What is the Viral ‘Leave Them’ Theory?

Over the past few months, the “let them be theory” has been floating around the internet. It all started over the summer, when Mel Robbins, a popular motivational speaker, took to Instagram and shared an idea he said he had just heard about and “really liked.”

In the video, which now has more than 33.5 million views and 1.4 million “likes,” Robbins breaks down what he means by “leave them alone” through examples.

“If your friends don’t invite you to lunch this weekend, so be it,” Robbins says matter-of-factly. “If the person you’re really attracted to isn’t interested in a commitment, let it go. If your kids don’t want to get up and go to that place with you this weekend, so be it.”

According to Robbins, too much time and energy is wasted trying to force others to conform to our expectations. Just “letting it go” is a better response, especially in our romantic lives and friendships.

“The fact is, if someone…isn’t presenting themselves the way you want them to appear, don’t try to force them to change,” he said in the clip. “Let them be themselves as they reveal who they really are to you. Just leave it. Then, you can choose what you do next.”

It seems like a simple enough idea: When you put aside your worries about how others feel about you, you will experience more control and calm in your life.

It’s a little bit like “que sera, sera,” a little bit “meet them where they are.” However, as many people noted in Robbins’ comments, it may not be easy to apply it to your life. As one commenter wrote, “I feel like if I ‘let them’ all be, I’d be alone because so many people depend on (my) effort and showing up at everything.”

Therapists we spoke to think the motto could really change things for many people, although they have some reservations.

“As a psychotherapist, I think this approach can be useful for people who tend to internalize other people’s behavior, struggle to allow others to have autonomy, or engage in anxious attachment patterns,” says Sadaf Siddiqi, who practices in New York City.

Others may not find it constructive, including pleasing others, because they tend to let others supersede their needs and desires.

“People-pleasers generally let others do what they want without considering how their behavior may impact others,” Siddiqi told Talk News. “This ‘let them be’ approach can prevent them from speaking out and being heard.”

Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, California, generally favors the “let them be” theory. This reminded him of a personality psychology concept he emphasizes with his clients: “locus of control.”

A theory developed by American psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to outside forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives.

As a concept, this fits the viral “let them” theory: When you let your friends go to lunch without you, and then consciously choose to do something fun alone or with a group of other friends (the action you take is important) , you take back some of your control and refuse to let external forces ruin your day.

“It’s about understanding where our influence ends and accepting that there are some things that are out of our control,” Chappell Marsh said. “We can’t control other people, so we have to focus on our own actions and responses.”

"It's about understanding where our influence ends and accepting that some things are beyond our control," says therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh. "We cannot control other people, so we must focus on our own actions and responses." “It’s about understanding where our influence ends and accepting that some things are beyond our control,” says therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh. “We can’t control other people, so we have to focus on our own actions and responses.”

What is the practice of “leaving them be”?

“Let them be” can easily apply to romantic relationships, says Chappell Marsh.

“Applying a ‘let them be’ philosophy to relationships means loving your partner for who they are, while focusing on how you respond and interact rather than trying to shape or control them,” she says.

However, the context is also very important, Siddiqi added. Yes, it’s important to allow your partner the autonomy to make their own decisions, achieve their goals, and decide what they want to do with their time – but sometimes it’s just as important to express how their behavior impacts you.

“This is especially true if it is something that violates your boundaries,” he says. “You can ‘let them’ be themselves, but in intimate relationships, connections are formed through vulnerability and open communication.”

Here’s how this theory can be applied to friendships: If you’re upset with an insecure friend, you might want to “let them” bail at another group dinner, especially if they come across as a friend in other ways.

“In platonic relationships, the approach of letting your friends be as they are can help increase tolerance and acceptance of people who may have different opinions, perspectives and interests than you,” says Siddiqi.

“Leaving them (in parenting) is not about giving up;  it's about accepting your child's choices and offering wisdom versus using control," Chappell Marsh said.

MoMo Production via Getty Images

“Leaving them (in parenting) is not about giving up; it’s about accepting your child’s choices and offering wisdom in taking control,” says Chappell Marsh.

In parenting, sometimes it’s important to take a step back, especially with adult children.

“‘Let them’ is not about giving up; it’s about accepting your child’s choices and offering wisdom in taking control,” says Chappell Marsh.

However, while “leave them alone” is effective for older children, it is not always appropriate for young children. “They need more direct guidance and structure, which this approach doesn’t always provide,” says Chappell Marsh.

When should you not “just let it go”?

Of course, “leave them alone” is not a universal solution to your interpersonal problems.

This idea should not be applied in dangerous situations that endanger your safety or that of others – a mental health crisis or a substance abuse problem that needs to be addressed, says Chappell Marsh.

It’s also important not to confuse acceptance with indifference. “In therapy, we emphasize the importance of combining this approach with empathy and active involvement in the relationship,” says Chappell Marsh.

She also warns against using “let them be” as an excuse to avoid confrontation: “Sometimes, difficult conversations are necessary to resolve issues, and avoiding them can cause more problems in the relationship.”

But as an overall approach, Chappell Marsh argues that this theory can help people feel more free in their lives.

“I love that ‘let them be’ encourages a non-judgmental attitude of acceptance, especially in situations we can’t completely control, which when you think about it, is the most common situation,” she says.

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