Most of us know that persevering — staying the course and not giving up despite difficulties and setbacks — is an important part of what it takes to be successful in many areas of life. Intelligence, or talent, alone isn’t enough if you cannot persevere and weather frustration and challenges.
But perseverance, like other intrinsically healthy behaviors, can be taken too far and actually work against moving forward. When this happens, what may look like constructive perseverance functions behind the scenes as an unconscious attempt to avoid loss or avoid the positive risks required to progress to the next chapter. Another issue masquerading as perseverance, particularly with bright, driven people who are used to getting it right, is the compulsive need to prove themselves or restore a feeling of omnipotence.
When operating as a defense or compensation, perseverance is rote — hijacking perspective and the ability to flexibly respond and change course when needed in a particular situation. Being stuck can be rationalized by idealizing endurance — leaving people oblivious to the cause of their discontent, or fooled into futile hope of a different outcome.
There are two basic categories of maladaptive perseverance:
1) The case of the good soldier.
Good soldiers typically accomplish the task but are left feeling bored, stagnant, or unfulfilled. They are often bright, used to succeeding, and instinctively meet demands and expectations. They may get stuck in a dead end because they lack the confidence, or ability, to set limits or make an exit. They may undervalue themselves, or be afraid of taking a risk, such as giving up an old situation to open up new opportunity.
Often they are not aware of their feelings and may not know, or consider, what they want or even be fully aware there is a choice to make. They may need to remind themselves that just because they can endure or achieve something doesn’t mean they have to.
Difficulty with cognitive flexibility and transition can also be a factor here — making it less likely that they will shift what they are doing and change their situation.
2) The case of refusing to give up the fight.
The die hards try over and over to impact a difficult person, situation, or something not within their control — hoping for a different outcome. They are unable to relent or let go despite being caught in a losing battle with proven low prospects of getting the intended result, or requiring too much effort relative to the payoff. In this case, refusing to give up protects people from facing their own limitations, feeling helpless and defeated, and/or having to confront sadness and loss regarding relationships or situations they can’t change. Letting go can also be mistakenly seen as a sign of weakness or personal failure, though in fact may be the harder, wiser, and more courageous thing to do.
Perseverance is not always the healthy choice, or the one that leads to success. Sticking with things can be overemphasized especially with kids even when it’s not the concern at hand- randomly taking center stage over more salient, far-reaching considerations.
Alex, 15, did not fit in to his new school. He was a diligent, strong-minded but compliant boy who valued applying himself and being challenged. Though he had always made friends, this time he found himself alone and unhappy. His feelings of isolation escalated into depression — leading to a negative spiral socially as it became increasingly difficult to engage with classmates. During the summer, his depression lifted, but the thought of returning in the fall filled him with dread, as did telling his parents he needed to go to another school.
Alex’s parents, both highly accomplished academics, were in fact disappointed with him and unreceptive to the idea of him “quitting.” They felt that that “rescuing” him in this way would not serve him in the future and that he needed to persevere in the face of obstacles to be successful.
In this example, Alex’s parents got caught up in arbitrarily glorifying perseverance, which obscured what their son needed at that time. Alex, a disciplined child who was already hard on himself, didn’t need to practice working harder at things or braving adversity. Though he learned ways to cope at school, the benefit was outweighed by feeling depleted and demoralized.
In order to accomplish things, learn, and grow, it is essential to develop the capacity to stick with difficult tasks, tolerate struggle, overcome obstacles, and be resilient in the face of mistakes. But perseverance itself, when actually a symptom in disguise, represents a breakdown in learning that is self-perpetuating. Such defensive perseverance not only fails to lead to success, but actually blocks new opportunity and fuels frustration and stagnation.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.