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The Psychology of Letting Go

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A lot of people ask me this question: why is it so hard to let go and move on? For example, there’s this one friend of mine that has been through a lot of heartbreaks in life and whenever we got a chance to meet, letting go and moving on is usually, if not always, the topic we talk about.

Why is letting go so hard to do? I believe you have asked yourself this question at least once in your life and ended up frustrated because you can’t force yourself to do it even if you wanted to. Here are several reasons why letting go and moving on is hard to do.

You are afraid of change

Letting go is hard because it means that you need to free yourself from some aspects of your past. Things that have become a part of yourself – of what makes you who you are today. Most people understand this as getting rid of that “thing” resulting in a change in who you are. So, why not precariously think about when to leave her or let her go, by analysing the present situation and foreseeing the future? Here, you need to weigh the pros and cons, before taking such a crucial decision that can affect your entire life. 

You can find letting go to be scary. It forces you to change and face uncertainty and this means leaving behind what is usual and comfortable for you. Sometimes it feels easier to stay put and not take the chance thus, leaving you to be resistant to change.

There is much psychological research that suggests resistance to change. One study found that there is a certain level of discomfort a person can tolerate before acknowledging the need for change. This proves that change is always uncomfortable at first.

Low self-worth

Letting go may be extremely difficult for you especially if you have low self-worth. You may be of the people who talk badly about themselves. You probably think that you’re ugly, that you’re a failure, or that you deserve all the negative things that have happened to you. 

You find it hard to believe that you can reach your dreams and be successful, that you are an amazing, talented person, or that someone will love you more than the way you deserve. Leading to unhealthy habits such as self-sabotaging behaviours (that can lead to physical diseases such as heart disease or stroke), self-blame or worse, suicide.

Since you have low self-worth, once you experience something that you need to let go of, you tend to feel guilty about it, thus blaming yourself for what happened.

These are some of the reasons why letting go is hard to do. However, it is important to remember that letting go and moving on is not something that can instantly happen to you. Just like falling in love, letting go is a process. 

The process of moving on

According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist that pioneered near-death studies, there are five stages of letting go: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though her book it is specifically about stages of grief, many psychologists have used this model in explaining the process of letting go because it describes the emotional and psychological responses of people when faced with a life-threatening illness or life-changing situation.

  • Denial. It is the avoidance of a personal problem or reality by refusing to accept the existence of the problem or reality. This is characterised by shock or speechlessness. For example, you received a call from your siblings that one of your family members died. You may face this situation by being speechless and convincing yourself that it didn’t happen. You tend to find ways to prove to yourself that what you heard is not true. The denial stage is usually short-lived. Soon after entering it, most people begin to accept that it is the reality. However, some people use denial as a coping mechanism up to their grave.
  • Anger. As you accept your unfortunate reality, you will start to question yourself: ‘Why me?’. As a result, it brings you frustration and makes you angry at the person, the circumstance, or even the whole world.  For example, you caught your partner cheating on you. The first thing that you will do is to deny it by saying: “This is not true” or “That’s not him. He won’t ever do that to me.” Then as you begin to realise that your partner is really cheating on you, you become angry with your partner and maybe with all men in the universe. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes a person under this stage as someone who raises his voice, who make demands, and someone who complains a lot. For most people, the anger stage is usually short-lived. However, there are some who continue to be angry and even died angrily.
  • Bargaining. It is the stage where you cling to an irrational hope even when the facts say otherwise. This can be characterised by your inner dialogue or prayer. In simple words, it is what we call the ‘what ifs’. With the given example, this is when you start saying these words to yourself: ‘What if I have forgiven him?’, ‘What if I went home late that night and didn’t see it?’, ‘What if I gave him another chance?’ This is the stage where you make certain promises such as living a good life, helping the poor, never lie again, etc. as an attempt to bring you back to where you were before. People who enter this stage quickly learn that bargaining doesn’t work and inevitably move on to the next stage.
  • Depression. This is the stage where you feel that you lost but haven’t fully accepted it yet. It is when you realise that there’s nothing you can do but you are not prepared to accept it yet. With my first example, you may find yourself in the depression stage when you don’t want to talk to anyone, spend most of your time crying and have a hard time eating. Many people get stuck at this stage because they are not yet prepared to fully accept the reality they are dealing with. However, once they overcome this stage, they will find themselves feeling better as they have now come to the last stage which is acceptance.
  • Acceptance. The last stage of letting go is acceptance. It is a stage characterised by inner peace as you start to create your “new reality”. It is because you allowed yourself to go through the process and express grief, anger, depression, and regret. This is now the time when you finally understand and accept what you’re going through and decided to move forward.

Nikka Celeste is a wellness writer.

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