Sometimes, clinging to a goal is worse than giving up with dignity
Last September, after 18 years of being employed, I quit my high paying fancy job — on a whim. It was Wednesday and I came home after an awfully tiring day at the office, only to realize that I still had so much to do with deadlines looming over my head, that I had to work after getting my kids to bed. At 10 p.m. I started to catch up with my emails, ticked checkboxes off on my to-do list, and added another hundred to it. It was useless.
No matter how hard I tried, whatever I did, it was just not enough. Never enough. If I had cloned myself, we still could have spent the day and the better part of the night working out everything — the two of us.
At the time I was also facing personal challenges and at 2 a.m., close to tears, I sat down and I composed my resignation letter. I wrote it, edited it, read it over ten times, and then I hit “send.” I didn’t have another option, another position waiting. All I had was a million voices in my head screaming at me to stop sacrificing myself.
“Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” — Ray Bradbury
I was struggling and feeling guilty, as I had only spent three months in this job. I am not a job hopper or a quitter, and I usually embrace challenges. But this was getting to be way too much, the toxic environment, the abusive bosses, the irrationally high workload. And no pay could ever compensate for my anxiety and the brink of a nervous breakdown every other week. I felt I was failing — and I was. I was failing myself. If I had allowed myself, I would have quit after the first month, because it was already clear back then that it was killing me slowly — physically, mentally and emotionally.
There are thousands upon thousands of motivational quotes that will encourage you to go on, to bounce back, to keep fighting, keep getting up after you fall. They all tell you not to give up, ever. Because hard work and persistence and grit will surely get you where you want to be.
On the one hand, that’s true. In Western culture, we are taught to persist and work hard. Practice makes perfect. Early bird gets the worm. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Our culture values consistency and hard work over waiting to be inspired. It suggests that hardships will make you grow, that challenges are all part of the learning curve.
Yet there is something deeply flawed about never giving up. There are times and situations when clinging to something is way worse than giving up with dignity.
Think about a bad relationship, an abusive workplace, a toxic friendship. Think about the trials and tribulations of looking for but not immediately finding your passion, your satisfying relationship, your calling, your vocation.
Giving up can be a good thing. Quitting is sometimes the best option. Walking away from something that doesn’t serve you is a must. Moving on is an art form — it has to be done properly.
If it is timed right; if it is not giving up without even trying.
It’s a fine balance, judging the situations and deciding to move on or keep on trying. The first questions we ask when we consider giving up are usually these: When is it time to move on? What is enough? Let’s dive into those.
1. Don’t Give Up if You Haven’t Even Started to Work on Your Goal
For sure, the answer is not to give up but to keep going, if you haven’t even started to make an effort. Sometimes the task ahead looks so daunting and incredibly big that we don’t even consider ourselves to be qualified enough to try and think we are doomed to fail. In some cases it is about us being rational, knowing our skills and competences. But in other cases, it is about learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness as a term was coined by Martin Seligman, who describes the notion as a gateway to depression. According to his theory, we learn by experience or perception that whatever we do will not influence the outcome of the situation and we learn to give up before even trying.
This can be highly affected by childhood trauma, domestic violence, or substance abuse. The feeling we get from learned helplessness is (as the name suggests) renders us helpless and we don’t see the way out. This doesn’t mean that there is no way out, it just means that our perceived negativity is influencing our decision-making ability.
When faced with something unknown that might seem way too big for our previous experience, we need to consider whether the situation is really impossible or if it’s just us making it look like it. This is not the time to give up. Trying and making an effort is crucial here. We’ll have other opportunities to give up, so not yet!
2.Don’t Give Up When You Encounter the First Difficulties
The temptation to give up might come to us when we have already started our journey towards our goal, but we come across an unexpected difficulty or even worse when we fail.
No matter how much we are taught to persevere, we are not taught how to handle failure. Think about the school system, where you have one single chance of giving the right answer and if you fail, you are sanctioned with an “F”.
Getting punished for our mistakes is the very reason we are afraid to even try, why we’re not motivated to do better, but instead get discouraged. The reason for alternative schooling stems from this — human beings work a lot better under motivation than under sanctions.
Failure is hard, but it’s no reason to give up.
Think about a relationship or a workplace situation. Facing the first argument or misunderstanding should not suggest a breakup or a resignation letter. It might seem tempting to just move on from it, but communication and overcoming hardships is key. It is teaching you a lot about yourself and others.
Learning to handle failure is just as much a success as succeeding without failing.
3. Give Up If It Is So Unattainable That It Starts to Be Destructive
There are times when pursuing a goal that is way out of reach can get detrimental to your physical and mental health. Technically referred to as “goal disengagement,” (by Carsten Wrosch and Gregory Miller) it turns out that giving up can sometimes be a healthier alternative. One likely possibility for goal disengagement that can be beneficial is that it frees people to pursue other, previously overlooked goals. If we spend all our energy on goals that are past their expiration date and have stopped being useful or inspiring, we’re missing out on opportunities to do other, more meaningful things.
Moving on from a toxic job or relationship can be emotionally taxing. Us human beings often resist change. We are drawn to the familiar and we are quite good at convincing ourselves about the rightness of our choices. It is crucial to pay attention to the signs, where our intuitions or even bodily signals tell us that something is off. Post-rationalizing and cognitive dissonance can stop us from seeing the red flags and might hinder us from moving on.
4. Give Up If the Goal Is Not Important Anymore
To recognize that we have moved past a goal that we set for ourselves requires a lot of self-reflection. Especially if previously we invested our time and energy and we believed the goal to be significant in our journey.
It can happen that at the beginning of our careers we are happy to sacrifice 12 hours of our days to get into our dream job. But a few years later our priorities can change and we don’t find the dream job that dreamlike anymore.
With time passing, we are growing, we are changing, our priorities are changing, our goals might expire to give way to other goals. It is important to recognize our changing personality, the signs that show that the goal is past its usefulness in our current lives.
In such cases giving up is not even giving up, it is the only way to move on and live a meaningful life, without the shackles of past burdens.
We are taught that winners never give up, and if we give up, we lose.
But the real win is knowing when to move on and when to persist and keep trying. Letting go of something impossible, unattainable, or unimportant is not a failure. It is a sign of being mature and self-aware. It is an art form and there is beauty and relief in it.
Giving up and letting go doesn’t mean that we will be wandering aimlessly, it means that we will pursue something better and more beneficial.