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Letting Go: Can You Do It?

There’s a Buddhist story about a young widower with a five-year-old son. When the father returned from a business trip, he discovered to his horror that pirates had burned his village, including his home with his son inside. Consumed with grief, the man placed what he thought were his son's ashes in a sack and was never without them.

However, the young father was mistaken. The son had not been killed. He had been abducted by the pirates and eventually escaped. He returned to the village, found the new house of his father, and knocked on the door, saying, “Father, open to me. It is your son.”

But in his agitated state of mind, convinced his son was dead, the father thought that some young boy was making fun of him. He shouted: "Go away," and refused his attention. The boy continued to knock, and the father still would not open. Finally, the boy went away.

The Buddha's lesson:

Sometimes we cling to what we believe so tightly

that when truth itself knocks on our door we refuse it.”

Thinking We’re Right

We cling – like the grieving father - because we think we are right, because our version of reality is the correct one. Stubbornly, sometimes desperately, we tighten our grip, not only on our beliefs but also on habitual behaviors, relationship patterns, and comfortable routines.

Perhaps that’s just human. But sometimes, holding on bogs us down. We are stuck and need a new direction--whether we know it or not. It's time for self-reflection.

  • What judgments of mine are ready for retirement?

  • What decisions are now someone else’s to make?

  • Where can I step back so my direct report can take the reins?

  • When’s the right time to give up the spotlight, or a negative attitude?

In my conversations with leaders and parents, the talk often turns to this interplay between retaining and releasing. Letting go always shows up as the heart of the struggle.

We cling to the businesses we’ve built, the material possessions we’ve amassed, our investments and savings, our customer relationships, our milestones and accomplishments, the distractions and diversions that overtake our calendars, and, of course, our children and spouses.

We want stability, certainty, control. But by clutching too tightly to what we value most, we can fall into patterns that hurt ourselves and those around us. The habit of “holding on” can become so automatic that we don't even realize we’re doing it.

Those of you who are most familiar with my work know that I favor taking my own medicine. In that spirit, I offer three personal reflections in support of letting go:

Liberating My Children

A college president shared with me his innovative message for parents when they bring their children for the first day of college:

“I gather the parents in our gymnasium to congratulate them for all the ways they’ve helped their children get to this point. Then I tell them the best thing they can do for their child on this momentous day is to get in their cars and leave.”

As a parent of three, I’ve learned that letting go of my kids happens not just when they go to college, or enter a committed relationship, or take a faraway trip. It begins a lot earlier than the young adult years.

The letting go happens every time I get out of the way and create the emotional space for them to make their own decisions.

That can start before a child learns to walk, and, in a healthy parent-child relationship, it never ends.

Promoting the autonomy of my children doesn’t mean I turn my back on them. It simply means I’m willing to let go of my own emotional dependency on them so that they can grow.

Exerting My Will

As a leader, I’m spoiled. I usually get what I want. I do it by exerting my will through persuading, complaining, threatening, or distancing. The people around me want to please me. Often they seek my approval, and many will silence their point of view in exchange for a nod of recognition from me.

But there’s danger in winning too often. It breeds entitlement and delusion: the lie that I am special, more important, always right. Or that winning is always a noble goal.

When does it make sense NOT to get my way? To submit instead of exerting? To bow out instead of barging in?

I’ve learned the importance of gaining by losing. For example, when I relinquish the need to win an argument, I give the relationship a chance to mature.

This is the wisdom of letting go.

Wishing Others Would Change

I admit that I cannot change anyone else. Most days, it's a challenge just to work on myself.

True as that is, I still find myself wishing and hoping for change in others around me. I want the extrovert to pause and listen, the petty whiner to get some perspective, the over-confident client to humble down, the depressed family member to get some perspective.

Those fantasies reveal that I’ve lost my way. When I see a shift in the other person as the solution to my problem, I take my eyes off my own reactions and responses.

What would it take for me to re-capture self-responsibility and climb off the backs of others?

Only a decision to let go of the wrong-headed idea that I know what’s best for them.

The above examples expose a common tendency: holding on at the expense of others:

  • Holding on to a belief that I am indispensable to my kids.

  • Holding on to getting my way.

  • Holding on to a desire for others to be different.

Consider the clenched fist. How long can you keep squeezing before your fingers and forearms begin to ache? Notice how the tension releases when you open your fist and hold your fingers limp.

Might we experience a similar liberation by reducing our need for certainty and control? And in the process, empower those around us?

Look for relationships and situations where you can let go and see what happens.

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