The Very Difficult Art of Letting Go

Marla Gottschalk, Ph.D.

Published on August 13, 2018

Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go. – Hermann Hesse

Many of us are challenged to let go of expectations within our work lives. We might bemoan the collaborations that didn’t prove fertile or the client that got away. We are taught in no uncertain terms, to “stick with things” and to not “give up”. However, this strategy can backfire and cause a great deal of stress. As an advisor, I’ve seen this affect many types of contributors, from those new to the workforce — to seasoned CEOs and business owners. On some level, the unfulfilled expectations that we set for ourselves concerning goals and even people, can get in the way of a more fulfilling work life.

Inevitably, the elements that we value the most — can cause us the most trouble.

Big, audacious goals are often touted as a cornerstone of our work lives, on literally every social media channel you may encounter. We are encouraged not only to set goals, but to live them with each and every breath we draw. I am good with goals and we all need them. However, just like the battery that feeds our favorite tech device — goals have a “life span”. They reach a state, where they may no longer be viable or serve as a meaningful motivator. How this dynamic affects our state of mind is something we should pause and note.

This dynamic extends to the other elements of our work lives. People also cycle into our work lives and then leave us, in many cases for good reason. There are expectations attached, as well — and not all of these might be fulfilled. We (or they) might have changed somehow or the circumstances influenced that outcome. However, this can also cause us distress. In many cases our time with these individuals may be drawing to a close and it is difficult to accept.

We may simply not be ready to move on.

This all requires energy and “headspace”. Yet, as we all know, our attention cannot be infinitely divided. Research has shown that our minds burns through 20% of our energy requirements — though it represents only 2% of body mass. Even at rest our brains remain quite active and the quest for coveted energy is endless. Our minds are continually working, but there is a limit to its effectiveness. In a sense, wasting that precious energy, is squandering our own potential. Especially when it is in part, of our own making. Most of us have experienced an impasse where we must consider leaving something behind. We may feel that the rewards for a time investment will not be realized, or that we somehow we feel drained.

Sometimes we simply must move on — and let go.

How you would describe your own history in this regard? Do you find it easy to let go? Or are you challenged to do so? If you lean toward the stubborn and notably inflexible end of the continuum, the process can be arduous. Although tenacity can come in quite handy at times, problems emerge when we fail to revise an inflexible stance. However, all of this hanging on doesn’t always serve us well. It can bring a fog that clouds the entrance of new opportunities and can fuel bitterness. Nevertheless, turning away and leaving these things behind can remain challenging. (For some, this can even bring a certain sadness.)

Letting go of people and things that define yesterday, can be a good thing. Not at all easy, but worth the struggle. However, this process requires reflection and practice. On a very basic level, we must change our mindset about letting go.

Here are a few thoughts concerning what letting go is and isn’t:

  • Letting go isn’t a defeat.
  • It does not signal failure on your part.
  • It may mean that you have committed your best effort — and the outcomes/rewards weren’t there.
  • It is closure.
  • It is about shifting your energies to fertile ground.
  • It is about becoming more agile.
  • It can foster resilience.
  • It can build a sense of adventure; restore a certain hope and confidence in the future.
  • It can mark the moment of a new beginning.

In many cases letting go, creates room for pursuits that are far more rewarding — and carves out a place for the goals and people that will help move us forward.

I would say that could soften the blow.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

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