Should I stay or should I go? When we choose one path, we’re forced to surrender the other and either contend with loss and other repercussions of leaving, or forfeit a new opportunity and what might have been. Making a good choice involves predicting how the future will play out. To do this in an informed way requires knowing ourselves and having the perspective to realistically reflect on our current context, our future self and what matters most to us.
To complicate matters, decision making is often skewed by personality dynamics and psychological issues that unconsciously limit choice and bias people towards staying or going. Some people reflexively escape or avoid, instead of weathering difficulties and staying the course, while others stay too long and don’t know when it’s time to quit.
In spite of intermittent denial and self-deception, people with a pattern of not sticking with things usually can’t help but have some awareness of their pattern of avoidance, because of having had to face repeated criticisms and failures. This frowned upon issue in school and elsewhere is harder to keep under the radar.
On the other hand, people who dutifully keep trying, regardless of the cost, are often idealized by others causing this issue to escape detection — and even fuel a feeling of superiority. Being stuck is rationalized and moralized in the name of endurance and loyalty, enabling “good soldier” types to remain blind to the cause of their emptiness and resentment. This psychological defense enables people to continue to hold on to the magical belief that somehow this time they can make things turn out differently — refusing to let go of unfounded hope. When operating as a defense or compensation in this way, what looks like constructive tenacity or grit is actually a disguise for the inability to flexibly respond and change course when needed. Rather than a strength, it is actually a liability and is indicative of rigidity and difficulty with loss, risk, and change.
When at a crossroads, being aware of these biases can free people up to move forward — allowing them to truly have a choice, rather than continue to make decisions in a rote way and repeat maladaptive patterns.
Personality features that make people at risk for staying too long: How many of these do you have?
- You instinctively meet demands and expectations and ascribe to the belief that just because you can endure or achieve something means you have to.
- You’re perfectionistic and used to getting things right. You need to force “success” and keep trying in an effort to restore a feeling of mastery and omnipotence.
- You’re not afraid of struggle and hard work but have trouble with flexibility, letting go, risks, and change.
- Your mistakes/regrets are that you stayed too long and didn’t take a risk.
- You’re afraid of disappointing people and get stuck in situations because you lack the confidence, or ability, to set limits or make an exit.
- You fear having to confront sadness and loss regarding relationships or situations you can’t change.
- You see letting go as a sign of personal weakness or failure.
Devin was a successful doctor who always tried to do the “right” thing. He grew up in a family of high achievers where “quitting” something was shamed and seen as a sign of weakness and lack of character. Having internalized the need to avoid disappointing others and continually prove himself, he stayed too long in unhappy relationships and persisted in problematic or unfulfilling jobs and other situations.
When at a crossroads, Devin was unable to access his own wisdom and clarity, despite knowing what he needed. Driven by self-doubt, he became caught in a loop of automatic rote reactions developed long ago unconsciously in an attempt to stave off disapproval and shame. “What if I’m just running away and taking the easy way out?” …” What if it’s really not the right thing to do?” This rigid mindset was a symptom — obstructing self-reflection and perspective, causing him to lose sight of who he really was and what he wanted. (An interesting observation is that people who tend to escape rarely obsess over whether or not they are just taking the easy way out.)
Distracted by the wrong concerns, Devin failed to recognize the parts of himself that were overdeveloped (being disciplined, loyal, responsible, staying the course) and the ones that needed strengthening (being flexible, letting go, taking a risk, holding his own in the face of potential disapproval, tolerating change).
Knowing you’re at risk for staying too long of course doesn’t mean the right decision is necessarily to leave, rather than continue to try. People like Devin, along with feeling guilty and acting dutifully, may also chronically feel trapped in their lives and fantasize about escape. It can be confusing for them — and untenable — to trust their instincts and motives when wanting to decide to leave. Using the guide below, people can check themselves when they want to quit but fear that they may just be making excuses.
6 signs that it may be time to quit (and know that you’re not just bailing):
- When quitting is the “harder” choice.
- When the effort you’ve expended with little payoff tells you that you’re not just running away; your effort outweighs the cost, resulting in a net loss.
- If you were getting a reward for an accurate prediction of how things would play out, your prediction would be that the same pattern would persist.
- When the outcome is not within your control and continuing to try is keeping you stuck.
- When you’re trying to prove something to yourself or others (e.g. the kind of person you are) rather than seeing the big picture.
- When persevering is affecting family life, relationships, and/or health.
Letting go can be mistakenly seen as a sign of weakness or personal failure, though in fact sometimes may be the harder, wiser, and more courageous thing to do.
Disclaimer: The characters are fictitious but represent real situations and psychological dilemmas.
Margolies, L. (2016, September 28). When Perseverance Costs You Success. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-perseverance-costs-you-success/