Let go of holding on

With the beginning of a new year, learn to release what no longer serves you.

Story by Megan Fulwiler

The new year has begun. Instead of making a resolution to do one more thing, what if you let go of something instead? Resolutions are a familiar way to kickstart a new you, but most of us (almost 80%!) fail to keep them. Start fresh by learning to let go of things that no longer serve you, and make space for creating the life you want. 

What we keep
Most of the objects we surround ourselves with have a functional value (the toaster) or a sentimental value (your grandmother’s quilt), but we also hold on to stuff because, well, we don’t really know why. 

Maybe it’s your college bike covered in cobwebs in the garage or the guitar stashed in the back of your closet that you plan to learn to play … someday. Either way, objects are physical reminders of past choices and future intentions that take up room in our houses. But they also take up space in our psyche and can, over time, become impediments to personal progress. 

“We tend to underestimate the psychological toll of tolerating things that we should release. Holding on to things steals our energy.”

In her best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo outlines a sim-ple strategy for discarding: hold the object to see if it “sparks joy,” and if not, thank it for its service and then give it away. 

“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” Kondo writes in her book. “The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.” 

Kondo’s method for letting go can help other areas of your life as well. By asking yourself how something makes you feel, you’re learning to understand your attachment. In choosing to discard, you’re making a conscious decision and practicing anti-avoidance behavior. In the final step, expressing gratitude acknowledges its presence in your life, and signals that you’re ready for new possibilities. 

Why we hold on
For a society organized around acquisition, it’s not surprising that we often define ourselves by our possessions, job titles or relationships. As a result, releasing any of these can feel like giving up what we worked so hard to attain. 

Leaving a job or a relationship can feel like quitting. And quitting feels a lot like failure, especially when it comes to how we define ourselves. 

“Our identity becomes intertwined with what we do for work. Beyond a paycheck and benefits, work provides a sense of purpose and value,” says Christine O’Neill, an executive leadership coach who helps people make career transitions. “If we’ve invested years of our lives becoming educated or trained to do what we do, then it can feel like we’re throwing it all away to make a change. This is known as the sunk-cost argument for staying stuck.”

Fear can also make us reluctant to release ideas, habits or people — even when they no longer align with who we are. Heather Kent, a psychotherapist with an expertise in trauma treatment, says we’re predisposed to operate from a place of fear: “We can end up making poor decisions because we’re afraid — staying in jobs we hate from a fear of not having money, flogging our bodies at the gym due to a fear of getting fat or being in unhealthy relationships due to a fear of being rejected or alone.” 

Kent recommends paying attention to the recurring patterns in your life to identify behaviors you want to release, whether that’s engaging in non-committal relationships, substance abuse or disordered eating.  

Letting something go means making a change, but our brains are hardwired to resist change.

“From a neuroscience perspective, we become habituated to tolerating the intolerable because our brain likes things to be predictable and stable,” says O’Neill. “Your subconscious brain is responsible for ensuring your survival and is constantly scanning your surroundings for danger. Letting go of what’s familiar changes the environment and releases stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to help you deal with the threat.” 

Humans no longer fear being hunted by wild animals, yet our body’s evolutionary response actually impairs the thinking part of the brain and can keep us from making changes — even when we’d benefit from them.

Letting go is good for us 
Dropping off household items at a donation center can feel freeing. Finally making a decision can be liberating. And that’s because clinging takes a lot of emotional energy. 

“We tend to underestimate the psychological toll of tolerating things that we should release,” says O’Neill. “Holding on to things steals our energy.”  

In addition to the emotional benefit of letting go, there are physical benefits. 

“Letting go increases our self-esteem, improves our mood and can lead to improved quality of sleep,” says Kent. “Letting go of the past — including the beliefs, memories, expectations, identities and stories you have been telling yourself — frees you to create new ones in the present moment, and in your future.”

How to let go

Letting go is a life-long practice. It requires paying attention to what you feel, learning to identify what you want and recognizing when it’s time to say goodbye. The next time you feel stuck or unable to let go of something in your life, here are some tips to help you tune in to what you want, and decide what you no longer need.

  • Write it down. Writing in a journal can help you figure out how you feel and what you think. Reflect on what you’re trying to release. How did it start? What has it meant to you? How have you grown as a result? 
  • Express gratitude. Take time to recognize how something (or someone) shaped you. Our lives are dynamic processes, which means that no experience is ever wasted. Give thanks for what you learned, mourn the loss and then release it. 
  • Move your body. Holding tightly to anything is hard. Move your body — take a walk, do jumping jacks, skip rope — to get the blood flowing. Research shows that even short bursts of activity can increase your overall well-being.
  • Be kind to yourself. Making decisions is exhausting. Talk to yourself as you would a friend or loved one. Do something that gives you comfort and makes you feel good. Research shows that practicing self-compassion can decrease anxiety and depression. 
  • Breathe. We take our breath for granted, but every exhalation is an opportunity to release, and every inhalation a chance to start again. Paying attention to your breath is an easy and immediate way to let go, over and over, in every moment.

Megan Fulwiler left a tenured position in academia to pursue universal uncertainty in Vermont. Now she lives with her husband, their black lab — and too many house plants — in the country. She’s a slow runner, fast reader and novice gardener. When she’s not writing, she can be found working as a content strategist for a startup company or hiking in the Green Mountains.


This story originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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