How to Let Go & Why It’s So Important for Wellbeing

How to let goThe art of letting go has ancient Asian roots. Particularly prominent in Daoism and Buddhism, letting go entails nonattachment—that is, freeing ourselves from our desires and accepting whatever fate serves us with equanimity.

In psychological terms, letting go is related to concepts such as acceptance, forgiveness, self-compassion, psychological flexibility, and gratitude.

Recent research has shown a significant correlation between our capacity to loosen our fixations and our general psychological wellbeing. Especially when we tend to hold on to resentment or when we are unable to move on from the past or a former partner, we can benefit significantly from learning how to let go.

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What Is Letting Go?

Letting go is a spiritual and/or psychological process that requires relinquishing or lessening our attachment to outcomes, desires, and expectations and accepting what is.

At its core lies the concept of nonattachment, a principle that is central in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. Nonattachment entails freeing ourselves from clinging to both positive and negative experiences, allowing for greater emotional flexibility and enhanced resilience.

Nonattachment features centrally in the Tao te ching. In this text, the philosopher Lao-tzu (2017/400 BCE) advocates a mindset based on acceptance and yielding and on an absence of striving and conscious effort.

In Daoism, letting go centers on the idea of offering no resistance to the natural order of things (Schaffner, 2021). It promotes a sophisticated form of submitting our will to cosmic forces by accepting what is and loosening our attachments to specific outcomes.

If we free ourselves from as many of our desires, assumptions, and attachments to specific outcomes as possible, we gain equanimity and inner peace, which allow us to accept more calmly whatever happens in the here and now (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.).

A key Daoist concept is wu wei, or “nonaction.” It has also been translated as “nonpurposive action,” “nonassertive action,” and “effortless action” (Schaffner, 2021). Wu wei is perhaps best understood as a state of freedom from the dictates of desire. It can be described as a spiritual state that is marked by simplicity, quietude, and the absence of self-serving desire.

The injunction to let go of our desires is even more important in Buddhist thought, where it takes center stage. In Buddhist frameworks, letting go necessitates above all the quenching of the flames of our cravings. If we learn how to let go of our sensual and worldly wants, we will also learn how to let go of our attachment to our egos, the root cause of all our suffering (Keown, 2013).

Gradually, we will be able to see ourselves as part of a larger whole rather than as a distinct and separate entity (Schaffner, 2021).

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to bring to a halt the cycle of suffering and rebirth, which is fueled by our cravings (Keown, 2013). Our suffering can be ended by practicing nonattachment and understanding the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Letting go of our desires and attachments, which include attachments to our very sense of self, is therefore the most central imperative in Buddhist thought.

Research in psychology has explored the benefits of nonattachment and acceptance for mental wellbeing. Sahdra et al. (2010), for example, have developed a Nonattachment Scale. They understand nonattachment as a release from mental fixations and have also shown that it is psychologically and socially adaptive.

Moreover, research by Bhambhani and Cabral (2016) has highlighted the role of nonattachment as a mediator between mindfulness and reduced psychological distress.

A recent therapeutic invention in which letting go features centrally is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Steven C. Hayes developed ACT in the early 1980s. It is an evidence-based intervention that seeks to blend Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with mindfulness-based approaches.

Acceptance and letting go are at the heart of this new therapeutic school. Unlike CBT, ACT does not encourage us to rationally challenge our negative thoughts and feelings. Instead, it asks us simply to recognize, accept, and then let them go (Hayes et al., 2016; Hayes, 2019).

Why Is It So Hard to Let Go?

Letting goBuddhists would argue that our cravings and attachments are not just completely normal and, indeed, a significant part of what makes us human, but also the root causes of all our suffering.

We can also say that attachment is the flip side of care. When we truly care about something or someone, or about a specific outcome or goal, we quite naturally become attached to it. We care about our deeper values and anything that is related to these values. Violations of values are often particularly hard to let go of.

