Lighten up: 20 things to let go of for a happier life
Do you feel weighed down in life? Does your energy feel heavy, cluttered, or toxic? Are you carrying a lot of baggage from your past experiences and relationships? We accumulate a lot of emotional junk over the years, and often don’t notice the extra weight we’re carrying until we buckle underneath it.
Letting go of something is at heart a simple practice, even though our culture and the stories we tell ourselves about the people and things in our life can make it seem otherwise. We’ve all let go of things in the past, some easily, some with a struggle, and we know that we can’t truly hold on to anything in life. With that in mind, here’s a list of 20 things you could let go of for more peace, happiness and lightness in your life.
What are your ‘victim’ stories? “I’m this way because of how my upbringing was.” “If it wasn’t for X, I would be so much happier/wealthier/confident.” Any of us can claim a ‘right’ to feel hurt/angry/resentful/sad or whatever, about something that’s been done to or has happened to us. And it is important to get support to help you get out of unhealthy situations, and to move on. But we also have a ‘right’ to let go, move on, feel positive, feel stronger, when we are ready to do so. Other people’s actions and life events don’t directly produce our feelings; there’s a cognitive stage in between – it’s the interpretations, the stories we tell ourselves about those actions and events that creates our feelings. Growing up is about taking responsibility for our stories (not for other people’s actions) and therefore our experiences in life. Pay attention to the language you choose when describing your life.
Who or what have you been you blaming in your life for your circumstances? What can you do to take back responsibility – and power – in your life? Is there something you need to talk about with a professional? Please do seek help and when you’re ready, know that you can take back control of much that feels outside of your control right now.
2. Expecting others to give you what you need
We have few real ‘needs’ in life, and many more wants. Expecting others to meet our needs is disempowering to us, and unfair to others. We can of course request that others help us meet our needs, but we must recognise that people are free to say yes or no. If they say no, we’re free to accept that, hopefully graciously, or move on. Expecting others to meet your needs puts pressure on relationships and robs you of your own power.
What needs are you expecting others to meet for you? How can you meet them yourself?
3. Complaining without taking action
Nothing would get changed for the better in this world if people didn’t see what was wrong, criticise it, and do something to change it. But quite often, we stop at the criticism bit, bitching and moaning without taking action. Constructive criticism is about observing what seems to be wrong, making suggestions for how it should be better, or, if we can’t think of any solutions, ask questions about how to make better. Sometimes we try to change things and it doesn’t work immediately, so we slip back into complaining, rather than trying again, or having the courage to leave. Complaining can become a habit, and confirmation bias can lead us to notice more and more of what we complain about. Try to cultivate a habit of gratitude to shift your focus to the positive and boost your resources for making changes. And next time you feel the urge to complain about something, ask yourself:
“What can I do about this thing, person or situation? How can I let it go, try to change it, cope with it or leave it? If I’ve already tried to change it, should I try again, or try something different?”
“Until you can make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate” – Carl Jung.
We often push away thoughts and ideas that are unpalatable to us, telling ourselves we’re doing something for one reason when really it’s another. Some people hide their feelings for fear of rejection. Some hide anger because they believe it’s wrong, or to avoid confrontation – then it leaks out anyway as passive aggression. Some hide talents, preferences or personality traits for fear of being judged, or of failing – leading to wasted opportunities, disappointment and resentment.
What are you hiding, and from whom?
5. Need for approval
Approval is a nice feeling. It’s important when we need others’ buy-in to achieve our goals. But as a general life strategy, relying on others people’s approval is one of the most debilitating things we can do. Others’ opinions of us sometimes contain useful information. Often, however, they’re contaminated or warped by the other person’s own ‘stuff’. We all have natural biases, but the more work you do on your self-awareness, the more honest you are with yourself about your strengths and flaws, the more immune you are to others’ opinions. Figure out your values, and try every day to live up to them, accepting that some days you will do better than others. This way, you can feel ‘good enough’, and everyone else’s opinion shrinks to what it should be – extra, optional input.
When you’re 90, are you going to look back at your life and wish you’d pleased more people, or that you were true to yourself?
6. Saying yes automatically
We teach others how to treat us. If you say yes out of a sense of obligation, rather than as a generous choice, you may resent it, perhaps feel guilty about resenting it, and try and hide the resentment from yourself.
