If you worry too much about what might be, or what might have been, you will ignore and overlook what is. Remember this. On the average day happiness is letting go of what you assume life is supposed to be like, and sincerely appreciating it for everything it is.
Over the past decade, as Marc and I have gradually worked with hundreds of our course students, coaching clients, and live event attendees, we’ve come to understand that the root cause of most human stress is simply our stubborn propensity to hold on to things. In a nutshell, we hold on tight to the hope that things will go exactly as we imagine, and then we complicate our lives to no end when they don’t.
For example, there are a number of times when our minds cling to unhelpful ideals…
- Life isn’t suppose to be this way, I need it to be different
- There is only one thing I want, I can’t be happy without it
- I am absolutely right, the other person is absolutely wrong
- This person should love me, and want to be with me
- I should not be alone, should not be overweight, should not be exactly how I am right now, etc.
In all of these common examples the mind holds on tight to something—an ideal—that isn’t real. And after awhile the inevitable happens—lots of unnecessary stress, anxiety, unhappiness, self-righteousness, self-hate, and depressive emotions ensue.
So how can we stop holding on so tight?
By realizing that there’s almost nothing to hold on to in the first place.
Most of the things we desperately try to hold on to, as if they’re real, certain, solid, everlasting fixtures in our lives, aren’t really there. Or if they are there in some form, they’re changing, fluid, impermanent, or at least partially imagined in our minds. Life gets a lot easier to deal with when we remind ourselves of this and live accordingly.
Today, let’s actively practice doing just that…
1. Practice letting everything breathe.
As you read these words, you are breathing. Stop for a moment and notice this breath. You can control this breath, and make it faster or slower, or make it behave as you like. Or you can simply let yourself inhale and exhale naturally. There is peace in just letting your lungs breathe, without having to control the situation or do anything about it. Now imagine letting other parts of your body breathe, like your tense shoulders. Just let them be, without having to tense them or control them.
Now look around the room you’re in and notice the objects around you. Pick one, and let it breathe. There are likely people in the room with you too, or in the same house or building, or in nearby houses or buildings. Visualize them in your mind, and let them breathe.
When you let everything and everyone breathe, you just let them be, exactly as they are. You don’t need to control them, worry about them, or change them. You just let them breathe, in peace, and you accept them as they are. This is what letting go is all about. It can be a life-changing practice.
2. Practice accepting your present reality, and just floating.
Imagine you’re blindfolded and treading water in the center of a large swimming pool, and you’re struggling desperately to grab the edge of the pool that you think is nearby, but really it’s not—it’s far away. Trying to grab that imaginary edge is stressing you out, and tiring you out, as you splash around aimlessly trying to holding on to something that isn’t there.
Now imagine you pause, take a deep breath, and realize that there’s nothing nearby to hold on to. Just water around you. You can continue to struggle with grabbing at something that doesn’t exist… or you can accept that there’s only water around you, and relax, and float.
Truth be told, inner peace begins the moment you take a new breath and choose not to allow an uncontrollable event to dominate you in the present. You are not what happened to you. You are what you choose to become in this moment. Let go, breathe, and begin again. (Note: Marc and I discuss this in more detail in the “Adversity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
3. Practice challenging the stories you keep telling yourself.
Many of the biggest misunderstandings in life could be avoided if we simply took the time to ask, “What else could this mean?” A wonderful way to do this is by using a reframing tool we initially picked up from research professor Brene Brown, which we then tailored through our coaching work with students and live event attendees. We call the tool The story I’m telling myself. Although asking the question itself—“What else could this mean?”—can help reframe our thoughts and broaden our perspectives, using the simple phrase The story I’m telling myself as a prefix to troubling thoughts has undoubtedly created many “aha moments” for our students and clients in recent times.
Here’s how it works: The story I’m telling myself can be applied to any difficult life situation or circumstance in which a troubling thought is getting the best of you. For example, perhaps someone you love (husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.) didn’t call you or text you when they said they would, and now an hour has passed and you’re feeling upset because you’re obviously not a high enough priority to them. When you catch yourself feeling this way, use the phrase: The story I’m telling myself is that they didn’t call me because I’m not a high enough priority to them.
Then ask yourself these questions:
- Can I be absolutely certain this story is true?
- How do I feel and behave when I tell myself this story?