What is more, sometimes we can get stuck and remain attached to outcomes, people, or our pasts even when these attachments no longer serve us. In some cases, our attachments can even become counterproductive or maladaptive.

Unhelpful attachments can be a form of psychological inflexibility or even of obsessions or fixations. Or they can just signal that we may find it extremely difficult to move on from something, be that a person or an act of injustice in our past.

We may also have to learn how to let go of certain social expectations or cultural narratives that do not serve us.

Do you remember Elsa from Disney’s animated film Frozen? Elsa discovers the full extent of her powers only when she lets go of her attempts to fit in and to be a “good girl” who conceals and never feels. Her memorable scene of self-acceptance and subsequent transformation into a powerful queen with special protective gifts is all about “let it go,” which is also the title of the most iconic song from this film.

You may enjoy the following video, which illustrates why letting go is hard. It also includes a section on the Sedona Method, a very concrete tool for practicing letting go.

The letting go technique (explained - must try!)

7 Benefits of Letting Go

Ciarrochi et al. (2020) have conducted extensive research on the topic, emphasizing the importance of nonattachment in promoting mental health and wellbeing. In their three-year longitudinal study, the researchers found that nonattachment protects against the development of poor mental health.

Ju and Lee (2015) have also demonstrated a link between nonattachment and wellbeing.

Elphinstone et al. (2020) have established a link between letting go and flourishing in their study and also highlighted the relationship between nonattachment and educational attainment via psychological wellbeing.

Whitehead et al. (2019, p. 2141) have explored the extent to which nonattachment is an active ingredient in mindfulness’s impact on wellbeing:

“Whereas mindfulness refers to an individual’s open, present-centered awareness of what is happening in their field of consciousness, nonattachment denotes an absence of attempts to control what is happening in their field of consciousness.”

The researchers found that nonattachment is a mechanism of mindfulness that mediates its relationship to psychological and subjective wellbeing, depression, anxiety, and stress (Whitehead et al., 2019, p. 2141):

“The relationship of mindfulness to a broad range of psychological outcomes is at least partially determined by nonattachment. These findings provide insight into how mindfulness impacts mental health and have implications for the development and assessment of mindfulness-based interventions.”

By contrast, Sonnentag et al. (2014) have been able to show that a lack of psychological detachment from work contributes to and worsens exhaustion and burnout. The absence of nonattachment, then, can have damaging outcomes and increase our chronic stress.

By embracing nonattachment, we can also let go of rigid expectations and perfectionistic tendencies, leading to reduced rumination, resentment, and emotional suffering (Hayes et al., 2016).

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How to Let Go Of …

In order to get better at letting go, we can learn to cultivate a mindset of acceptance, acknowledge the impermanent nature of life, and find more peace amid uncertainty (Hayes et al., 2016). Letting go can be useful in the following contexts.

Someone (you love)

When relationships end, and one party is unhappy about the split, it can be very hard to let go of the hope that the relationship can be repaired.

Romantic and emotional attachment of that kind is particularly hard to cure. Often, only time, inner work, and/or a new romantic partner can help. Yet practicing some of the techniques explained below can aid with the process, too.

If you are struggling to let go of an attachment to a person you love, you may find this article on break-up therapy really helpful. It includes a number of practical tips that you can apply and rehearse.

You may also find the following TED talk on the topic inspirational:

The unstoppable power of letting go - Jill Sherer Murray

The past

We can also remain stuck in the past, psychologically speaking, ruminating about events that occurred a long time ago. Often, when we are fixated on our past, it is because we long for the restitution of an injustice.

Or we may long for something we lost or something we never had, or we may circle around a hurt that we simply cannot make sense of. Therapy is often helpful for working through our past when we feel unable to move forward.

In addition, mindfulness has been shown to be helpful for overcoming rumination. The linked article includes helpful practical instructions on how to perform mindful thinking.

Anger

Anger about perceived injustice, betrayal, hurt, or humiliation can also become a point of mental fixation. Letting go of anger by practicing forgiveness and acceptance is often essential for moving forward.

