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Shedding the Past: The Healing Power of Knowing What to Keep and What to Let Go

By Mary Flett May 11, 2024 Mindset

I live in a community that holds an annual garage sale. This is an opportunity, as one of my friends said, to shift the stuff we no longer want to somebody else’s garage. While that has merit, there are some other interesting (and lighthearted) aspects of letting go of things.

What does it mean to let go? For me, there is a host of emotions depending on what I am letting go of. For example, I have kept a beat-up doll that I received as a gift when I was three. Letting go of my dolly is near impossible because it has acquired a history that continues to trigger memories that bring me joy. Without her, in spite of her condition, the gateway (or trigger) for those memories remains closed.

Give that doll away? Heck no!

Objects as Emotional Triggers

Other “things” are attached to emotions. Again, it’s not so much the object, but how that object represents a chain of thoughts, feelings, and memories. Certainly, pictures evoke emotions.

For years after my husband passed away, I had pictures of him all over my house. In the early days of my grieving, I would burst into tears, remembering the event associated with the pictures and feeling his absence deeply.

As time went by, my grief changed. Looking at those same pictures brought feelings of reassurance and happiness. Then, almost without notice, the pictures became part of the décor, and went virtually unnoticed.

This did not mean I forgot about my husband! Instead, the trigger lost its potency. I only recently moved most of his pictures to my home office. Newer pictures of my life thereafter now occupy those spots where his picture once stood. This act is a benchmark in my letting go of my grieving. It marked the passage in the grief process where I acknowledged that I was ready to move on.

Not Everything Is Easy to Let Go

Other letting-go’s are not so easy. Letting go of prejudices, vendettas, preferences, beliefs, hopes, dreams, fantasies all have their own power, both conscious and unconscious. For many of the folks I worked with over the years, there was real struggle and typically many years of suffering because they could not let go of beliefs that caused them to act in ways resulting in self-harm.

For example, some people responded to a belief that they were not pretty enough, happy enough, or worthy of having a loving partner by drinking too much or using substances to mask their pain. Letting go of these negative beliefs is difficult not just because of the belief itself, but because the strategy used to manage those feelings has negative consequences.

An Important Skill for Aging Better

I believe letting go is one of the most important skills needed as we age. I call it a “skill,” because the more you employ it in your life, the better you get at it. And the “opportunities” for using this skill occur more frequently as we age.

I put “opportunities” in quotes, because loss is part of aging. Some losses we have no control over. Death becomes an all too familiar event, as parents, mentors, and then peers pass.

Other losses involve displacement. For example, most of us will move at least two times after we retire. Moving is one of those opportunities to let go of stuff. In this case, it is the stuff left behind by the kids when they moved out, the stuff we inherited from our parents or gifts from friends, and the stuff of life that seems to accumulate effortlessly.

Triggers and Treasures

As we downsize, it is important to acknowledge that there are emotions associated with the things. I recently moved my office. In doing this, I let go of a couch that had been my grandmother’s. The couch itself was huge, awkward to move, and needed repair. But I was in tears as the movers took it away, feeling as if I was somehow betraying her memory. I was saying goodbye to my grandmother and all the times she had rocked me to sleep, cared for me when I was sick, watched her soap operas together, and entertained family and friends over decades. It was not just a couch. I was letting go of my grandmother.

Letting go is essential if we are to let new things in. Many of us are at capacity – already filled to the brim with stress, exhaustion, and responsibilities. This is particularly true if we are responsible for caring for another. Letting go of some of this responsibility may seem impossible, especially when finances are an issue or there is a lack of resources including caregivers, time, and energy.

Short Term/Long Term

In the short term, letting go in cases like this can feel catastrophic. In the long term, it may result in having change forced on us and our ability to direct and remain in charge taken away. I have seen this with friends and clients.

A husband and wife who desperately want to live independently, attempting to care for one another, but unable to get to doctor’s appointments, afford medication, and care for their home. Slowly, inevitably, because they would not let go of the desire to remain independent, outside agencies were called in, and the decision was made to admit the husband to a skilled-care facility.

