Let go: It’s a mantra engraved on crystal-shop tchotchkes, blazoned across IG posts, and spoken by yoga teachers nationwide as you move into pigeon pose.
If only this two-word instruction came with a how-to guide. If only it were so easy. Indeed, figuring out what you need to let go of and how to do it in a healthy way are the subject of many therapy sessions—possibly even the thing that lands you on a pro’s couch in the first place.
Said couch is a great place to address this, as one of therapy’s main benefits is getting an outsider’s perspective in determining which people and areas of your life are holding you back. You know, from being your most relaxed, most balanced, most content-being-you self.
Curious what truth bombs therapists drop on making one’s way to such enlightenment? We’re just as voyeuristic (and maybe have a few things to let go of ourselves), so we grilled pros for the biggest letting-go epiphanies people learn in therapy. This list can help you pinpoint things to explore on your own—or, better yet, with a therapist.
1. You often have to grieve before you can let go.
Who doesn’t wish they could let it go as fast as Elsa can sing it? Alas, letting go isn’t like ripping off a Band-Aid; it’s a process, and it takes time.
Whether it’s moving on from a relationship, a past event you can’t stop thinking about, or a vision of a future that is no longer gonna happen, grieving is an important step of the process. “We need to allow ourselves time and space to feel sad about what we lost or a dream that wasn’t realized,” says psychotherapist and codependency expert Sharon Martin, LCSW, author of The Better Boundaries Workbook. “After we grieve, we can work toward acceptance.”
2. Letting go too soon can be just as unhealthy as holding on too long.
If you’re thinking, But Mental, I always let go quickly and I’m good, we say: Did you actually move on or did you just bury your feelings? The latter is a common result when you don’t work through your emotions, says psychologist Alexandra Jacowitz, Psy.D., co-founder of P.S. Therapy, a private therapy practice in Brooklyn, New York.
Here’s an example you’re doing the ostrich thing: Say you’ve decided it’s over with an ex named Suzie. Any time thoughts about Suzie come up, you immediately find something else to do. Truth is, you’re purposely distracting yourself.
We’ll Never Tell You to ‘Just Calm Down’
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Every time you see a vid of Suzie on TikTok, you don’t want to fall into a complete rabbit hole, but you’re going to have to work through your feelings at some point. “It’s important to process big events,” Dr. Jacowitz says. And if you don’t do it in real time, you may find yourself caught off guard when your emotions eventually surface—like at a friend’s wedding or (eep) on a first date with someone new.
3. There’s purpose in the struggle.
Sitting with uncomfortable feelings can be a gift. Come again? Dr. Jacowitz says it’s one of those things most people don’t realize. “When there are deep feelings associated with our thoughts, it’s important to pay attention to them,” she says. “This is where growth comes from.”
But… How? And… Why? Difficult thoughts are like boiling water in a kettle. Without a steam valve, that kettle’s gonna blow. Push down your thoughts, and you better prepare for a FEELING EXPLOSION when you’re least expecting it.
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Instead, attempt to understand what your feelings are telling you, suggests Dr. Jacowitz. If you’ve been grappling with letting go of job frustrations, this could be a ding-ding-ding it’s time to look for a new gig. Struggling to lessen anxiety? Could it be linked to a past trauma you’ve never acknowledged or worked through? Questions like these can lead to powerful moments of self-discovery, especially if explored with another thoughtful human with a degree in these things (a.k.a a therapist).
4. There’s a difference between analyzing and dwelling.
So you’re listening to your feelings as intently as a Swiftie at album release—or are you simply obsessing without an end benefit? “If you’re metaphorically hitting your head against the wall ruminating on the same thing over and over again and it’s not serving you, it’s important to recognize that,” Dr. Jacowitz says. To be clear…
- Dwelling = replaying the same situation or “I should have”s in your head without getting anything out, and it’s doing more harm than good.
- Analyzing = looking back at something and thinking about what you learned from it, which you can put into practice moving forward.
Of course, just kiboshing your obsessive thoughts is no small feat—especially, says Dr. Jacowitz, if they involve something as heavy as divorce or the end of a crucial friendship. If the thoughts become intrusive or all-consuming and they’re making you feel worse about yourself, it’s worth it to seek out a mental health professional.