Our anger management article includes many constructive and applicable tools for letting go of anger. It includes worksheets and further suggestions, and it is a highly recommended read for anyone struggling with anger.

Resentment

Our anger might also solidify into resentment. When our anger stays with us for a long time and we neither express nor resolve it, it can turn into bitterness. Bitterness is particularly hard to let go of because we often don’t even remember what bitterness’s opposite feels like when a state of bitter resentment has become our new normal.

When we are in a bitter state of mind, we may feel very cynical about things and people and fixate upon negatives, perceived flaws, and shortcomings.

You may find this short but powerful video by Russ Harris, the author of The Happiness Trap, helpful for letting go of resentment. It is called the “sushi train metaphor” and encourages us to defuse from our thoughts and to learn to let some of our unhelpful thoughts pass us by without engaging with them.

Sushi train metaphor by Dr. Russ Harris

Signs Your Client Needs to Let Things Go

It is likely that many clients in therapy are struggling with letting go of something — be that their pasts, their patterns, specific people, or behaviors and ways of thinking and reacting.

Often, old but unhelpful behaviors have secondary gains. They are simply what is already known to the client, and even if the behaviors are damaging, they feel safe or soothing for that reason. They represent the devil they know.

Clients who need to let go may also keep telling the same story over and over in therapy. They always come back to the same narrative and the same conclusions, and they appear stuck and unable to make positive changes in their lives.

11 Ways to Help Your Clients Move On

How to move onWhen we notice that our clients are stuck and need help letting go, we have several options.

We can choose tools from the ACT playbook. Direct them toward cultivating mindfulness. Help them to hone their self-compassion, their self-forgiveness, or their acceptance skills. Or try a more philosophical approach by heightening their awareness of time and our mortality.

Let’s briefly recap these approaches for you to decide which will work best for your client.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

In very practical terms, we can encourage our clients to let go by practicing the six core principles of ACT. This way, we can help them strengthen their psychological flexibility.

The six core principles are (Hayes, 2019):

  1. Defusing – learning to let unhelpful thoughts happen and then to let them pass by, like clouds in the sky
  2. Expansion – deliberately making room for unpleasant feelings and thoughts rather than avoiding them
  3. Connection – connecting with what is happening in the here and now
  4. Tuning in to our observing self – our pure, nonjudgmental awareness, not our thinking self
  5. Connecting with our values
  6. Taking committed action that is guided by these values

Mindfulness

The practice of letting go often goes hand in hand with cultivating mindfulness — the awareness of the present moment without judgment.

Mindfulness enables individuals to observe their thoughts and emotions impartially, allowing for a more compassionate and accepting stance toward ourselves and others (Ju & Lee, 2015).

You can find inspiration in our article, which provides practical mindfulness exercises and worksheets.

Self-compassion

Self-compassion, too, can play a crucial role in the process of letting go. Kristin Neff’s (2011; 2021) research on self-compassion underscores its significance in promoting emotional resilience and reducing self-criticism.

The following article contains helpful advice on how to practice self-compassion and also mentions a course offered by Kirsten Neff.

Self-forgiveness

Self-forgiveness is related to but distinct from self-compassion. Self-forgiveness is more specifically about forgiving the self for a particular action, thought, or way of showing up, whereas self-compassion is about a general attitude.

In Radical Compassion, the psychologist and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach writes lucidly about radical compassion, self-forgiveness, and related topics.

Acceptance

Brach has also written a much-loved classic on the topic of self-acceptance, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, which is highly recommended for clients struggling with letting go. She expertly blends Western psychology with Eastern contemplative practices.

Another excellent book on acceptance is Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap, a succinct and practical introduction to core ACT techniques and its underlying philosophy.

Time

Finally, clients who struggle to let go can also benefit from reminders of their limited time on Earth. In other words, carpe diem and memento mori exercises can help bring their own mortality back into their conscience.