When and to whom do you say yes, when you really want to say no? What if you did say no?
7. Saying no automatically
Fear of failure, anxiety, resistance to change, limiting beliefs about who we are and what we’re capable of – these are all reasons why we might automatically say ‘no’ to ideas and opportunities. Next time you are about to say no, ask yourself:
“What if I could I do this? What would saying yes give me, or help me become?”
“Blame yourself once, then move on” – Homer Simpson
The yellow sage has it right, I think. Blaming yourself once for a mistake is all you need to get useful information from it (i.e. what went wrong, and why). Then, move on to making amends, or apply what you’ve learned. The past is gone and can’t be changed; don’t waste your precious energy wishing otherwise.
What can you do with what you’ve learned from your mistakes to make your present and future better?
I’ve talked before about how optimism is generally more healthy than pessimism, but the odd bit of pessimism has its use. Defeatism is a different beast. It’s called ‘learned helplessness’; a belief that we don’t have any control, which makes us give up and lie down. If you’re thinking “I can’t see a way forward”, ask yourself:
“What if I could? What would 10-year-old me say I should do? 80-year-old me?” Think of the most resourceful person you know, and ask them for ideas, or just ask yourself “What would they do?”
10. Black and white thinking
The world is not black and white; it is many shades of grey. Things are not either/or, good/bad, right/wrong. There are many ways of interpreting a situation and many possible choices to make in any given moment. One common type of black and white thinking is confusing behaviour with person. Describing someone as a ‘bad person’ because they’ve done something you judge bad doesn’t allow for any possibility of change. And if that person’s yourself, you build up feelings of shame that will harm you and your relationships with others. Shift your language to talk about behaviours rather than the person and you’ll allow for possibility of improvement.
Where are you thinking in black and white, and what other shades of meaning or possibilities can you make room for?
11. Control issues
Much suffering comes from trying to control things and people in a world full of change and unpredictability. In reality, whilst we can influence situations and people, we can never truly control anything other than our own reactions. This also means we can never be truly controlled by anything or anyone. In Man’s Search for Meaning*, Viktor Frankl wrote about surviving his time in a concentration camp by hanging on to the inner freedom of his own thoughts and imagination whilst everything external was controlled by his captors. Our business is to choose our reactions to the things that happen or are done to us.
Where in life do you feel a need to control things? Where are you allowing yourself to be controlled? What are the underlying issues, and how can you work on those (alone or with support)?
Perfectionism as a personality trait is different from just ‘striving to do your best’; it’s a strong desire for yourself or others to be perfect, and can involve unrealistic expectations, feelings of shame or self-punishment following ‘mistakes’, procrastination through fear of failure, an inability to enjoy achievements, hyper-criticism of self and others, anxiety, stress and depression. If this sounds familiar, please consider professional support (psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy can be very helpful). Otherwise, look out for perfectionistic thoughts, and ask yourself:
“Who am I trying to please? What am I afraid of if things aren’t ‘perfect’? Where am I holding myself or others to too-high standards? What would ‘good enough’ be like?”
13. Sacrificing your values
Kindness, openness, persistence, honesty, integrity – we each have our individual mix of values and prioritise them differently. For example, someone who sees honesty as more important than kindness might give blunt, uncomfortable but honest feedback to a friend when asked for it. Someone else, who values kindness more than honesty, might give different feedback, perhaps feeling justified in a white lie if it feels kinder than an uncomfortable truth. We tend to judge others’ actions by our own list of values and their priorities, but we’re all free to choose which values to honour, in what order. Life regularly throws up dilemmas where we’re forced to choose between values, and some situations just clash with our values. Sacrificing personal values can lead to great distress; feeling guilty, anxious, or depressed. It’s important to recognise what our values are and to regularly check if we’re honouring them in our livesif a particular situation, relationship or culture makes it very difficult to live by our values, we need to consider our options.
What are your most deeply-held values? Where in your life are you sacrificing them? What can you do in response – what can you add, get rid of, change, influence, leave?
