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  • Cheryl Libutti

The Psychology of Letting Go


Happy New Year! If you are like most people, you've chosen a few goals for the New Year (I'm not a huge fan of the word "resolution") and organizing may be one of your goals. You identify an area that drives you crazy, grab a few garbage bags, put on some music, and carve out a few hours of time. You're ready. Now what?

If you are like most people I work with, you pick up the first item and immediately get stuck. You've picked up a book you've read and liked or a piece of paper or a program from a concert your kid was in or a t-shirt that you really like but got a stain on it last summer and haven't properly tried to get out the stain yet because who has time for specialty laundry?? What do you do with this stuff? Toss it? Donate it somewhere? To who? How do I bring it there? When? What if I don't want to let go of this item? What if it hurts?

Maybe it's just easier to keep it. Let it sit there for longer because this is really overwhelming and hard.

I did a talk for a Girlfriend's Getaway Weekend, full of middle-aged women, and the audience asked me some great questions. The one that stuck with me the most was part of this larger story: the woman had a childhood doll that she loved and played with and cherished. As she was approaching her teenage years, her mother made her give up her doll and put it in the garbage. She explained in painful detail that she remembers hearing the garbage truck pull up to her home, and the feeling of loss associated with letting that item go. She told me she still hurts thinking about it. If I was working with her, would I make her give up that doll?

I'm pretty sure she was asking me if I would hurt her the way her mom had hurt her. "No, of course not," I told her. "I never ever force people to let go of things." She went on to say that sometimes she thinks about searching eBay or other online sites so she can re-purchase the doll and feel it in her arms again. She was absolutely triumphant thinking about re-possessing that doll and filling that hurt of loss from so many years ago.

"You absolutely can do that," I told her. "You can hug it and love it and have all those good and fuzzy thoughts and feelings come back to you. But let me ask you this: once you have it again, what are you going to do with it?"

"I don't really know," she answered, somewhat startled by my question. "Keep it on my bed? I'm not sure."

And she had really perfectly illustrated what I see over and over again with clients: they have things that they have attached warm and fuzzy feelings to and giving that item up causes pain and loss and hurt. So to avoid those feelings, they never make a decision, never let the item go, never deal with the sense of chaos around them that brings them down every day. It's too hard and it hurts too much.

See, our brains are amazing things: we have an experience with something, attach an emotion to it, and violá, the track has been laid down in our brain that the item= good. We may lose track of that item or book or shirt or journal, but once we unearth it again, that rush of endorphins come roaring back. IT FEELS SO GOOD to be reunited! IT FEELS SO GOOD to re-read what we've written, re-experience the memory, remember where we wore it and how fun that night was.

Surely if we let go of the item, we will lose that sense of GOODNESS, of joy and warmth and positivity. We might even-GASP!-forget the memory. So we must hold on so we can re-experience and re-experience and re-experience again and again.

And what I tell my clients is this: trust what you know and live in the NOW.

Because if we cling to all of these things and build a wall of stuff around us and only live to re-experience the past, we are missing out on all the richness and joy and fresh experiences we could be having now. Those things become our prison, our way of shutting out the things that may hurt, and become a barrier to living in the now and moving forward.

You know what you know. I had a client for a long time who was a chronic note-taker of conversations, insights, readings, and experiences. She would find these notecards or journals or scraps of paper and want to re-read them. She would get that rush of endorphins and want to hang on to the paper (because good paper=good feelings). We had many long talks about how these nuggets of knowledge were inside of her already- she didn't need to hold on to the paper to know them. These insights were already ingrained in how she interacted, thought, felt and learned and holding on to the paper didn't make it more "real". She could let them go and make room for other insights, other conversations, other experiences. Trust yourself that you know these things.

Now, do I make people get rid of everything? No, of course not. But I like to keep a critical eye on how much clients are keeping for that endorphin rush. I will challenge them a bit. Sometimes I say,"Tell me more about this item" or we retrace the last time they touched/ used/ thought about/ needed the item.

And if you do get rid of things, like that book you liked or t-shirt you wore to the picnic that got stained, does it hurt?

Sometimes it does hurt. It feels empty and wasteful and you feel guilty and sad. And that's okay. I'm here with you to feel those feelings and walk through it. I'm cheering you on as you make decision after decision, sometimes at an incredibly slow pace, and listen to your thoughts and concerns about letting it go. I support you and hold your hand. I celebrate the shelf that gets cleared, the chair that you can now sit on, the closet that smiles at you instead of yelling. I celebrate with every task that is easier, every item you can easily find because you know where it lives, and the feeling of lightness and relief when the project is over.

It's amazing.

When we work in houses that are laden with things, there is a physical and emotional transformation that occurs as we sort and reduce the volume. The room is lighter. We feel lighter. We feel the items in the room exhaling with relief from being trapped. Really, we do.

I hope you can see that it's not about the things. It's about the emotions our brain has connected to them, the pathways in our brain that have been laid down, and our incredibly human goal to avoid things that may hurt. And letting go hurts sometimes. But it's okay. It won't hurt forever. It will get better and better slowly, over time, and you will have new experiences that will overshadow that hurt and fill up your emptiness.

So tackle that project! Fill those garbage bags! Let go of those things that are weighing you down. Go forward confident that you can handle it and it will be better.

And if you need a helping, supportive hand, you know who to call. :)


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