He who binds himself to joy, does the winged life destroy.

The Courage to Let Go

Dusty Staub Courage to Let Go

Stepping Into the New Year

by Robert “Dusty” Staub

For over forty years it has been my life work to help people claim their purpose, passion, power and true presence in this world.  I have had the honor and privilege of working with individuals, families, teams, organizations and communities in actualizing this guiding purpose.  Let me share, briefly, what I have seen and why the Courage to Let Go matters so much.

When the root is deep, there is no need to fear the wind. - Chinese Proverb

When I was in private practice as a licensed marital and family therapist, I saw many people who were holding on to old grievances, wounds, resentments, anger and fear.  They had coalesced their identities around these past pains to such a degree that it sucked up much of their life force, keeping them stuck in well-worn ruts of sub-optimal patterns of reacting, responding, perceiving and thinking.

Whether it was a man holding on to the memory of a woman who had divorced him ten years earlier, entangled in the pain, the resentment, the longing or whether it was a woman holding on to an old relationship and unwilling to move on, it caused a relentless sense of loss, pain, grief and diminishment.

When I worked in Mental Health System inpatient wards and outpatient clinics, as well as in Drug and Alcohol treatment centers, I saw the same thing repeated over and over.  People were clinging to old definitions of self, to old hurts, sorrows and losses.

Subsequently they stayed stuck in patterns that brought only pain for themselves, their families and those around them.  People were attached to the “stories” of their life. These were stories that did not lead to release and freedom, but instead justified staying stuck and even righteous about patterns of limitation.  As the old saying goes…

If you argue for your limitations, congratulations. You get to keep them.

Having spent the past thirty years working as an organizational consultant and as a coach for senior executives, I have found time and time again that leadership fails due to a fundamental emotional weakness: letting fear run one’s personality instead of accessing the courage to step up, let go, redefine and then step out.

In fact, Ram Charan, in his 1999 Fortune Magazine article “Why CEOs Fail”, concluded that the main cause for senior executive failure is “a lack of emotional strength.” As a result, there is an inability to confront an issue or person in a timely manner, and/or an unwillingness to be confronted by others in the organization, leading to blindsiding.

I have come to realize that this is a failure to access the Courage to Let Go.

This lack of courage derails not only careers but also marriages, lives and organizations.  To grow requires the Courage to Let Go of old definitions and stories and step forth into the undefined and ambiguous space of the new, the yet to be refined and understood, which is found in the presence of the shining moment that is called now.

Let me share an example.

I was consulting with a large organization in the financial services sector that had gone through wrenching changes over a period of several years.  There was an entrenched group of employees who were resenting all of the changes and holding onto their memories of “what it used to be like around here.”  They were making themselves as well as the employees who worked around them miserable, and were also creating huge headaches for those who supervised them.

The symptoms of their “holding on to the past” were the following (check yourself to make sure you don’t fall into one of these):

  • Resenting management for the changes that had been made
  • Feeling and expressing a sense of being “victimized” or “done unto” by those in power above them
  • Resisting new procedures and processes, insisting on doing it the way they had in the past
  • Complaining in town hall meetings, and (to each other) around the coffee pot in the break rooms
  • Rehashing “the way it used to be” and reviling “the way it is now”
  • Being defensive when given corrective feedback and turning it around on the person giving it to them
  • Being uncooperative by withholding information, being slow to respond or simply stating that they were “too busy” to address key issues or changes that were required
  • Being angry and expressing resentment about changes, leadership, interactions, etc.
  • Sending emails that were curt, defensive or offensive in word choice and copying others (sometimes even clients) on it
  • Always having an excuse for “why” they could not make the change in behavior

The CEO and I sat down and he was able to list out the top fifty employees who fell into one or more of the symptoms above.  I suggested that he stop tolerating the toxic behaviors and help all of them out of their mutual misery by inviting them to either step up or to step out of the organization.

This was difficult for him as he believed in loyalty and most of the “problem” employees had been in the business for more than ten years.  This prompted me to ask him…

What are you holding on to? What are you afraid will happen if you take action?

His fear was that he would damage his credibility as being a “loyal boss” who truly cared about his people.

In our discussion he was able to see that he was NOT being caring or loyal to all of the employees who were embracing the changes and having to suffer through the negativity of their peers.  I was able to give him several clear images by comparing those holding onto the past as “refusing to get on the bus and instead standing on the curb letting the air out of the tires.”