- What’s one other possibility that might also make the ending to this story true?
Give yourself the space to think it all through carefully.
Challenge yourself to think better on a daily basis—to challenge the stories you subconsciously tell yourself and do a reality check with a more objective mindset. (Note: Our newest publication via Penguin Random House, “The Good Morning Journal: Powerful Prompts and Reflections to Start Every Day”, is a great tool for daily reality checks and perspective shifts.)
4. Practice putting the figurative glass down.
Twenty years ago, when Marc and I were just undergrads in college, our psychology professor taught us a lesson we’ve never forgotten. On the last day of class before graduation, she walked up on stage to teach one final lesson, which she called “a vital lesson on the power of perspective and mindset.” As she raised a glass of water over her head, everyone expected her to mention the typical “glass half empty or glass half full” metaphor. Instead, with a smile on her face, our professor asked, “How heavy is this glass of water I’m holding?”
Students shouted out answers ranging from a couple of ounces to a couple of pounds.
After a few moments of fielding answers and nodding her head, she replied, “From my perspective, the absolute weight of this glass is irrelevant. It all depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute or two, it’s fairly light. If I hold it for an hour straight, its weight might make my arm ache. If I hold it for a day straight, my arm will likely cramp up and feel completely numb and paralyzed, forcing me to drop the glass to the floor. In each case, the absolute weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it feels to me.”
As most of us students nodded our heads in agreement, she continued. “Your worries, frustrations, disappointments, and stressful thoughts are very much like this glass of water. Think about them for a little while and nothing drastic happens. Think about them a bit longer and you begin to feel noticeable pain. Think about them all day long, and you will feel completely numb and paralyzed, incapable of doing anything else until you drop them.”
Think about how this relates to your life right now.
If you’ve been struggling to cope with the weight of what’s on your mind today, it’s a strong sign that it’s time to put the figurative glass down.
Renewing Your Faith
A big part of practicing letting go is gradually renewing your faith in yourself. This ‘renewed faith’ means finding the willingness to live with uncertainty, to feel your way through each day, to let your intuition guide you like a flashlight in the dark.
It’s about standing firmly on your own two legs without the crutches you’ve been holding on to, and gradually taking small steps forward…
And YOU ARE strong enough to take those steps!
YOU’VE GOT THIS!
So what if, for today, you choose to believe that you have enough and you are enough? What if, for today, you choose to believe that you are strong enough, wise enough, kind enough, and loved enough to take a positive step forward? What if, for today, you accepted people exactly as they are, and life exactly as it is? What if, as the sun sets on today, you choose to believe that the little bits of progress you made were more than enough for one day? And what if, tomorrow, you choose to believe it all over again?
Practice making those choices.
Practice letting go and renewing the faith you once had in both yourself and the world around you.
Before you go, please leave Marc and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
How has holding on too tight affected your life?
Finally, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Jenn B. says
I love the analogy of letting everything breathe.. I’ve been struggling ever since finding out my husband has been unfaithful and lying to me about it for so long.. I’ve been so hurt and the feeling of betrayal is crippling.
This helps me so much. I’ve been holding this glass for too long now and need to let those emotions go.
I’m so grateful that your inspiring posts find me at the exact time i need to read them.
Much love 🙂
Thanks for writing about these topics. It gave me some insight about myself & changes I could make in my life.
I promised myself to keep saying those words of enough to myself countless time a day so that it become part of me….
I AM WISE, STRONG, HIGHLY KNOWLEDGEABLE….
Angela Moore-Martin says
Your content has gotten me through some tough times…I’ve learned so much and have been so inspired and motivated. Keep doing what you guys are doing, you’re making a difference in someone’s life…you have mine!
Blessings and peace,
Sheila A Brooks says
Thank you so much for taking the time to pour your wisdom and teaching into everyday people who just sometimes forget to breathe!! I’m learning that it’s ok to be right where I am in life. I just need to breathe and allow everything and everyone else around me to breathe!
Desiree Mickens says
This analogy was just what I needed to hear and read! It’s been a rough few months and year actually. Emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spirituality. Recent Lupus diagnosis which left me unable to work. Now of course financial constraints. A brief failed marriage but with a real long separation. After reading your article I choose to truly let go, breathe and move forward! Thank you for sharing your time and encouraging words 🙂
Thank you. I am going through a divorce and have to do my projected budget for the court. It’s scary and I just want it to be over. I have beautiful children and a beautiful life but I have a cloud of fear over me. Your messages have been so helpful and motivating. ~ thank you!
