What does it really mean to let go? When we turned this question over to our editors and readers, their responses proved that grief, catharsis, and rebirth come in all forms—whether it's finally moving on from a failed relationship, rebuilding oneself after a painful trauma, or quietly saying goodbye to the person you once were. Our series Letting Go highlights these compelling and complicated stories. Below: a reader submission from Kristen Hannah.
When you think about the toxic people you may have had or have in your life, you might remember a narcissistic ex or a vindictive friend who repeatedly betrayed you. These people always seem to syphon your happiness, plague you with negativity, and kick you when you’re down. Well, in my case, this toxic person was me.
As a child, I was sweet and inquisitive, but unfortunately, during childhood and adolescence, I went through a series of hardships. I was diagnosed with depression at a very young age, my parents had a very painful divorce, and I went through a series of injuries, to name a few. These tough years set me up with a lot of resentment, which followed me into early adulthood. After college, my friends all seemed to be moving forward with their lives, where as mine seemed to be stuck on pause. I was too comfortable and scared to leave my job, single, in debt, anxious all the time, and just unable to picture a means to an end. I was stuck.
At this point in my life, I had become quick-tempered and extremely negative, I rarely smiled, and I found it impossible to ever give myself credit for any of my accomplishments. And although my close friends and family might have still described me as loyal, kind, and generous, I would guess that most people would have described me as miserable, too.
One day, probably while scrolling aimlessly on my phone, doing absolutely nothing to improve my situation, I came across a quote by Stephen R. Covey that seemed to switch on the most life-changing lightbulb: “We judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions.” This one sentence quickly changed my entire perspective and was my first real encounter with self-awareness.
It was in that moment I realized I had been walking around for countless years acting like the world owed me something for everything I had been through. But the most important lesson I’ve learned in my life is that the world doesn’t owe us anything. Rather, it is we who owe ourselves to the world. Life happens, and most of the time it doesn’t happen the way that we envision it. At some point we need to come to grips with the fact that we aren't living in a real-life version of Back to the Future, and we can’t just hop into the DeLorean with Christopher Lloyd and erase all the bad things that have happened throughout the course of our lives.
So, I made a decision to let the old me go. Instead of reacting to insignificant annoyances, I asked myself what real impact they actually had. Instead of going into work imagining what could go wrong, I looked forward to seeing my friends. Instead of walking around blank and expressionless, I forced myself to smile, regardless of how fake it felt. And instead of dwelling on all the turns my life wasn’t taking, I traveled the world, mostly on my own. Along the way, I met so many amazing people, learned new things, and ate new food. But most importantly, I got to see firsthand how lucky I am to have access to clean water, technology, healthcare, a circle of people who love me, and so many other things many so readily take for granted.
At the end of the day, I am not, nor will I ever be, perfect, and I definitely still have moments where I let emotions or situations get the best of me. All I can really ask of myself is to make sure I don’t waste the next minute, hour, day, or week in the same negative space, and to make the conscious choice to do good, both for others and for myself, as much as I can. Life is a one-shot deal, and on that fateful day at the end of it, the only two things we can really call our own are the memories we’ve formed and the impressions made on those we leave behind.