5. You will never fully let go of some things—and that’s okay.
It’s a life truth, if hard to take: There are some experiences you may never fully move past, such as the death of a loved one. “While grief may change over time, it can be with you a lifetime,” Dr. Jacowitz says. In this way, letting go doesn’t mean living a grief-free life. It means learning how to deal with that grief and being able to live a full life.
Unfortunately, there’s no fast-forward button for grieving. And while time certainly does not heal all wounds (bye, false platitude), its passing can help with processing and even growing from grief, says Dr. Jacowitz. If it’s been a year or more and you’re just as preoccupied with the loss, she suggests seeing a therapist to help.
6. It’s normal to feel regret, even when you’re the ender of a relationship.
Anyone who’s been in any romantic relationship at any point in their life won’t have a hard time understanding anything about this: One of the most common therapy topics is knowing if and when to leave a relationship.
But here’s what fewer people understand: Even when you’re the one who’s decided that ending the relationship is best, regret is practically standard. This doesn’t mean you should have stayed together; it’s a natural reaction to entering an unknown chapter. “It’s normal to have regrets and feel unsure,” says Martin. “Be gentle with yourself.”
7. BTW, when it is time to leave a relationship, the signs will be there.
You’re 98.6 percent sure it’s the right move, but it’s still tough not to overanalyze, ruminate on, or question your decision to end a relationship (romantic or otherwise). But Martin says the it-really-is-time signs are always there—and you can look to them when doubt creeps back in.
Take, for example, these bright red flags you should never ignore:
- the relationship has an obsessive nature
- one person is controlling, possessive, or jealous
- a lack of respect
- physical or emotional abuse
- you feel unsafe or on edge around the other person
- you are blamed for all the relationship problems (the other person takes no responsibility)
- you don’t have compatible values or life goals
Sometimes, the red flags are more like a dusty rose. Your partner is fine—great, even—but you just aren’t happy. If this rings true and yet you aren’t able to move on, ask yourself if what you’re really having a hard time letting go of is a future that no longer fits you.
It’s important to check in with yourself from time to time, visualizing the future you want for yourself and ID’ing anything that could be preventing you from arriving there, Dr. Jacowitz says. See sumthin’? It may be time to make a change…which, yes, might include ending a relationship that isn’t satisfying. (And if you’re still spiraling, because he really is a wonderful human, read author Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column on the topic—it’s the last entry here.)
8. You’re going to need support.
Your bestie isn’t top of mind when you’re about to dump someone. But before you do the deed, make sure you have people in your corner. “This is a difficult situation, especially if you’re trying to do it alone,” Martin says. “Reach out to friends or family.” If you are in physical danger, she adds, “contact law enforcement or an organization that provides services to those experiencing intimate partner violence.”
9. Your future probably won’t look exactly like you’d envisioned.
There are a million cliché things we could say, but instead we’ll just remind you that we all have dreams and they don’t all come true in the exact way we’d pictured. “If you had a very specific vision or plan for how you wanted your life to go, you may need to let go of the particulars,” Martin says.
Once you accept your vision board isn’t an A-to-B roadmap for reality, you can let go of trying to control every aspect of your future, which can be immensely freeing. Not to mention the way it opens you up to possibilities you’d never even considered. “There may be other paths to the same outcome, whether that outcome is happiness, parenthood, success, or something else,” Martin says. “It’s helpful to be flexible.”
10. When you can’t loosen that grip, it’s time to examine your fears.
What are you actually afraid of? This is a crucial question to ask. “What do you think will happen if you don’t try to control things?” says Martin. “Analyze whether your fear is likely to come to pass, and consider other ways to think about the situation.” Along with the 825 other things they benefit, mindfulness practices—such as meditation, journaling, and gratitude—can also help with letting go of control. Why? Because their end result is increased calm, which leads to clearer thinking vs being a control overlord out of anxious fear.
We’ve said it 20 times but we’ll say it again: If you’re still clinging as tightly as Saran Wrap to a half-eaten bagel sandwich, it really may be time to see a therapist. “Letting go isn’t easy or straight-forward,” Dr. Jacowitz says. “Working through difficult emotions is nuanced and complicated. And it’s different for everyone.”
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