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?
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