His wife’s life changed drastically, as she experienced profound guilt and grieved over her husband having to be in skilled nursing. She could not visit him on a daily basis since she didn’t drive. She had been forced to let go of her way of life.

Confront the Difficult While It Is Still Easy

On the other hand, I have been privileged to work with people who have intentionally confronted traumatic experiences in their lives, where they have let go of the emotional baggage they had carried for so long. This way of letting go can be effective and very healing. It is an act of self-love that I wish more people would consider.

Use This Process

I often find myself ‘teaching’ my clients how to let go in our sessions. I invite you to practice using the following protocol. It really requires little effort on your part, as you are already engaged in doing this every day. However, you may not have thought about it in this way. I am talking about breathing.

Ever since you came into this world, you have been letting go with every exhalation. I now tell people you came with a pre-loaded app! Breathing in is an act of acquisition. Breathing out is an act of letting go. You already know how to do this. I invite you to do this with intention several times a day. Just pay attention to breathing out.

Maybe even let go of your breath in a slow way, extending it as long as you can, and completely emptying your lungs. I believe what you will find as you do this for a very short while, is that letting go feels good.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you in need of letting go of things – be it stuff, mindset or beliefs? Do you think letting go will bring you the freedom you need to move forward with your life?

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Sara

Thank you for this article. It’s true and I totally agree that we need to let go of stuff and even dreams and hopes because they will be filled with better dreams and hopes! It’s tough because it also involves change and change can be so difficult. Even as I write this, the tears are coming and it’s okay. I know there is something more for me and I am blessed beyond measure. My faith in an everlasting God who loves me unconditionally will provide me with all the riches I need. Happy Mothers Day!

Laura

Bless your hurting heart! Yes – Letting go and leaning heavily on God is exactly what I have done & am doing now!

Cindy

Fantastic article! I’m 64, single 20yrs and became an adult orphan 4 weeks ago. Lots & lots of letting go to do as I reflect on all the positives that made me, me.

Last edited 6 days ago by Cindy
Diana

Cindy, are you aware of Navigating Solo? We just had a webinar yesterday with two authors of books about aging solo.

The website is http://www.navigatingsolo.com and the founder, Ailene Gerhardt, are wonderful resources. You can sign up for the newsletter. There are Zoom meetings several times a year also.

There are a lot of us who are “adult orphans,” or “solo agers” around these days.

Blessings to you and please join Navigating Solo!

Toni Stritzke

It’s an interesting way to think of it and a good internal reminder. As I breathe out, I can let go.

Debby

Really enjoyed this especially on Mother’s Day. I think letting go is a most important skill like acceptance of things you cannot change. Thank you

JLS

Thanks for this article. It’s disturbing to think about much of this. It’s one thing to let to of a possession, even if handed down from your grandmother. But it’s awful to let go of the idea that you can safely live on your own, and to lose the ability to do so and have your partner move into a facility. But it’s important stuff that we all will have to confront in one way or another, eventually.

Shelley C

Steering your own course – I have worked in assisted living for a few years & have seen many individuals and couples choose, or end up, assistance. As i see my own body refuse to be as strong and supple as it was even a decade ago, I think about the happy clients I met over the years.
People who willingly participated in steering their lives were happier. Those that held back from making decisions due to fear of change ( aka fear of unknown) placed themselves at the mercy of others. Change is ALWAYS in progress. Holding our breath, closing our eyes & stamping our feet does NOT stop time = change.

Gathering the support of our families, or communities (I
feel so blessed to have stumbled upon this community), gives people a well of strength and wisdom to draw from as we navigate through change.

This has been my long winded pontification to remind myself to keep my chin up & walk joyfully into my future. To make choices & decisions so i dont relinquish that control to others. I sail me and will not be towed into port by another’s tug boat!

With that.. happy Mother’s Day to all of you beautiful Mothers out there – and to those without children (my cohort) have a be a lovely day of being good to ourselves!

Charlene

I love your attitude! This is the best reply I have read. BTW, I am in your cohort (no children) and quite happy!

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The Author

Dr. Flett is a keen observer of all things related to aging, and is known for her unique ability to bring humor and clarity to complex and emotionally challenging topics. She passionately shares her 30+ years’ experience as a psychologist in how to age better and age well.

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