The image, rather graphic, that fully connected was that of these employees “relieving” themselves in the community well out of which everyone had to drink. He then was able to really “get” that it was completely unloving to let these employees stay stuck in misery and that it was certainly not being loyal and caring to the rest of his team.

We were then able to craft a clear, focused message and process that directly addressed the issue of letting go.

The intent for the meeting, communicated at the start was: “To help all of us embrace the changes that have taken place and to be change-enabled for those that will come in the future.  To help everyone here either to find a good way to step up or to leave with head high.

I began with the words of the great “philosopher” Pumba (from the Lion King) to help people get it: “We have to put our behinds in the past.”  That brought a round of laughter and then the CEO said, “When we keep our behinds in the present we are not presenting our best side to our co-workers, to our clients or each other.”

He then went on to say, “I want all of you here to be present, to show up and to enjoy the vital work we do for our clients and their families.  However, if you cannot in good conscience let go of the past and step into the present reality then I invite you to talk with me after this session so we can part in the most positive way possible.  We will not move forward with anyone who does not want to be in the organization as it is now.”

Most everyone in the room, at the end of the three-hour intervention chose to step in the present and put their “behinds” behind them.  A handful chose to exit and a few more were invited to leave after a few months passed and they had demonstrated that they were not going to let the past be in the past.

Those who could not find the courage to let go either left or were released from the organization.  It made an immediate positive difference in the work culture, and over the next twelve months, in bottom-line performance.

The Challenge

The problem is that we have been taught to hold onto so many things as we grow up and that a very specific way of thinking, of holding back, is reinforced by the culture and people around us.

“Hold on to our money.”

“Hold on to our identity.”

“Hold on to our dignity.”

“Hold on to our honor.”

“Hold on to our resentments.”

“Hold on to our fears.”

Hold on; hold on; hold on! The phrase “Hold your horses” means to be patient and also, to hold up.

The funny thing is that life does not pause.

There is no stand still or pause button in life.  Even on a true vacation, or watching a special sunset or looking at our sleeping child with love and wonder, we might be at ease and not thinking of the next moment, as if time was standing still – but it doesn’t, really.

The child is still growing; the day is still moving; the years are progressing.  Things are always in motion. We exist in an ever-moving river of moments, emotions, energy flows and changes.

The courage to let go and embrace the moment

The courage to let go is the courage to let go in this moment, of this joy, of this sorrow, of this pain, of this grievance, of this fear, of this doubt, of this defeat, of this victory and to be open and available to this moment that comes and is right in front of us now.

Without that act of courage, we end up like a frigate in deep seas, foundering with the weight from excess baggage we have taken on.  What baggage am I speaking of?  I am referring to any old memories, especially of resentment, fear, regrets, wounds, or even yet nostalgia and longing for what was, instead of being with what IS.

It is literally true that in this moment I have been shaped by the love of my parents, extended family members, my wife of three decades, my children. In this moment I am uplifted by the presence of this breath of air, by this flickering fire, of this moment of ease or of discomfort.

Being able to let go of all of the things that weigh me down allows me, like the ship mentioned earlier, to ride a little higher in the water, to move with less friction and resistance so that I move with greater grace and ease through life.

Why is it so difficult to let go?

What are we holding onto? What keeps us from letting go and letting flow?

Well, there is the fear of what comes next.  There is the fear that if I let go I will never have it again.  There is the fear of the loss of love, of the loss of consciousness, of the loss of my life, the loss of self.  Yet the courage to let go is really based on the two other acts of courage:  the Courage to be Vulnerable and the Courage to Learn and Grow.  This means that I can be open to life even while knowing that it is precious and fleeting.

And yet…

In truth, we are the force of life itself, flowing, ever moving, ever present, ever aware, ever being, ever becoming.

When we let ourselves be truly vulnerable and willing to step beyond the narrow boundaries of our comfort zones, we are able then to let go, to step up, to step out, to free ourselves of the shackles of old aches, pains, doubts, fears, regrets, self-criticism and judgments.  And we are able to make ourselves available to the living presence of a vast consciousness, the spirit of this place and time.

The Courage to Let go is really the courage to come fully alive.

Yet it cannot occur without the concomitant courage to be vulnerable and open.  When we become present, letting go of that which is no longer true and / or that which no longer serves us, then the presence of this moment brings great gifts to us.  Being “present in the presence” – of something greater, something that many call the Divine – is the greatest gift of all.

What do you need to let go of now in order to step into the New Year of 2018 with more presence and power?

What have you been holding onto that is weighing you down?

Where do you most need the courage to be your authentic, whole self in 2018?


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