Has anyone ever told you to “hang onto your dreams”? Or have you ever given that common advice to someone else? No doubt the answer is yes. But is that always good advice?

This question came to mind recently when I saw my friend Karen. She became a lawyer because that’s what her father wanted her to do. She’s past 60 now and has never been happy with the decision. As a teenager and young adult, she dreamed of being a filmmaker or a writer…but instead, she has spent her life working at a law firm while still thinking about her dream.

It’s a truism that we should hang onto our dreams—it’s supposed to inspire and invigorate us. But the disappointment in Karen’s eyes was all too obvious when we discussed our lives…and I wondered whether the healthy thing for her, at this point, would be to finally give up that dream so it would stop overshadowing her reality.

How do you know when it’s time to let go of a dream? And how do you do that? For answers, I turned to Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist who has a special interest in how goals and dreams can affect our current lives, our happiness and even our health. And something she said right off the bat may surprise you—that for lots of people, surrendering their dreams is the best thing they could do for themselves.


Any student of history knows that the British surrendered at Yorktown and the Japanese surrendered onboard the USS Missouri…because they were defeated. Surrender is not good—unless you are deciding to surrender to the universe, said Dr. Orloff, whose newest book is, aptly enough, titled The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life.

By surrendering to the universe, she means learning to let go when the moment is right…to accept what is…to flow downstream with the cycles of life instead of battling obsessively or brooding anxiously. Here’s how to make it happen for you…

Reevaluate your definition of success. When you’ve held onto a dream for a long time, it can take on such huge significance that anything less than perfection feels like failure. But, Dr. Orloff said, success isn’t just about achievement—it’s also about loving life. So ask yourself what aspects of your dream truly delight you…then find ways to incorporate those aspects into your life. The idea is to enrich your experience, not to cling to an all-or-nothing mind-set.

For instance, if Karen surrenders the idea that she should be a professional filmmaker, she can more clearly focus on the fact that she enjoys creating fictional characters. Then she could figure out how to make more time for that—and maybe even shoot some creative video but not under such pressure. She might decide to cut back on the long hours she spends lawyering so that she can work on a screenplay part-time…or she might set a date for her retirement, with a mental commitment to start a second career as a screenwriter on that date.

Ask yourself whether you’re willing to do the work—and if the answer is no, accept that. Suppose you have always wanted to be a fabulous tennis player. To achieve that, you need to learn the skills, stay in shape, and practice, practice, practice. If all that hard work doesn’t appeal to you, your dream is actually more of a fantasy than a goal. There’s nothing wrong with that—as long as you don’t continue to beat yourself up about it. “If you’ve tried to move up in the rankings and discovered that it’s not working for you, your surrender is to be happy with what you have achieved and simply have fun with it,” Dr. Orloff said.

Practice letting go by changing your inner dialog. For a few minutes each day, consciously turn off the long-running tape in your head that insists, I must achieve that dream or I am a failure. Replace that thought, Dr. Orloff suggested, with something along the lines of, I am a success when I am loving with myself…if one dream doesn’t happen, I will pursue another one. Notice how you feel as you are thinking in this new way. Are you more relaxed, relieved, content? If so, keep repeating your new mantra as often as you can…and little by little, you will move toward the freedom of surrender.

Accept that life involves trade-offs. For most people, “having it all” is a myth. You cannot be a super-charged, all-in career person and a full-time, stay-at-home super-parent and a free-spirited, ride-with-the-wind world traveler. “You do need to recognize that not every dream comes true. Sometimes you must make sacrifices—for instance, for the sake of your family or your health or your finances—and simply make the best of the imperfect options available to you,” Dr. Orloff said. “The beauty in surrendering is that you don’t struggle so much with the ups and downs of life. The more you can become like the water in the creek, flowing around obstacles instead of butting against them, the happier you will be.”

Video: Watch Dr. Orloff’s TED Talk on The Ecstasy of Surrender.

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