The act of letting go is not always an easy thing to do. In fact, without the tools to do it, for some, it might not even be possible. Without the knowledge or lessons to help us, we may well find ourselves anchored to people that cause us pain, experiences that drag us down, thoughts that hold us back, or fears that stop us from stepping into the people we want to be.

Stoicism has some timeless, practical wisdom for exactly this purpose. So how can we learn to apply the lessons of Stoic philosophy to help us let go?

The Stoic Dichotomy of Control:

Transcriptions from the lectures of Epictetus show the following:

“Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.”

When it comes to letting go, we have a few options available to us. We can sit and wish that life had taken a different course, that we didn’t have to undergo a change, that we didn’t lose a loved one, that we kept our job, never moved house, or any other event that could keep us from moving on with our life.

Or, we can look at the world objectively. Accept the new reality we find ourselves in. Accept that much of what’s around us is outside the reach of our control, accept responsibility for our actions and our thoughts, and move forward.

At this point, I think it’s worth mentioning that letting go isn’t about suppressing any emotion we might have about something; it’s simply recognizing that while it’s OK to feel the emotion, we don’t have to allow the emotion to control our thoughts and actions. We can decide our own path, and we have ownership over the actions we take.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl once wrote:

“You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

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Reframing your Perspective

Our Thoughts color Our feelings.

One of the main ways in which Stoicism improves the lives of it’s practitioners is the way in which it helps us reframe the way we view the world, ourselves, and the people around us.

The Stoics believe that much of our suffering comes from the way in which we interpret things rather than from the things themselves.

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Epictetus also said:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.

This implies that when we spend the time to develop the way we look at things, we can change how we respond to and react to them. In this way, we are able to lessen the negative impact that events have on our peace of mind, and at the same time, we can nurture our perspective to see the positives and opportunities in things and, therefore, become more resilient and happier.

If we apply this to letting go, we can look at the very thing we’re struggling to let go of and question what it is that we’re wrestling with.

  • Are there any opportunities with the change?

  • What are the benefits of this change?

  • How can I look at this differently to see it more constructively?

  • How much of this can I actually control?

  • What’s the best path forward?

  • etc

Cultivating gratitude

Next up we have our capacity for gratitude.

Gratitude is a concept that’s found deep roots in both western and eastern philosophy as an antidote to the way our peace of mind can be chipped away when things don’t go as expected, we don’t get what we want, or we feel jealousy for what others have.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus once said:

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

I’ve always found this quote to be a fantastic reminder of how desire and expectation can rob us of some of the joy that can be found simply by focusing on the good things we have in our lives.

There’s no harm in setting goals, aiming for a new house, getting that new car or phone, or adding to your wardrobe. It’s all about how we view those things in contrast to what we already have.

If we put too much weight on the things we don’t have and not enough on enjoying and being thankful for what we do have, we run the risk of feeling like we don’t have enough, feeling jealous of what others have, neglecting the things we have right now, and missing the enjoyment of the present in favor of looking to the future in anticipation of the happiness we might get when we buy that new car.

The writer and Stoic philosopher Seneca once wrote:

“They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”

On the other side of the same coin, if we focus more on what we have, are grateful for the things around us, and know that there are some people who would love what we have, we are far more likely to enjoy the present while not allowing the future to pull too much of our attention.

In the context of letting go, this could mean accepting that something has gone but remaining appreciative of what we still have. It could mean being OK with what you have right now, without the thing you need to let go, because what you still have is enough.

Epicurus also said:

“The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.”

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Practicing acceptance

The Stoic teacher Epictetus summarizes acceptance in this passage of his Discourses:

“When you are delighted with anything, be delighted as with a thing which is not one of those which cannot be taken away, but as something of such a kind, as an earthen pot is, or a glass cup, that, when it has been broken, you may remember what it was and may not be troubled… What you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.”

This simply means that life gives and life takes away. The timing of these things is not ours to decide; all we can decide is how we choose to enjoy the things we have when we have them and accept that change is part of life.

Marcus Aurelius shares a similar sentiment on change, writing the following in Meditation:

“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it?
What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and
leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming
it? Can any vital process take place without something being

Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.”

Acceptance is a powerful antidote to the resistance that we feel when something happens that we are not happy with. That could be a loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a breakup, our house burning down, a broken leg, or anything in between.

No matter the nature of the change, change itself is the natural state of the universe, and it doesn’t happen to us; it happens around us. It’s not personal.

And if we’re to remain resilient in the face of it, we have to learn to accept change when it occurs, take ownership of how we respond to it, and move forward as best we can.

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