Holding on to something is a behavior as common as breathing. We tend to cling to the people we love and who play an important role in our lives. We also hold on to our most valuable possessions. To the painful memories of the past. To our social roles or to certain characteristics that we believe define us. Negative thought patterns that we have developed over time. Unrealistic hopes and expectations. Bad habits and negative emotions that make us suffer unnecessarily.
However, this excessive attachment is the origin of suffering, according to Buddhist philosophy. “Most of our problems are due to our passionate desire and attachment to things that we misinterpret as enduring entities,” said the Dalai Lama. Therefore, understanding why we hold on and learning to let go of those attachments is essential to achieve mental balance and happiness.
The thought-provoking definition of holding on
The original definition of holding on is referred to holding something back, probably against its will or by resorting to force, be persistent, stop and wait, hold firmly and retain possession.
From a psychological point of view, holding on implies developing an excessive and obsessive attachment to something or someone, so that we completely lose perspective and objectivity. In fact, that attachment ends up generating a stubborn posture and a limited vision that leads us to maladaptive behaviors.
Why do we cling to something or someone?
Beyond the things, the people or the goals that we cling to, what is really important is to understand the hidden meaning behind that need to retain. The key is not in what we hold onto, but in the psychological cause of that excessive attachment. When we hold onto something, we blindly believe that that bond will provide us with three things that we all long for:
1. Happiness. We believe that the person, thing or goal to which we cling holds the key to our happiness, so that if we lose it we predict the worst of catastrophes or we believe that we will feel extraordinarily unhappy. However, psychologists at Stanford University showed that we are particularly imprecise when it comes to estimating the degree of happiness or discomfort that can cause the events. Therefore, it is likely that what we are holding on to does not actually make us as happy and that its loss does not cause us as much pain as we suppose.
2. Security. One of the main causes of attachment is our resistance to change and fear of the unknown. Many times we cling to something simply because it is what we know and that feeling of familiarity gives us a certain security. That thing or person becomes the anchor that holds us, which makes us feel safe. We overlook the fact that absolutely everything can change right away because security is just an illusion.
3. Meaning. In other cases we cling to people, things or goals because we have allowed them to provide meaning to our existence. We have probably built our lives around them, in such a way that we would feel disoriented if we lose what we hold on to. In fact, it is a relatively common phenomenon that occurs in couple or parental relationships, so that one of the people orbits around the other because he or she gives meaning to his or her life.
The consequences of holding on too much to something
When we cling to something or someone, our world becomes smaller and in many cases it begins to revolve around what we want to keep. The fear of losing what we have worked so hard to achieve leads us to spend a great amount of time and energy to retain, often falling into controlling and obsessive behaviors.
Curiously, this fear, anguish and concern about the possible loss, added to the controlling attitudes, can have the opposite effect and take away the psychological oxygen from the other, causing him or her to take a distance, so that we will obtain the opposite effect: we will lose him or her. Thus the act of clinging transmutes into pain and suffering, rather than bringing us happiness and fulfillment.
Also, holding onto something is always a two-way road. After all, the “shackles” that we use to “retain” something or someone also imprison us. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Freedom is the only condition for happiness. If in our hearts, we still cling to something, we cannot be free”. What we cling to also submits and limits us.
Clinging is forgetting that we cannot control all situations, that the world and people are constantly changing, and that we cannot always predict the results of the actions. That generates a static and rigid vision of a reality that is constantly changing and makes us suffer doubly because we do not accept that universal truth. Thus we continually bump into the wall of reality, hurting ourselves over and over again, because we dare not let go of what hurts us.
How do you stop holding on to something that hurts you?
Do this exercise: Take a coin in your hand and imagine that it represents the thing, person, or goal you are holding on to. Lock it in a tight fist and extend your arm with the palm of your hand towards the ground.
If you open your fist or loosen your hand, you will lose the coin. If you keep your arm extended and your fist closed for a long time, you will also lose the coin because you will get tired of maintaining that tension. The same happens in life. You hold on to, but the more you press, the more you exhaust yourself and the more you push away what you want.
The good news is that there is another possibility: stop clinging. You can let go the coin and still keep it. With your arm still extended, turn your palm up. Open your hand and relax it. You will see that the coin is still there.
Learning to live is learning to let go. That is the tragedy and irony generated by our continuous struggle to hold on: not only is it impossible, but it causes us the same pain that we try to avoid. When we understand that, we will learn to stop clinging.
When we stop trying to own and control the world around us, we grant it the freedom to satisfy us without the power to destroy us. That is the secret of the Buddhist law of detachment. So letting go is letting in happiness and fulfillment.
Obviously, letting go is not a simple and one-off task but a daily, moment-by-moment commitment that involves changing the way we experience and interact with everything that we instinctively want to possess and keep.
Jordan, A. H. et. Al. (2011) Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 37(1): 120–135.