John McQuade says
So I’m trying to let go of the loss of my wife a year ago. Not that I will ever want to forget or get over it. Just accepting that life has changed for me. We were married for 53 years and known each other since grade school. No use thinking about what we would have if she was still alive. That’s gone. This article has helped some and given me a little needed perspective. Thank you.
Love all of your emails and essays, they are so inspiring and helpful in putting everything into perspective. This one is perfect for me right now with a life transition I’ve been forced to deal with. Thank you.
Karen Erickson-King says
This article arrived in my inbox at such in uncanny time. I’ve had a man in my life on and off for 11 years and we’ve not been able to “get there”. I’ve hung onto an idea of potential that I’ve come to realize will never be. And that the reality of the relationship was never what I thought it was . I have tried to break free of the agony of holding on and know now it was never about me not being good enough. It was about who he is and what he’s only capable giving.
Thank you for such a powerful article.
Thank you Karen, you put into words what I have been unable to accept. I had a man in my life for 3 years, who put his arm around me one day and said “I dont love you any more, but I still want to be your friend”. My life came crashing down around me. That was 1 year ago and I have been frozen in time since, unable to accept that this could happen to me .
I love your comment. It relates 100% to me and a 10 year relationship with a woman that just ended a couple months ago. I need to get to where you are and understand what it means by it’s about what she is capable of giving me. I’m still stuck in blaming myself.
Carroll Harris says
Powerful message. The example of holding a glass is a great way to think about how we can control what we focus on and what we let impact us.
Tanya Y Long says
I enjoyed reading this article because I am in my head a lot and can’t seem to escape all the negative thoughts rolling around. Focusing on today and that right now I am enough, and life is what it is right now is important for me. Also, to renew my faith in God and myself and breathe.This was very helpful. Thank you
Great essay. Came at the right time. I’ve been lugging around some emotional baggage for a while. The glass analogy was so helpful, as well as the ability to accept things the way they are instead of attaching them to some personal emotional kite I’m flying. Thank you.
Robin R says
I’m in my mid-twenties and I’ve rushed myself through MULTIPLE big changes in the past 9 months to the point that I quit my most recent job due to overall burnout, poor productivity that they’d already noticed and heightening anxiety. Now unemployed and living back home with my parents, I feel at my worst and lowest. Just completely vulnerable and naked it feels like. I’ve never had time like this to just be and it feels so odd being the only person or thing in my head. I’m used to distracting myself with the lives of others, the problems of others, anything that has nothing to do with sitting with myself and my thoughts. It’s tough acknowledging my own self-abandonment. However, I’m pushing through to my very best ability. Holding onto that glass full of all my frustration, impatience, irritability, and impulsiveness is what makes days harder for me and I really don’t want to spend a second more of my time watching myself struggle with something I know I can control. But I love that I made time to read this early enough in my day so that I can try to apply these practices to start me off today so thank you for this!
Moira Burger says
Its been a long time since i read such sensible, meaningful words online, which i will practice daily from now on. Thank you so much.
Trudy W says
I needed to read it. I was recently terminated from a job I loved! It took me 54 years to find this job and in the blink of a moment, it was all over. I have become so consumed in the thoughts surrounding this that I’m forgetting to smell the roses. I was holding that glass up for a week and I’m really tired, I’m going to put the glass down now. Thank you
We are about to enter the Empty Nest stage of life. I am so grateful for this message as it tells me to enjoy the process of moving forward and to let off the brake.and enjoy the ride. I can’t control this, but I will enjoy the next chapter.
Annette Cook says
I can’t thank you enough for this helpful reminder to live each moment as it comes, let go and accept the now. We never know what our next moment may bring…enjoying the now/present has brought me so much comfort, joy, and peace! 🙂 I also love the thought by Anne Frank “What a wonderful thought it is that some of our best days of our lives haven’t happened yet.” May God bless you for blessing so many lives with your helpful information. Appreciate you!!
I can relate to letting go and just breathing. I lost my husband of a massive heart attack and recently suffered what I thought was a heart attack but instead was told it was a panic attack. I was taught to breathe and to let go of what could have been and accept what is. It’s a day at a time learning to deal with the loss but life goes on.
