top of page

Newsletter - September 2023

Why Is It So Hard to Let Go?

We sometimes hear the advice “Don’t stress out—just let it go.” But how often do we find that helpful? If we’re truly stressing out, then we likely don’t find it very helpful at all. Why not? Because it is really hard to let go of something we’re still attached to. This newsletter looks at reasons why that might be, and explores why letting go has some interesting consequences regardless of whether we’re letting go of something stressful, or anything else for that matter. What’s more, Lao Tzu pointed out these consequences 2,500 years ago. So this will be nothing new.


Since the opposite of letting go is holding on, perhaps the question to ask is: Why do we hold on in the first place? I think there are at least three reasons. First, we hold on because we don’t like change. Second, we think we can be selective and hold on to the “good stuff” while letting go of the “bad stuff.” Third, we strive for lots of things, so when we finally get them – or think we do – then we see them as “ours.” So we think: Why should we let go of something that’s ours, especially after all the hard work we put in to get it? Let’s look at each of these reasons in turn.


The first reason for holding on is not liking change. We all tend to build and then inhabit our comfort zones. And a key feature of comfort is that it doesn’t surprise us. We seek comfort because we want it to be the same as it was last time. After all, that’s what makes it comforting. To let go is to invite change. Not that we think all change is bad, by the way. Which brings us to the second reason.


We’re only happy with change if we see it as change for the better. If it’s not going to be better, then we’d rather hold on to what we already know. And I think this is where the trouble starts because we start making distinctions. Basically, we want things to stay the same while getting better. Our reaction to the fact that things typically don’t do that is called “stress.” At least, that’s one way of looking at it. How does Lao Tzu look at it? “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to” (chapter 74). Well, that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, does it?


The third reason it’s so hard to let go has to do with thinking that something (anything) is “ours.” We’re typically in such a hurry to grasp the results of our actions that we miss what was unfolding naturally in its own time. Lao Tzu puts it better. “Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe” (chapter 64). And even when something is ripe, we still miss the point that it’s not actually ours. It is what it is, nothing more, nothing less—and certainly not whatever we mean by “ours.”


Basically, trying to hold on is pointless. Why? Because to hold on is to interfere. In the long term, it’s futile. In the short term, it gets in the way of each present moment and so prevents us from dwelling in the Tao. “If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go” (chapter 24). “True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering” (chapter 48).


So, what does the Master do? “The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way…” (chapter 29). “…the Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning” (chapter 64). Note there is no rushing, no grasping, no forcing—no stress, just calmness. But here’s what’s really interesting. Look at the very next line (in chapter 64) referring to the Master. “He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose.” Aha! I think that’s where Lao Tzu hits the nail on the head.


Why is it that the Master “has nothing”? The answer is because he doesn’t see anything as “his” as opposed to “not his.” The reason he has nothing to lose is because he never saw anything as “his” in the first place. This is why he has nothing to hold on to—nothing is “his.” Or, to be more accurate, we could say, in reality, there is nothing to hold on to. The Master is aware he never “had” anything to begin with, nor will he “have” anything sometime in the future. “He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go” (chapter 38). It’s when we don’t dwell in reality, and dwell instead in the thoughts in our mind, that we create the illusions we then hold on to. What we think about the world creates the world we live in. Never mind that it’s an illusion.


I don’t know about you, but I find all this tough stuff. How do we bring it all down to earth so it can make a difference in how we live our lives? Let’s go back to our three reasons.


The first was to do with not liking change. So how can I get comfortable with it? I think one way is to let go of my need to know. I was tempted to say “let go of my need to know in advance.” But, the more I think about it, the more I become aware that needing to know is part of the problem whether it happens sooner or later. In fact, needing to know might not only be part of the problem, sometimes it just might turn out be the whole problem.


Second, wanting to hold on to the “good stuff” and let go of the “bad stuff.” There I go again. Who just made the distinction between good and bad? Hmm. I think I need to look in the mirror for the answer to that one.


Third, why should we let go of something that’s ours, especially when we worked so hard to get it? I think the answer might be to accept that when I act, the only thing that is “mine” is my intention. Can I control the outcome of my actions? Not really. I can certainly stack the odds in favour of some outcomes rather than others. But, in the end, the actual outcomes are not mine to control. The only thing that is “mine” is where I was coming from when I acted. Was I coming from myself (and whatever particular outcome I desired at the time) or did I let my self go and come instead from the Tao, as it were?


Underlying all three reasons is one thing we need to let go of—our self. “The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings.” (Italics mine.) “He knows that he is going to die, and he has nothing left to hold on to: no illusions in his mind, no resistances in his body. He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being” (chapter 50). There it is again, letting go of the need to know, letting go of my self, and letting my actions flow. Trying to hold on is what gets in the way of the flow every time.


What reasons have you found that make it so hard to let go? Have you found any good ways to do it anyway? If so, please share them with the rest of us.

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:


Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share this newsletter.



(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book, or as a paperback or hardcover from your nearest independent book store, or from, or from

bottom of page