Why is it so hard to walk away from some situations? Maybe it’s time to call it quits.
My friend Thea, who is in her 70s, has been on her condo board for two years. She doesn’t particularly enjoy the meetings or the topics—oh-so-scintillating issues like who isn’t picking up their dog waste or where to put a new speed bump. But when I asked her if she was running for another term on the board, she looked confused and said of course she would run again. Huh.
Or take Glenn, a 45-year-old who long ago lost interest in his book club but keeps showing up every month. He says, “I’d feel bad if I stopped going.” Huh.
Why is it that quitting things can be so hard? Not quit- ting things such as smoking or alcohol—there are complex behavioral and chemical factors involved. I mean just walk- ing away from a group, activity, or job that no longer serves us. Some people seem to have no problem with swinging through an exit door, while other people will spend literally years tethered to a situation that they feel “meh” about, at best. What is behind this uneasiness?
“We may have been taught by our parents that once you start something you must follow through,” observes Dian
Grier, a licensed clinical social worker with Choosing Therapy, an online therapy platform. “Commitment is a wonderful trait, but as we change and grow, some of these commitments may feel more like obligations and you may start to resent the commitment you made long ago.” After all, you may have changed and grown since you joined up. Or maybe the group is kind of petering out, but no one wants to admit it. That’s when the lauded attribute of stick-to-itiveness starts to work against you, trapping you in the zone of mediocre.
THE FEAR FACTOR
There are several fears that keep people inert, Grier says. “Some people refuse to quit a commitment because they fear how it may affect the rest of the members. You might fear hurting feelings, being viewed as a quitter, or the loss of social support.” She also points to the concept of sunk cost fallacy. “This is the idea that a person has invested so much time doing something, that they refuse to leave. They may think, ‘Well, I have done this for six years so I might as well continue, or all that time will have been wasted.’”
Additionally, our brains are wired to expect situations to turn out a certain way, and when there is change, the brain can perceive that as an error message—a failure. This sensation leaves the “individual with uncertain and difficult feelings,” explains Grier.
People pleasers also have a hard time with busting a move out of something, says Grier. “The need to please others is a common trait among humans, but makes living an authentic life difficult. You might ask yourself the question, ‘Do I do things to keep others happy more than I do for myself?’” If you are a people pleaser, your answer will be yes. “Getting to the root of why we are people pleasers often starts in childhood, as we try to gain approval from our parents. Some households expect children to meet the needs of the parent either emotionally or physically more than is normal. Often, people pleasers feel selfish when they take time for themselves and feel an urge to keep doing things for others. This is a major reason why we stay in activities we no longer enjoy.”
ARE YOU EMBEDDED?
Brooks Holtom is a professor of management at Georgetown University and an expert in what is called “embeddedness,” which was the subject of his doctoral thesis. While his work focuses on the workplace and how companies can retain talent, his ideas can also be used to understand life decisions beyond work.
“The more connections you have, the more likely you are to stay,” he explains. “If you have positive relationships with your coworkers and your supervisor, it’s harder to leave a job. We conceptualize this as applying to the [work] organization but it also applies to the community. If you are talking about a church or a social club or a fitness club—the more the values fit with your values, the higher the probability is you will stay. And the greater your connections are with people—we see that as both quantity and quality of the relationships—the more likely it is you’ll stay.”
Holtom says that people’s affiliations can be broken by what his research refers to as “shocks.”
“Let’s say one person in a couple gets promoted, which is a good thing, but you have to move. You didn’t choose to leave, but you need to,” he says. These shocks can also be negative events. For example, let’s say a couple divorces and one partner’s extended family is really involved in their house of worship. After the divorce, what once felt welcoming and cozy could feel awkward, which may cause the other partner to reconsider staying in the congregation.
There is a silver lining to unplanned changes, Holtom says, because they can force you to reevaluate. “Punctuating events disrupt the status quo and cause you reflect and reassess.” Even a news event, such as the murder of George Floyd, caused a lot of people to take action for social justice.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for his work on how people make decisions, splits the process into two parts. In system 1, we make automatic, efficient, and largely unconscious decisions. What breakfast cereal are you grabbing? Which pair of socks? About 98 percent of our thinking is like this, done without much self-awareness. In system 2, we are making deliberate, conscious choices, and doing them more slowly and with a concerted effort toward assessment.
“With most of our decisions, system 1 is fine,” says Holtom. “But if you are, for example, thinking about leaving your church, it’s about thinking through your values. The opportunity to switch to system 2 thinking is valuable.” Shocks can pull us out of the fast thinking of system 1 and into deeper contemplation of how we want to chart our next course.
QUESTIONS FOR CLARITY
If you are struggling with the decision to quit a group, job, or activity, therapist Dian Grier, LCSW, suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I finding this activity enjoyable?
- Do I dread going to this activity?
- Is there something I can do to change why I dislike this activity?
- Am I continuing this activity for fear I will upset someone?
- Am I getting anything worthwhile from this?
- Am I staying in the activity f for fear of change?
- Am I doing this for myself or someone else?
COMMUNICATING YOUR DECISION
Once you’ve decided to make a change, it’s time to clearly and kindly communicate your thoughts. “Some people prefer to lie about why they are quitting, but lying can lead to being caught, which creates worse feelings,” says Grier. Of course, “Telling the group, ‘You bore me ... I’m out’ may not be the best way to communicate your decision,” she says. “Say something like, ‘I have really enjoyed my time in the group, but I’m feeling pulled to do something new at this time in my life.’ You can offer to stay in touch with members you do enjoy and offer gratitude for all you have done and learned together.”
If someone takes umbrage with your decision, remember that you’re free to choose your own path. “Oftentimes we take responsibility for other people’s feelings when it is not our job,” says Grier. “You may have a few people whose feelings do get hurt. The question is, ‘Is this my problem or theirs?’ A well-balanced person would wish you well and say, ‘Good for you.’ It is the less balanced person who reacts negatively, and that is not your responsibility.”
While we cannot always control our work lives, our free-time activities should bring us happiness and joy. If you’re not feeling it, give yourself space to try something new.
“Quitting may be the best thing you can do for yourself, and you may learn something through the act of quitting that you didn’t know before,” says Grier. “Do not listen to messages or people that are rigid about the idea of quitting. Be true to yourself and your needs. If quitting makes sense, be authentic and offer yourself some self-compassion. Quitting may just be the bravest and healthiest choice you can make.”
Affirmations to Support a Good Quit
Need a little shot of bravery to make your move? These affirmations may help.
- I’m going to be happier and healthier by making this change.
- If I’m not getting pleasure from this any longer, it’s time to move on.
- I release any expectations I have about other people’s reactions.
- Time is precious and I spend it carefully.
- Every day, I’m empowered to run my own life.
- I now feel complete ease with my decision.
- It’s the perfect time to go in a fresh direction.
- As of today, I only engage in activities that truly nourish me.
- Taking control of my time makes me feel strong.
- I honor my intuition by taking action.
- It feels wonderful to let go of _________ and move on.
- I am ready for this next chapter.
- I easily let go of obligations that no longer serve me.
- Today, I dismiss any worries about moving on.
- I choose my own story.