There are times in life when holding on demonstrates our internal fortitude and immense strength, but there are other occasions when refusing to let go epitomizes weakness and fear. I’ve been struggling with this fine balance for most of my adult life. In the words of Deepak Chopra, “In the process of letting go, you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself.” I think his Holiness the Dalai Lama articulated this contradiction best when he said: “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”
I don’t seem to have too much difficulty letting go of things, but when it comes to people, it’s another issue entirely. What I’m trying to navigate better now is recognizing when it’s prudent to let go of people in my life rather than simply running away from them like I’ve done on so many occasions. I’m working on cultivating a sense of trust in my decisions so that I don’t equate walking away from someone as cutting the ripcord and free-falling to earth.
The older I get, the more I believe I only have room to successfully nourish a finite number of relationships at any give time. Maintaining healthy relationships takes a lot of effort, and I’d like to point out that I’m not complaining about that—Making authentic connections with people has become the driving force behind everything I do now. Even though I’ve been married for over 26 years, it’s only been in the past 5 months that I’ve started to view my relationship with my wife as relationship that needs to be nurtured daily. I’ve been guilty of taking the most important relationship in my life for granted, as I’ve mistakenly learned to let complacency and past resiliency govern what I cherish most.
When it comes to letting go of relationships, certain themes always rise to the surface. Does it have to be all or nothing? Can we relegate a primary relationship to a less significant connection? Am I able to disengage from an unhealthy relationship, or do I allow guilt and public opinion determine who I permit to stay in my life? So, how do you determine whether or not it’s time to let someone go? Here is a list of 5 things I keep in mind before making that decision.
1. Is the person a balloon or a ballast?
Last spring when I disclosed to people close to me that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, for the first in my life, I was able to make an honest survey of people in my life, and I determined that at this pivotal time when I’m most fragile, I want to surround myself with people who lift me up emotionally and spiritually. I don’t have time for toxic relationships from naysayers who constantly tap my energy and self-worth. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was to decide to end my relationship with my mother. Even if I can get past the issues of physical abuse as a child, and the fact that she walked out on me when I was nine, I could no longer accept that every time I was with her I felt inadequate and unsupported. Sometimes walking away is the strongest thing you can do.
2. Relationships should be a zero sum game.
Every solid relationship is built on a bedrock of reciprocal love and support. Life is too short to be held back by people who seem to have an insatiable ability to drain my energy and time, and never offer support in return. I know this is a delicate subject because at times, we will all take more than we give, but I believe there needs to be a cumulative balance. Even when I spend a lot of time working with someone struggling in the early days and months of sobriety, the time I invest is richly repaid in feelings of industry, self-worth, and empathy that I receive.
3. Ask yourself who’s in the driver’s seat?
We all can benefit from constructive criticism, but hurtful communication be it bullying, pessimism, or malicious gossip can derail even the most resilient of us. I’m beginning to trust my intuition more and not let someone else's guilt, insecurity, or fears disempower my dreams—my vision.
4. Don’t not do the thing you can’t not do!
Lifelines are good, but they can easily become a noose that tethers my growth. In the words of Christopher Columbus, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” We all have a passion inside of us that once it begins to grow, it can’t be silenced without losing a piece of our soul. Some of us are fortunate to find that inner calling early in life, while others struggle a lifetime trying to coax it to the surface. I believe there is nothing more attractive, more inspiring, than witnessing an individual pursuing his/her passion. As a spouse, a parent, or a friend, I have a duty to cultivate that nascent passion in others.
5. Nothing good ever came from people pleasing.
If you’re a people pleaser, you yearn for outside validation, and if you’re like me, saying “yes” to everyone and everything is almost like an addiction that fuels your sense of self-worth. The painful truth is that when I pathologically say “yes”, nine times out of ten, I find myself trying to weasel out of something I’ve committed to. This has been such a painful psychotic dance that’s played out many times over the years, so the strategy I’m starting to rely on as an antidote to this public embarrassment is to not give an immediate answer to other people’s requests. Stepping back from the situation and analyzing whether or not I honestly am capable of fulfilling this commitment, allows me the “space” to respond authentically.
I’d love to hear from you about how you’ve dealt with letting go, and whether or not you feel that some relationships naturally run their course, and even whether you would include relationships with family in that group.