I’ve recently noticed a trend among my clients that’s giving me cause for concern. Simply put, they don’t know when to quit.
Most of you are probably guffawing, thinking to yourselves that Millennials are the ultimate throw-in-the-towel-at-the-first-sign-of-trouble generation. And in certain circumstances, I would have to agree. But I’m not talking about giving up on a homework assignment because “the teacher never taught that material in class,” or cutting off a friendship because “it’s easier than having a difficult but important conversation,” or quitting a job because “the boss is, like, SO mean and the critical feedback is just too much to handle.”
No, I’m talking about the situations where teens (and parents) are fully aware that they are engaging in a situation that negatively impacts their well-being, but are terrified to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough.
We live in an achievement culture where dogged determination and perseverance are highly prized character strengths. We advocate fighting through roadblocks and pushing through obstacles. And to be fair, as a coach and practitioner of positive psychology, no one espouses the value of grit more than me (more to come on that topic in another newsletter).
That said, like any strength, there is a tipping point at which persistence becomes self-defeating and downright damaging.
Some examples I’ve witnessed firsthand:
- The teen who insists on maintaining a toxic friendship despite being the target of rumors, exclusion or bullying
- The parent who commits to every board, committee and club despite being constantly exhausted, overbooked and overworked
- The teen who feels obligated to take 3 AP classes next year despite constant anxiety and regular meltdowns while taking just 2 AP classes this year
- The parent who grins and bears it (i.e. suffers in silence) despite feeling unappreciated, manipulated or emotionally beat up by their kids
- The teen who refuses to walk away from a sport despite having developed an eating disorder due to years of required weigh-ins
At what point will we give ourselves permission to call it quits on behaviors, activities or relationships that no longer serve us?
In order to answer this critical question I think we need to address a different one first: Why do we continue to suffer when things could be so very different? A few themes have emerged through many conversations with clients:
1. Different doesn’t always mean better. In many circumstances, there is a transition period where someone might actually feel worse on some level before they feel better about calling it quits. For instance, someone could feel socially isolated after leaving a toxic friend group. Or someone could experience some identity confusion after separating from a sport they’ve played their entire life. When we focus on all of the potential downsides of walking away, it’s hard to imagine that, eventually, life recalibrates and we create a new normal. And in my experience, that new normal often includes benefits and opportunities that otherwise would never have become available without walking away.
2. Fear is paralyzing. The unknown that lies on the other side of calling it quits often creates a level of anxiety that can stop us cold in our tracks. As humans, we have a deep need for certainty and stability, so making a choice that creates uncertainty in our lives practically goes against our very nature. The good news is that we also have a need for variety. I often use the metaphor of a heartbeat monitor: if that line on the screen is totally flat without any ups or downs, well, you know what that means. Life is supposed to have peaks and valleys– just like an EKG screen. Accepting the ups and downs as a sign of being alive can help us to embrace walking away even when it might create fear.
3. Failure is not an option. Perfectionism runs rampant in our culture and walking away is often interpreted as failing. Being perceived as disloyal, a disappointment or a failure is like kryptonite for perfectionists. Embarrassment and shame (highly painful emotions) have become tightly bound to the idea of quitting anything in our society, and most people are not taught how to effectively manage such intense feelings. Instead, we tend to avoid those feeling altogether by putting our nose to the grindstone, working harder and staying the course.
So if persistence is a valuable strength, and life is supposed to include some ups and downs that cultivate resilience, how can we know for sure that we aren’t jumping the gun and walking away prematurely?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you make the big decision:
1. How is this ____________ (sport, friendship, class, commitment, etc.) negatively impacting my well-being today and what other difficulties might arise if I stick with it? (Get honest with yourself and be specific.)
2. How long have I felt frustrated/unhappy/disappointed by ___________? (Sometimes we don’t even realize how long we’ve been suffering! Conversely, this question can also prevent us from making an impulsive decision we might later regret.)
3. What have I learned to tolerate about ____________ that isn’t downright awful, but life could be better without? (Even tiny tolerations suck up time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere.)
4. How might my well-being improve if I let go of ____________? (Emotionally, spiritually, physically, psychologically, etc.)
5. By saying no to __________, what am I also saying YES to? (New opportunities, relationships, experiences, quality of life?)
6. If a friend were struggling with the exact same situation, how would I advise them to proceed? (Trying to see the situation more objectively can help to bring clarity.)
7. Who can I lean on for support after I decide to let of ____________? (Friends, family, counselor, coach, colleague, etc.)
As I mentioned previously, in our culture quitting is often connected to feelings of failure, disloyalty, and selfishness. And yet, there are most definitely situations in which quitting is the best option for our well-being. So how can we reconcile this discrepancy? Here is a simple re-frame I offer my clients that often helps them to feel empowered by the decision to walk away:
“Quitting a bad situation is an act of self-respect. Prioritizing my well-being is a self-honoring choice and a reflection of my deep self-awareness. Letting go of a negative pattern is brave and courageous, and I refuse to continue to compromise my quality of life.”
If this topic resonates with you, I hope you will take the time to reflect on your experiences and commit to making choices that protect your quality of life. Here’s to recognizing when we are setting ourselves up to fail, and making the wise decision to give up the fight and maximize your well-being!