Mrs Indre Johnston says
I really loved the ‘let it breath’ part.
Tracey Taylor says
Thank you both for sharing your skills and talents coaching us in our journeys through the wilderness by providing a road less traveled for courage, acceptance and peace! I have been carrying far too much weight in several different complex areas of my life and now can see the forest of opportunity through the trees! Much appreciation, best blessings to you both for your kindness work in helping others, -trace taylor and Service Dog myka
Laurie Young says
I really enjoyed this article. Especially, when the first step is about focusing your breath and on breathing. How we are able to control the certain ways we are able to use our breathing. Or, we can stop controlling it and just breathe as it would normally do.
What I got from that was as much as we try and control things to our perspective when and if we stop trying to manipulate the situation we realize that
things don’t stop because we stop trying to control it, but it goes on and it does as it naturally would.
A wonderful truth. If only more people would come to this realization of this truth.
Thank you for this essay. It’s an extremely valuable teaching that I myself came to realize years ago when I was trapped in the grip of control and I couldn’t fathom why things would not work out as I perceived. It never would, but I learned the valuable lesson of “Letting Go!”
I needed this article today. I was “telling myself a story” over and over again and it truly was starting to change my mood. This article hit on a lot of good points. I will remember to think about the stories I tell myself. Breathe in everything. And not hold on to things too long to avoid the pain.
Eric Sinmons says
I think this is very simple intuitive way of allowing people to make a small but powerful change of perspective. I think anyone struggling with different aspects of their lives could benefit from being able to adjust their perspectives & see things for as they are as opposed to how they feel from their own personal aspect. Which I’d believe can influence significantly their judgement of the level of impact of events. I am personally struggling with a end to a relationship that has left me in a dark hole so to speak & I feel this essay is giving me another tool to use in finding my way back from here. I appreciate the work you’ve done here & I’m sending this to a friend who is struggling through a separation after many years.
Craig Hilleary says
I love the use of “A glass of water”. I’m 69 years young. I wish that I can come across your illustrations many years ago. But, taking a breath, redirecting my focus and cleansing my thoughts is so rewarding. Thnx
Thank you both so much for sharing that!! Definitely the clarity and guidance I’ve been wanting to read or come across.. So Thank you again 🙂
Amazing, it’s really inspiring and I needed all that badly…. thank you so much for your words
I love the part about just floating. I have this massive fear of being unanchored vessel without control. But I realise to change and evolve I need to let go, start floating instead of clutching at straws. I’m glad I’ve stumbled upon this article.
Shush the voices in my head.
Keep the glass down before it damages a nerve.
Knowing that though we are in the centre of God’s will, life still happens.
Great and helpful article. #4 especially hit home. My son and I lost my husband/his dad suddenly 3 years ago, and that “glass” has weighed us down ever since. This is an eye opener that I look forward to sharing with my son.
This morning, a little voice told me…let it go. And I didn’t understand it because I thought I already had. Then I read your words. The part about accepting reality, that works if you’re stuck with that reality, I guess. I had decided to make a new one. One where it’s easier to be happy. But now, I think I can leave room for that other thing… The one I’ll let be like it is. So, thanks. V
nealla rosales says
I have had depression and anxiety for 22 years. This touched me more than anyone can imagine. Thank you for this article.
Thank you for this, and please keep it coming. I am progressing in this endeavor but I’m still in need of frequent reminders.
This article is beyond gold.
I recently found out that my wife cheated and confronted about it she tried to justify the infidelity. That justification scarred me more than the cheating. Made me feel like a third wheel.
Today I breathe and move towards healing. Thank you for these words and God bless you both in your work.
So what I needed to read today. Thank you for your insights and the time and energy you put into your research and writing in service to others. So grateful.
Helen P. says
Very insightful essay. Was just pondering this letting go of a relationship earlier tonight. Trying to put all the right sentences together in my head to have this conversation with him. He’s a great guy in many ways and I’ll be sad to let our many years go, but I’ve come to the realization that it’s never going to be anything more than friends and I don’t want to continue on this same path, holding on for some glimmer of hope. You’ve said a lot of things that make total sense and I shall follow through with this much needed wisdom. Thank you for helping me see the light.