Prologue: Letting Go and Holding On
Have you ever fallen in love and felt so entangled that you cannot stop yourself from loving the person? If so, surely you know the torment of going back and forth between choosing to let go or hold on. Love humbles a person, anyone. Whilst we may appear strong outwardly, our hearts become tender and vulnerable when faced with the beloved. Such is the reality that I have learned from my personal and professional experiences, inside and outside the therapy room.
Letting Go vs. Holding On
They both may look like polar opposites, when in fact, they are the same! When you are letting go of something, you are actually choosing to hold on to something else. Likewise, when you are holding on to something, you are also choosing to let go of other options.
It is important to distinguish, however, that holding on is not the same as being stubborn or obstinate. The latter stems from the fear of change, whilst the former requires great courage. Similarly, letting go is not the same as giving up or withdrawing. Outwardly, two people may appear to do the same work of letting go, but their motives or intentions may differ greatly. Choosing to let go in a timely fashion can reveal a person’s higher ideals, which is different from one who reluctantly let go due to external forces, or tries to escape uncomfortable reality.
A Story about Holding On
I fell in love with psychology when I was 16. Despite harsh objections from my parents, and even being sent to the school ‘counsellor’ for a ‘lecture’, I did not back down but became more determined about studying psychology. Eventually, my parents gave in and I successfully enrolled in the National University of Malaysia (UKM). Back then, UKM was the only public university in Malaysia that offers a psychology degree, so it was my only option. The standard protocol then was to first enroll in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, and then all students will be assigned two departments under the faculty. Despite not having certainty that I will be assigned to the psychology department, I still went ahead, praying hard that God will grant me my heart’s desire.
During Orientation Week, as I was lining up to receive my assigned programs, I kept praying in my heart that I will get what I want. If anything, I really wanted to prove to everyone that studying psychology is “God’s will” for me. When I opened the much-awaited envelope, what I found was a slip of paper that read: “Economics; Anthropology and Sociology.” My heart sank! I wonder if I was fooled or abandoned by God, or if I had heard Him wrongly.
I felt so lost. I didn’t dare to tell my parents. After all, I was the one who decided to give up on all other opportunities available to me before. Out of my wits, I called my sister. Crying desperately on the phone, I asked my sister what I should do. And my very wise sister said this: “Sometimes what appears as closed-door may be unlocked. You may need to give it a slight push.”
Hearing that, I decided to summon up whatever courage that’s left inside me and try to push that door. I made a choice though, that I did not want to follow the other students who went after various department heads to beg for transfer. I felt I needed to meet the highest authority at the faculty level, and that would be the Dean!
So I went straight to the Dean’s Office and pleaded with the officers at the reception counter. They tried to dissuade me initially. When they saw that they could not get rid of me easily, they let me enter the main door and directed me to see the Registrar, who was sitting near to the entrance. Looking from afar at the Registrar’s unfriendly face, I hesitated. Meanwhile, a group of students suddenly rushed in from nowhere and occupied the Registrar’s room! I realized that this was probably my only chance of seeking out the Dean’s room on my own, while the officers around were distracted. So I started walking past the Registrar’s room… that’s when I saw the Second Deputy Dean’s room, and then the First Deputy Dean’s… I was hoping, the Dean’s room could be next.
My heart was pounding. I did not know what was ahead of me, while at the same time I needed to watch my back in case any officers find me suspicious and throw me out. But I kept walking until I reached the last room. Indeed, it was the Dean’s room! I stood at the door, not knowing what to do. Suddenly, the door just opened! A kind-looking middle-aged man greeted me with a smile, and asked if I were there to meet him! I was dumbfounded.
The Dean asked me to wait a while outside his room, so he could settle with another student first. As soon as his door was closed, the secretary who was sitting in the next room charged over and reprimanded me for not following the protocol of checking with her first! I just kept quiet.
When the Dean finally came out again and received me into his office, I could not hold back my tears anymore. In desperation, I told the Dean why I wanted to study psychology and how hard I had fought with my parents, just to get into the psychology program. He listened quietly, took out his pen and jotted a few lines on my application form, granting me the green light to transfer to psychology. Being an anthropology professor himself, he also advised me to stay in the anthropology and sociology department, so that I can develop a broader perspective on human studies.
With that, I was finally able to study psychology. For the subsequent three years, I worked harder because I know this is a path that I have chosen and it did not come easy. I truly enjoyed studying psychology and felt lucky that I could learn and do what I love every day! Moreover, my Dean, Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin became a significant mentor in my professional development. He offered me opportunities for various international exchanges or seminars and gave me valuable advice when I was applying to further my studies in the United States. As busy as he was, he wrote several letters of recommendation, which paved the way for me to receive a Fulbright scholarship and enroll in a graduate school in the US. In hindsight, the “closed-door” back then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, leading me to meet significant people who assisted me along my life path.