An excellent book on that topic is Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, and you might find our article discussing impermanence insightful.

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Letting Go Quotes

According to the Buddha, our cravings reduce us to erratic, death-bound monkeys, unable to learn from experience and pointlessly chasing fleeting experiences:

If a man watches not for NIRVANA, his cravings grow like a creeper and he jumps from death to death like a monkey in the forest from one tree without fruit to another. […] But whoever in this world overcomes his selfish cravings, his sorrows fall away from him, like drops of water from a lotus flower.

The Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaró, 2015, p. 42

The Buddha is also thought to have said:

Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

The best quote about letting go, though, may be the famous parable of the Taoist farmer:

There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse. “You are so lucky!” his neighbors used to say, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

One day, the farmer didn’t latch the gate properly, and the horse ran off. “Oh no! What a disaster!” his neighbors cried. “Such terrible misfortune!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

A few days later, the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses. “How fantastic! Now you are rich!” his neighbors told him. “You are so lucky!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The following week, the farmer’s son was breaking in one of the wild horses when it kicked out and broke his leg. “Oh no!” the neighbors cried, “such bad luck, all over again!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next day, soldiers came and took away all the young men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was left behind. “You are so lucky!” his neighbors cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

For practical advice and more detail on ACT as a therapeutic intervention that provides concrete tools for letting go and acceptance, please see the following excellent blog articles.

The first contains numerous worksheets and exercises that are specifically designed for fostering acceptance that you can use in your sessions with clients:

In addition, you may enjoy exploring some of our free worksheets that will help you let go:

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

Letting go promises numerous rewards, including enhanced wellbeing, flourishing, better academic attainments, less work stress, more peace and equanimity, and greater resilience.

Crucially, letting go does not mean that we stop caring about things or people or that we begin to drift through life without aims and goals. Rather, it means that we develop the core skill of psychological flexibility and hone a mindset that centers on acceptance of the things we cannot control.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

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  • Ciarrochi, J., Sahdra, B. K., Yap, K., & Dicke, T. (2020). The role of nonattachment in the development of adolescent mental health: A three-year longitudinal study. Mindfulness, 11, 2131-2139.
  • The Dhammapada: The path of perfection (J. Mascaró, Trans.). (2015). Penguin Classics.
  • Elphinstone, B., Whitehead, R., & Bates, G. (2020). “Letting go” and flourishing in study: An investigation of the indirect relationship between nonattachment and grades via psychological wellbeing. Learning and Individual Differences, 78.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.) Daoism. In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed March 4, 2024, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/
  • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2016). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
  • Hayes, S. C. (2019). A liberated mind: The essential guide to ACT. Vermillion.
  • Ju, S. J., & Lee, W. K. (2015). Mindfulness, non-attachment, and emotional well-being in Korean adults. Advanced Science and Technology Letters, 87, 68–72.
  • Keown, D. (2013). Buddhism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.
  • Lao-tzu. (2017). Tao te ching (D. C. Lau, Trans.). Alfred A. Knopf. (Original work written c. 400 BCE)
  • Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. William Morrow.
  • Neff, K. (2021). Fierce self-compassion: How women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. Penguin.
  • Sahdra, B. K., Shaver, P. R., & Brown, K. W. (2010). A scale to measure nonattachment: A Buddhist complement to Western research on attachment and adaptive functioning. Journal of Personality Assessment, 92(2), 116–127.
  • Schaffner, A. K. (2021). The art of self-improvement: Ten timeless truths. Yale University Press.
  • Sonnentag, S., Arbeus, H., Mahn, C., & Fritz, C. (2014). Exhaustion and lack of psychological detachment from work during off-job time: Moderator effects of time pressure and leisure experiences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19.
  • Whitehead, R., Bates, G., Elphinstone, B., Yang, Y., & Murray, G. (2019). Nonattachment mediates the relationship between mindfulness and psychological well-being, subjective well-being, and depression, anxiety and stress. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 20(7), 2141–2158.

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