar, and release the thoughts and feelings which may sabotage our process. In letting go, we have the opportunity to strengthen our sense of trust and discover a peaceful place of acceptance. We can adjust the sails of our heart and mind, close our eyes, take a deep breath, open up into the realm of possibility, and let go…