Dear friends, no matter what hardships you may be facing now, I hope that you will hold on to your beliefs – because the Divine Goodness may be leading you to meet that significant person in your life. And through this person, more doors of growth and expansion may be opened up for you!
A Story About Letting Go
After completing my undergraduate, I applied for graduate school in the US and Fulbright scholarship. Somehow my mind was fixated only on going to the US, and nowhere else. Maybe I’ve always had an “American Dream” in my heart!
I was working in a non-profit organization then. One day, my boss introduced me to his friend, who’s a professor from an American public university. The professor was keen to help me with my application and even be my supervisor. According to the university’s tradition, an application process would be much easier if a student gets a recommendation from a professor. In fact, he was very confident that I could get a scholarship at the university as well. The only thing was: his university offers only Mental Health Counselling and not Clinical Psychology. But as he explained, both programs share the same nature of work scope; they just have different names.
I was encouraged by such a good opportunity, especially in view of the fact that I had already been rejected by two or three universities at that time. And the process of applying for Fulbright scholarship had been far from smooth or straightforward. Even the coordinator from the Fulbright Commission had advised me to accept the professor’s offer, in order to secure a higher chance of getting the scholarship, lest I end up getting nothing at all!
After many thoughts and struggles, in the end, I still decided to let go of that wonderful opportunity. Having compared the two programs, I still could not let go of my original intention/purpose. Somehow, my heart was firm about my choice for Clinical Psychology. I decided to wait for the universities that I’d applied to, knowing full well that should I not get accepted in the end, I would automatically lose the eligibility for Fulbright scholarship.
Was I afraid? Absolutely! But, I really could not convince myself to study Mental Health Counselling because it was never my dream. Thank goodness, in the end, I did get enrolled in the Clinical Psychology program at Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. Along with that, I was also given the Fulbright scholarship.
Looking back, it was indeed a nerve-wrecking journey! Yet, I do not regret the decisions I had made. At every life juncture, we will have to take some risks to make a decision for ourselves. No life’s decision is perfect. Whether you are choosing to let go or hold on, you will gain some and lose some. As a Chinese proverb puts it: when a man loses his horse, it could well be a blessing in disguise! More importantly, we need to know how to stay faithful to our beliefs, and to trust that there is always help beyond ourselves, waiting to open up the road ahead for us. Ironically, in this process of learning to let go, I actually learned to hold on more and trust more!
Making Choices at Different Life Stages
Psychologist Daniel Levinson (author of Seasons of a Man’s Life and Seasons of a Woman’s Life) said that at different stages of life, the choices made by men and women will be affected by various physiological and psychological needs, as well as the rules and culture of society at the time. Making a decision requires one to choose whether to let go or hold on to something, or some relationships. Holding on too much can cause suffering to oneself and the people around us. On the other hand, letting go too quickly may also hurt us, because the problems that have not been confronted or dealt with will keep returning to haunt us.
Levinson also found that women’s decision-making process is typically more complex than men’s because women often worry about whether they can manage both family and career. As a result, some women choose to focus on creating family life and let go of the opportunities to further study or be promoted in their careers. Other women may prefer to focus on developing their studies and careers, thus they are not able to spend much time on managing love relationship or family life.
Interestingly, in middle adulthood, both men and women will want to reposition themselves at this time, which is why it is called the “midlife crisis”! A man may want to pick up a dream, which he had given up when he was younger, such as becoming a singer or having a super cool motorbike. A housewife may want to apply for some university courses. A single businesswoman may want to find a life partner or adopt a child.
Every decision we make brings us to the next door, to start the next journey, and gives us new experiences and visions. Even being hesitant is about choosing to remain status quo temporarily, until when there is new inspiration or awareness, or external compulsion to move. Either way, one will still have to let go of the original form of life and embrace change.
From a conventional family life cycle perspective, an individual starts from a single life and eventually chooses to marry a partner. They establish couplehood and then have a child to form a family. When their child grows up and leaves his or her family-of-origin, the older couple has to adapt to the empty nest phase and re-establish their couplehood, until one or both of them pass away.
Inevitably, when a person has not truly “left” his or her own family-of-origin (including psychological separation or differentiation), he or she will – intentionally or unintentionally – carry the burden of the previous generation into their marital and parent-child relationships. Therefore, it is important to give time to examine and understand ourselves and our relationship with our family-of-origin, so that we can break free from the invisible shackles of our old wounds or unquestioned values.
As Jesus said to his disciples, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
Dear friends, are you struggling whether to let go or hold on to something or someone right now? Do you know where your “treasure” is? Be it choosing to let go or hold on, will your decision help you move towards a life with greater freedom?
True freedom lies in having no fear of loss, and no hope of gain. May we find greater freedom within ourselves to live out our true self, as we learn to discern between letting go and holding on to the very thing that matters most.
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