New beginnings: why is it so hard to let go??

Some can, others can’t, or at least not as well. I definitely can’t: let go. I became particularly aware of this after a brief liaison I had a few years ago. A relationship did not develop from it. That’s why we became friends – good friends. Five years later, I wondered if we shouldn’t try a relationship after all. Because I couldn’t get rid of the thought, I spoke it out. My good friend, however, saw it differently: he liked our friendship and didn’t want to change anything about it. Realizing that I would not be able to bear seeing him with another woman at some point, I decided to keep my distance for now. But even today, more than half a year later, the question still haunts me, "What if ..?"

I’m also not good at parting with mundane things like clothes or books. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this. According to a survey conducted by the polling institute Civey for "" survey of more than 5,000 people in Germany, it is actually difficult for just over one in two to break away from past relationships or give up their job. Letting go of objects like clothes is something about one in three people have trouble with. It’s striking that the generation of 18- to 29-year-olds can let go of people a little more easily than the rest of those surveyed. Separating from objects, on the other hand, tends to bother boys more than older people.

This article is included in Spectrum Psychology, Letting Go

We have to let go not only in relationships, at work or with objects, but also with strokes of fate, bad decisions or annoying habits. Life dreams and hopes we sometimes have to give up as well. But why is it harder for some than others? What happens in the mind when someone is forced to part with something beloved? And what can you do if you just can’t let go, but still long for a fresh start??

Holding on is human

Holding on to people or things is first and foremost a basic human need. In some situations it is even essential for survival. Infants, for example, possess a staple reflex, also called the Moro reflex, during the first few months of life. As a reaction to certain environmental stimuli, the baby jerkily stretches all four legs away from itself and spreads its fingers wide open before pulling its arms together again in front of its chest. Young sloths, koalas and primates also possess this reflex. It is probably used by young animals to instinctively cling to their mother in dangerous situations so as not to fall down. After the third or fourth month of life, the reflex is gradually lost as the nervous system matures.

In love relationships, nature also often tempts people to "cling," although in this case it’s more in a figurative sense. This is especially true when a couple is newly in love. That’s because at this stage, the brain is programmed for offspring. Letting go is simply not wanted.

This is shown, for example, by studies of the anthropologist Helen Fisher. In 2005, together with colleagues at the State University of New York, she analyzed the brain activity of participants while they were lying in the brain scanner and were shown a picture of their partner. The researchers discovered increased activity in the ventral tegmentum, a brain region that is responsible for the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, among other things. A high level of dopamine makes us feel good – a mechanism that also plays a role in addiction to drugs and other addictions. The fresher a couple is together, the more of the neurotransmitter the ventral tegmentum usually releases.

If lovers break up during this phase, dopamine levels plummet. Studies show: The physical and emotional pain experienced by many during such a time is actually comparable to that of drug withdrawal. For some people, however, the opposite effect occurs: the brain releases even more dopamine during a breakup – and that makes the person even more in love than before. Fisher calls it "frustration attraction.". Letting go is doubly difficult at that moment, many then "cling like crazy".

For many people, letting go is also mentally associated with giving up or failure. This connotation contrasts with values such as perseverance and stamina, which are particularly important in modern Western societies. Whoever lets go, so the interpretation goes, has failed.

Our earliest experiences shape us

Over the years, psychiatrist and psychotherapist Karl Heinz Brisch has seen many people in his practice who are unable to detach or, as he puts it, separate themselves. He recalls a patient who had great difficulty letting go of her previous partner. Even though she had been separated for five years and was now in a new relationship, her thoughts kept returning to the ex-partner. Some of its patients are also unable to throw anything away. Instead, their closet overflows, newspapers pile up in the corners, and there are more pots and pans in the cupboards than are ever used. "In extreme cases, it resembles being a messie," says Brisch.

In the eyes of the psychiatrist, it is above all a person’s earliest attachment experiences that set the course for how well that person can later let go. "Children have a natural need to bond, but also to explore the world," he explains. If the caregivers, usually the parents, reacted appropriately to these two poles, the child learned that it could both leave and come back again. "Appropriate" in this case means that a baby is allowed to crawl loose, for example, and – provided there is no actual danger – is not held down because the caregiver fears that something bad might happen. If it returns, it is welcomed friendly, if necessary comforted. And soon encouraged to go out and explore the world again.

"Children who grow up like this usually develop a stable image of themselves and their abilities. They experience themselves as self-efficacious and generally feel secure," says Brisch. For their adult life, this means that they can get involved in relationships, i.e. attach themselves to other people, but at the same time are not afraid to break away. Their needs for closeness and autonomy are balanced.

Brisch’s assumptions are based on attachment theory, developed in the 1970s by British child psychiatrist John Bowlby, Scottish psychoanalyst James Robertson and U.S. psychologist Mary Ainsworth. According to a review from 2016, about 50 percent of people today have a secure attachment as described above.

Insecure attachments can make letting go difficult

However, there are also children who grow up differently. Some are repeatedly rejected by their caregivers when they want to cuddle or seek comfort and reassurance. As a result, they often learn to suppress their need for attention outwardly, even though it continues to be intensely present inwardly. "As adults, they sometimes strive for particularly great independence and are not as good at expressing feelings," Brisch explains. Researchers speak in this case of an insecure-avoidant attachment. "Letting go is something these people seem to have little trouble with, but that’s because they often don’t really get involved in a relationship at all."Studies show that almost 15 percent of people in Germany have such an attachment style.

It is different with insecure-ambivalently bound people, of whom there are a good ten percent in this country. "The relationship with their primary caregivers was usually unstable and characterized by contradictory signals," explains Brisch. As adults, insecure-ambivalent people then often send ambiguous messages themselves: Sure, you can leave – but actually I want you to stay. "Letting go is usually difficult for them as well," says Brisch.

The same is true for people who have "disorganized attachment. As children, they usually experienced only irregular protection from their parents, sometimes even violence. "In adulthood, they then seek the protection they didn’t get in childhood," Brisch explains. "At the same time, real closeness causes them problems because they are always afraid of being hurt in close relationships."

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