14. Clinging to the status quo
We all crave stability to some extent, but some people fear/resist change more than others. Whilst sameness is comforting, and in some cases healthy (providing routine for children, e.g.), life doesn’t allow for absolute stability. Stepping out of our comfort zones develops our skills and learning strategies and helps us cope with unexpected change. It also, of course, gives us new opportunities we don’t get when we’re stuck in a rut.
Where in your life are you stuck in a rut? How would you handle change if it was forced on you? What changes – big or small – would you like to make? What would be the first step?
15. Living in the past
Nostalgia can be a beautiful, even a therapeutic, thing – but not if it prevents us from dealing with the present or from moving forward. Dwelling excessively on negative events in the past can increase feelings of pain, hopelessness and despair. If you need it, get support in working through past issues, or dealing with an issue in the present that you’re avoiding. The past is gone and the only place we have power is in the present. For dealing with unresolved issues, writing a letter to someone from your past (or your younger self) – and burning it – is one way to process feelings and give yourself a sense of closure. (You could also choose to send the letter to someone, but often this could create more drama. The key thing here is you processing your feelings for yourself; after you’ve done that, you may be able to have a healthier conversation with the person in question, or just move on without it.) Quite often, dwelling on the past is a mental habit, and can be changed – pay attention to how often you think or talk about the past, and practice bringing your attention back to the present. Mindfulness meditation is fantastically powerful for this.
Are you living in the past? What do you need to move on from? What inspiration, hobbies, elements can you take from your past and apply to your present? What can you do to be more present, and enjoy the present more?
16. Living in the future
On the other hand, living in the future can be unhealthy too! Whilst day-dreaming about future goals can be a great source of inspiration and motivation, sometimes people get stuck there, missing out on enjoying the present with their loved ones. Worse, they may fail to take action to get them where they want to go. Various studies have shown a link between day-dreaming and poor achievement – the more positive the fantasy, the less effort people put in to achieving their goals1. To be effective, day-dreaming needs to focus on the process of getting to your goal, seeing yourself taking action, and overcoming setbacks on the way. It also needs to be followed by committed action in the present and near future.
Are you living in the future? How can you be more present for yourself and others? Which of your dreams are you committed to? What action do you need to take today/this week/this month? How will you handle setbacks?
17. Heavy energy
Walking with heavy energy, speaking with a heavy tone of voice, choosing emotionally heavy words. These can all become habitual. Pay attention to the energy in your movements, speech and moods (recording/videoing yourself can be very revealing!), and choose to lighten up.
Is the energy in your movements, voice and conversations heavy or light? How can you make it lighter?
18. Toxic relationships
We don’t always realise how toxic a relationship is until we get a break from it, or experience a healthier one – and this includes our own input into it. We can ask for what we need (remember number 2!) , we can focus on behaviours we’d like to change, we can set healthy boundaries and we can decide to let go and move on. If a relationship is tangled up with other relationships – e.g. a partner with shared social circles or family member – leaving might not be easy. But life is really too short to waste on relationships that are damaging – especially when there are so many great ones we could be building with our time and energy. Consider whether you need stronger boundaries or whether you need to go full no-contact.
Which of your relationships are toxic? Do you need to change something? Ask the other for change? Set boundaries? Leave?
Physical clutter affects emotional energy, and owning stuff can create feelings of being tied down. Emotional shopping or feelings of inadequacy can lead us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. If something isn’t useful, meaningful or beautiful, do you really need to buy or keep it? When you’re shopping, test yourself on whether you really want or need the shiny thing in front of you. Leave it for a day or two if unsure – if you forget about it, it wasn’t that desirable or important.
What stuff do you really need? What can you donate/recycle/bin? Where could you start? (Which room/wardrobe/drawer/shelf?)
Really, this entire list has been a variation on one theme: letting go of our attachment. Attachment to things, people, feelings and beliefs about how the world ‘should’ be. Not being attached doesn’t mean not loving; it’s about ‘holding loosely’ – accepting that nothing is permanent, that only the present moment exists, and that we can’t truly control or own anything or anyone. Letting go of attachment is an ongoing learning process, and we can all practice it in little ways.
What feelings, ideas, things and people are you attached to in your life? What is lacking in yourself that you’re trying to get from outside? How might it feel to not hold on so tight?
[This article first appeared as two pieces in my wellbeing column in the Irish Sunday Mirror, in February 2015.]
1Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719-729 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003
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