Why We Can’t Let Go, Say Goodbye, Close the Chapter

In my last blog I wrote about how to let go of the hurts, wounds, fears, limiting beliefs, and even the yearnings that keep us stuck and hold us back. That blog got me thinking about why we have such a hard time implementing the “how”. Why do we struggle with those feelings associated with saying goodbye, closing a chapter, or making a much-needed life change? What I discovered is that there’s something in addition to the normal “fear of the unknown” and resistance to uncomfortable emotions that plague many of us. There’s another factor that plays a role in why we stay in the dysfunctional job or relationship when we know we need to go. It’s due to sunk-cost bias.

Those of you who are economic or finance majors may be familiar with this term. I was not, until it kept showing up in my social media news feeds and on TV after I began further contemplating the “whys” behind it being so difficult for many of us humans to let go of what’s not working for us. For those (like me) unfamiliar with the term, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recuperated. (For example, the Philadelphia Eagles tickets I purchase six months in advance of the game. I spent the money and regardless of whether or not I go to the game, I can’t recover the cost). Sunk-cost bias is our human tendency to illogically follow through on an activity that isn’t meeting our expectations because of the investment we’ve made. So, if by the time the Eagles game arrives they’re having another awful season and I know it will be torture to go to the game, sunk-cost bias will propel me to go anyway. Since I’ve already paid for the tickets, I might as well go, even if I have an awful time. That’s a simple example.

The fact is this consistently sways bigger life decisions. The more we invest in something (be it emotionally, mentally, financially, physically), the harder it is to walk away. It’s why I stayed in a dysfunctional relationship for many years longer than I should have. Despite the fact that I knew the relationship needed to end and I needed to leave, I couldn’t walk away. I couldn’t let it go. Why? I was afraid of the uncertainty of what was next AND, because I already invested so much of myself in this relationship. Understand? Perhaps you’re experienced something similar.

The same is true for why people stay in careers or jobs they don’t like. They’ve invested a lot of their emotional, physical, and mental energy in the job plus, quitting can stir up lots of other emotions. Feeling like a failure or a quitter arises when we think about walking away from something we’ve invested so much of ourselves into, be it the career or the relationship. It’s a cycle. Sunk-cost bias stirs up these feelings like fear of failing or giving up and the longer you ruminate over those feelings, the more difficult it is to decide to leave and start over. We get stuck and continue to invest in something that no longer serves us.

The fact is that continuing to invest in something that is not working typically does not make it better. The more I invested in my dysfunctional relationship, the more resentful we both got. Every day I stayed, when I knew I needed to leave, took my time away from investing in something that could work. Eventually I did leave. I overcame the fear of the unknown associated with leaving behind a decade-long relationship and I bit the bullet on the sunk cost. I wasn’t getting that investment back. It was gone. Why hang on and keep investing and depleting my resources? Why continue to sink emotional energy and time (my cost) into something that I knew wouldn’t provide the return I was seeking? Because maybe, just maybe, it would…

That’s what we tell ourselves. Maybe if I just keep my money in this stock that keeps dropping it’ll eventually go up. Maybe if I just stay in this relationship, it will eventually get better. Maybe it will. Or maybe both the stock and the relationship will end up worth nothing. Only you have that answer. If you listen closely to your heart, you’ll know.

Yes, fears will definitely keep us from saying goodbye, ending a chapter in our life, and letting go of what no longer serves us. But, so will sunk-cost bias. If you’re struggling with letting go of something that no longer works for you because of all you’ve invested (whether financially, emotionally, or with your precious time) remember each day you invest in something that’s not enhancing your life is a day you’re not investing in something that could. And, dear one, your life deserves to be full of enhancements.

Here’s to saying goodbye to what doesn’t work so we can say hello to what does!

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