We’re taught from an early age to stick things out, no matter what, but sometimes quitting can be the best way to move life forward, says Sharon Parsons
Why quitting may be good for you.
Aisha* always knew she was destined to work in medicine: her parents were both successful doctors, and from childhood, she and her brother were encouraged to follow in their footsteps. “There was never really any question we would do something else,” she recalls. “We both worked hard and got into medical school, but while my brother thrived, I struggled – not so much with my studies, but with the slowly dawning realisation that this might not be the right path for me.”
Even when she eventually qualified as a junior doctor and began work at a large city hospital in London, Aisha, now 34, found herself frequently miserable and dissatisfied. “Despite that, it didn’t occur to me that I could do something else – I knew it was a prestigious career and I felt guilty that I didn’t enjoy it more. Then one day when I was complaining yet again to a friend, she simply said, ‘Well, if you really hate your job so much, why don’t you quit and do something else?’ It was like an epiphany – I realised I could actually do just that.
“Telling my family I was going to walk away from a medical career was so hard – but ultimately all I felt was relief. I knew I wanted to do something more creative, and while it hasn’t always been plain sailing, six years on, I’ve carved out a career as a journalist specialising in health – ironically – and I’m so much happier. I only wish I’d had the courage to quit earlier.”
It’s undeniably true that in today’s success-driven society, giving up on something that isn’t working – be it a job, a relationship or any other kind of commitment – is far from easy. From childhood, we’re taught that staying the course no matter what shows strength of character, fortitude and loyalty, whereas walking away means quite the opposite.
“So often we regard quitting as a terrible weakness,” says British health author and psychotherapist Dr Andrew Reeves. “We’re especially hard on ourselves, believing that giving up on something equals failure. Unsurprisingly, we’re also worried about what other people will think: we define ourselves by our jobs and status, and the peer pressure to maintain these outward signs of achievement can be incredibly forceful.”
Caught at a crossroads
If giving up on something means farreaching changes, we’re often afraid to let go because of what the future might hold, says clinical psychologist Dr Tara Wyne of The LightHouse Arabia. “We may feel we’ve invested so much in, say, a career, that it would be foolish to draw a line in the sand and conclude ‘enough is enough’ without knowing for sure what will happen next,” she says. “Equally, we know that the act of quitting can cause considerable pain and confusion: sometimes it may seem easier to stay simply to avoid those feelings.”
Obviously, nobody would advocate throwing in the towel without a lot of careful thought. Our reasons for wanting to quit could just be down to a blip – a tough period at work or a rough patch in a marriage, for instance. Riding the storm, and putting in the time and effort necessary may well get things back on an even keel. “If you’re not sure what to do, put some boundaries in place,” suggests Dr Reeves. “Ask yourself what is currently acceptable in your situation – and what isn’t. Being able to consider that puts you in a much stronger position about whether to stay, go or just to try to make necessary changes to improve your circumstances. That in itself is immensely empowering.”
There is also, it must be said, a huge difference between quitting mindfully and running away if something is difficult: some challenges need to be endured in order to reap the rewards down the line. This could mean anything from learning to drive to mastering technology, or putting in hard graft for a much-deserved promotion. “In these circumstances, appreciating that there’s no other way and staying the course is to be commended – especially
when the prize is an obvious one,” says British health and well-being consultant Liz Tucker.
Keeping your options open
Sometimes, unrealistic expectations may mean we’re forced to quit. Sara*, a marketing executive and a busy mother of three, was determined to fulfil a long-held ambition – namely, to learn French – and enrolled on an intensive six-month correspondence course. “At first it was great,” she says. “I carved out specific study times during the week, and kept on top of the mountain of work I was expected to do. Friends and family were impressed by my dedication.”
But life soon got in the way. “We had a lot going on in the office, which spilt over into weekends; my daughter wasn’t well; and then we had visitors staying for a few weeks. Pretty soon I was falling behind with the study module, and far from enjoying the chance to learn something new, I began to resent its intrusion on my time,” Sara says. “It was embarrassing to admit defeat, but it was such a weight off my shoulders when I quit. I haven’t given up on learning French in the future – but I’ll do it when I’ve got the time to do it properly.”
Indeed, this approach can prove a successful middle ground in many situations. “You might feel you have no other option but to give something up at a particular moment in time, but the door doesn’t have to shut completely,” Dr Wyne points out. “You can always go back and try again when you’re better placed to do so.”
Equally, she adds, if quitting is ultimately the right thing to do, it doesn’t need to happen in one fell swoop. “A gradual process will be much more successful than attempting to sever something immediately. Taking it step by step is far less daunting. Think about what you’re doing, talk it over with those you trust, and ensure you put some practical plans in place first.”
Finally, have faith in yourself: while the cost of walking away can be high, doing it well also shows tremendous self-respect and awareness, not to mention courage. “Perhaps it’s time we stopped using the word ‘quitting’ altogether,” says Liz Tucker. “It can be much more liberating to think of our actions in terms of ‘moving on’ – and embracing the changes and opportunities that come with that.”