One of the keys to having realistic, healthy self-esteem is letting go.

I know, I know. We hear a lot about “letting go,” it seems.

We’re urged to let go of negative feelings. We’re told to let go of the past. We’re lectured about letting go of resentments.

Everywhere we turn, it seems people are full of advice about how we have to “let go,” and what we have to let go of, in order to be happy.

And sure, I suppose it’s a good idea to let go of feelings that don’t serve you well. Or to not focus on or ruminate about parts of the past that don’t make you feel good. And letting go of resentments certainly is a good idea, if all they’re doing is taking up space in your brain that could be devoted to more empowering things.

But that’s the easy, obvious stuff. Of course you should let go of things that don’t make you feel good. Most everybody wants to let go of that stuff.

That’s not the type of “letting go” I had in mind.

Sometimes, in order to be the person we can be— in order to be a person with confidence; a person who can take criticism well; a person who can clearly define their values and serve their priorities effectively— we have to let go of some things that, well, we’d kinda rather hang on to.

Specifically, we often have to let go our fantasies and ideas about what life was “supposed” to be, what kind of person we were “supposed” to become when we grew up, how the world is “supposed” to work.

Those…are a little tougher to let go of than negative feelings, or negative memories, or other stuff that we want to get rid of anyway.

Last week on this blog many were disturbed to discover they were not mind-readers. (Of course, the point of that article had little to nothing to do with actual telekenesis; it was about how we invalidate and risk hurting the people around us when we become too attached to our own ideas about what somebody may be thinking. But that’s beside the point.)

This week, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you again, because the fact is: we’re not fortune-tellers. We don’t know the future.

We want to know the future, though. Just like we want the certainty, the reduction of anxiety, that might come with being able to read someone’s mind? We’d also love the certainty, the reduction in anxiety, that might come from knowing what the future will bring.

The fact is, however, we just don’t know. We can form some hypotheses, take some reasonable guesses, but in the end, we just don’t know. Life turns on a dime, the unexpected happens way more often than we, uh, expect, and ten years pass in the blink of an eye.

How many times have you had the experience of kind of blinking, looking around at your life, and saying to yourself, “How on earth did I arrive here? Doing this?  With this person?

Life, as John Lennon once sang, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. And this tends to alarm us, quite a bit.

Life is SUPPOSED to go a certain way, right?

I’m SUPPOSED to be a certain person, right?

I’m SUPPOSED to be doing this thing, especially by THIS time in my life, I’m SUPPOSED to have X many children, I’m SUPPOSED to have this degree, I’m SUPPOSED to be in this sort of relationship, I’m SUPPOSED to have traveled to these countries, I’m SUPPOSED to make this much money, I’m SUPPOSED to be this weight.

I’m SUPPOSED to have, you know, figured out this whole life thing by now, right? Aren’t I?

Those, our “supposed-to’s”, are the things we’re not so hot on letting go of.

It’s as if we let go of them, it feels like we’re giving up on all those beautiful, aspirational “supposed-to’s.” It feels, in a way, like we’ve failed.

Oof. Now there’s a word. “Failed.”

No wonder we don’t want to give up our beloved “supposed-to’s,” even if they’re making us miserable. We definitely don’t like to feel like we’ve failed.

But what if that’s not the case?

What if the fact that our “supposed-to’s” haven’t materialized in our life doesn’t mean we’ve failed?

What if it simply means that, well, when we came up with those “supposed-to’s”, we lacked the ability to see the future, who we would become, who we would meet, what experiences we would have, what circumstances we would endure?

What if it means that when we came up with those “supposed-to’s”, we were responding largely to other peoples’ ideas of what our life was “supposed to” look like? And just like us, they didn’t know who we would eventually become, what would be important to us, pleasurable to us, essential to us, irrelevant to us?

“Supposed to’s’” are ideas that are rigid. They lock us in to one vision of what our life “should” be like.

They rob us of the ability to be flexible about our goals and priorities.

They also rob us of something that is absolutely essential to healthy self-esteem: the capacity to perceive and acknowledge when our needs have changed, and to change our life plans and expectations in order to accommodate those changes.

By all means, hang on to your “supposed to’s” if you feel they’re enhancing your life. I’m not the one lugging them around, I don’t get a vote on what you hang on to or let go of.

But you can, you know. Let go of those “supposed-to’s.”

If you want to.

2 thoughts on “Letting go…

  1. “…if all they’re doing is taking up space in your brain that could be devoted to more empowering things.” – I really love this! Great post!


  2. Key insight: “the capacity to perceive and acknowledge when our needs have changed, and to change our life plans and expectations in order to accommodate those changes.” And, I would add, to be ok with the need to do so without regret and longing for an image (that is really just a ghost). It’s the desire and commitment to roll with unforseen circumstances and flow through the turbulence more (aero)dynamically. This brings a satisfaction that builds confidence and creates a prevailing and successful spirit.


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