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Letting Go

Unhealthy relationships, beliefs, and feelings are a source of pain and regret.

Key points

  • Many of us are reluctant to change our perceptions or habits, even though we know we would be happier and healthier.
  • Often our resistance to discontinue certain relationships, behaviors, and beliefs is based on fear.
  • In those situations that must be maintained, adopting a new perspective may help alleviate one’s discomfort.
  • Letting go of certain relationships, feelings, hopes, and beliefs is not easy or comfortable, partly because it is confronting reality.

During spring, many people go through their belongings and decide what they want to dispose of and what they want to keep. Maybe we should do the same for behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. This type of cleaning does not have to occur during a particular season; it can be performed whenever one has experienced an event or felt that this is a time for letting go of that which is psychologically unhealthy, such as:

  • Spending a large amount of time and energy on the issue and making little progress
  • Reliving pain, sadness, or disappointment
  • Feeling frustrated or angry
  • Admitting that there is little to no hope for a resolution

Factors That May Be the Impetus for Letting Go

Engaging in “letting go” is not something we do regularly. We may think about doing it, and we may even make a vow to do it, but for whatever reason, most of us seldom follow through. Sometimes it takes a strong stimulus to get us moving in the direction of letting go.

A Brush With Death

The experience of almost dying may not only be frightening but also remind one of the fragility of life. Letting go of negative and nonconsequential matters can be freeing and thus lead to growth and strength. Researchers found that following a close brush with death, people often develop different goals from what they sought before, or they may revisit their values and reprioritize what is now important to them (Martin & Kleiber, 2005).

A brush with death often leads to positive thinking and behavior. For example, refusing to do things one does not want to do or having a greater appreciation of life and others. It is a wake-up call about the limited time one has and how one now wants to spend it. People may undergo an assessment of the life they’ve led, who they were, and their relationships with others. This close examination and resultant revelation can be a prompt for letting go of that which does not give meaning or value to one’s life.

Extending Forgiveness

In some situations, forgiveness can be one of the most difficult acts and emotions one can perform. The transgression by another may have been great. It may have been performed with the intent to hurt. Nevertheless, the emotions and thoughts of pain and resentment experienced by the recipient toward the offender often simmer over time and cause oneself further distress if not reconciled. Letting go of thoughts of resentment and retaliation can release a person from a state of anger, thereby allowing them to transition to positivity as well as encouraging gracious and moral behavior. Forgiveness encourages one to act in a beneficent, compassionate, and generous way (Rotter, 2001).

Forgiveness may not always be directed toward others; we must also be self-forgiving. Making mistakes is part of being human, as is granting ourselves mercy. We are not perfect. Accepting this, as well as working toward being a better person, is the true goal.

Forgiving others as well as ourselves results in

  • Improved well-being
  • Greater confidence
  • The ability to deal with challenges
  • A reduction in stress
  • Better cardiovascular health


Perhaps one of the most important as well as difficult situations in “letting go” is that of attachments. Attachments are connections. Often, they have a long history and may have strong bonds. Yet, circumstances may arise when it is more beneficial for the person to end the connection than to continue.

People learn a great deal about the world, others, and themselves from their life experiences. They learn how to adapt psychologically to changes and that the course of life is not static but fluid. Thus, maintaining a stronghold on beliefs that are now outdated is not beneficial if one is to thrive. Refusing to let go of certain beliefs or behaviors that are no longer contributing to our development restricts our ability to grow and gain wisdom (Whitehead, Bates, & Elphinstone, 2020). Whereas being open-minded and not holding on to limited perspectives enhances the development of a better awareness of oneself.

Attachment to others is important; however, it depends on who those people are and the impact they have on one’s well-being. We know about the need to stay away from toxic and opportunistic people, but what about people who ask for but give very little in return? There is no clear demarcation as to what initially constitutes the necessary threshold level of taking advantage of another. Each of us determines that point and hopefully recognizes it before being exploited to the degree of meaningful harm.

Nevertheless, when the relationship does not provide a meaningful and positive effect on oneself, it may be time to “cut bait” and either significantly limit the time spent together or end the relationship. Punishing oneself for maintaining an unhealthy relationship is not advisable; we have all made mistakes or had our reasons for not letting go. Feelings of regret or remorse for not acting sooner are understandable, but adopting a new perspective of taking charge enhances our ability to recover and avoid future imbalanced relationships.


Experiencing the twilight of one’s years may trigger a different set of life choices than those formerly held. As people age, many go through a change in expectations and desires. This may be a result of various physical and mental limitations. Additionally, lived experiences and their outcomes can now play a role in what to avoid and seek.

For successful aging to occur, people should have a realistic assessment of what they can and cannot achieve. Wishing and hoping is an optimistic endeavor that does not always come to fruition. The importance of adapting to the limiting issues in one’s life will enhance successful aging. Denying the obvious sets one up for disappointment.

Perhaps the most important activities to “let go” are those that are not personally meaningful at this stage of life. Well-being is enhanced, and integrity is preserved when a person is less concerned with “self and material well-being“ (Martin & Kleiber, 2005, p. 227). Moreover, the wisdom gained from understanding what is important now makes it easier to put into perspective the dreams and goals of one’s younger years.

Recognizing the many situations when letting go is in our own best psychological and physical interests is important not only to us but to those affected by our well-being. We owe a better quality of life to ourselves and those close to us.


Martin, L. L. & Kleiber, D. A. (2005). Letting go of the negative: Psychological growth from a close brush with death. Traumatology, 11(4), 221-32.

Rotter, J. C. (2001). Letting go: Forgiveness in counseling. The Family Journal, 9(2), 174-17.

Whitehead, R., Bates, G., & Elphinstone, B. (2020). Growing by letting go: Nonattachment and mindfulness as qualities of advanced psychological development. Journal of Adult Development, 27(1), 12–22.

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