This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
I’ve never been a quitter. That’s not a brag: I’ve stayed in shitty jobs for far too long, failed to end relationships that had clearly passed their expiration dates, and wasted so much time struggling through other meaningless commitments that no longer served me. I’ve stuck things out when there was every indication that I shouldn’t. It’s a curse, really, and one that has brought plenty of unwanted drama into my life. But when I ask myself why letting myself give up on certain people or situations feels so damn hard, my only answer is that I’m afraid. Not that I’m losing a good thing, but that I’ll be branded a quitter.
The fear of quitting is real, says Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and the author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. She tells me that this fear is often related to something psychologists call the sunk cost fallacy, a term that refers to people’s tendency to continue a behavior or a commitment once they’ve already invested significant, unrecoverable effort into it. For example, if someone paid for nonrefundable plane tickets to go on vacation, then broke a leg just before the trip, they’d likely consider the “sunk cost” — the price of the tickets — when deciding whether they should still go. But that money has already been spent; it’s better to consider whether you’ll actually be able to have a good time on the trip, and to take into account the additional money you’ll spend once you’re there, on costs like transportation, food, and entertainment.
The sunk cost fallacy can be applied to personal as well as financial situations. You might delay breaking up with someone just because you’ve already dated for so long — you don’t want to “throw out” however many months or years you’ve already invested. Similarly, you might justify putting off looking for a new job by focusing on all the time and effort you put into getting or gaining expertise in your current job. But actually, the time or effort is a sunk cost — it’s already been spent. So look forward: Putting aside the money or time or energy you’ve put into a situation up until this point, does it make sense for you to spend another year with someone or doing something that doesn’t fulfill you?
So a fear of quitting could be related to a fear of “wasting” sunk costs. It can also be chalked up to a simple fear of change, which many people feel to one degree or another. “Regardless of how we interpret it, it’s a natural human tendency to want to keep doing what we’re doing,” Dr. Hendriksen says. “Change in itself can be scary. Consistency, even if a situation is hurting us or even if it’s uncomfortable, is often more comforting than stepping out and quitting or making some other kind of change.” If you’re thinking about quitting your job, for instance, you might worry that you’ll dislike a new job just as much, or tell yourself that it’s better to settle for the devil you know than to risk things with the one you don’t.
But my specific fear — about being labeled as a quitter — is distinctly American, Dr. Hendriksen says. In the U.S. especially, there’s a belief that anything can be accomplished through hard work. “There’s this cultural ethos of, of course you’re going to struggle, of course you’re going to face setbacks, but ultimately you will prevail and you will succeed,” Dr. Hendriksen says. “And sometimes that’s not actually the case.”
Whether it was my American upbringing, the sunk cost fallacy, a fear of change, or a combination of all three, somewhere along the way I learned to equate being a quitter with being a failure. Fortunately, Dr. Hendriksen says there are ways to get over this kind of fear. She suggests starting by asking yourself: Who is really watching my career and judging my career decisions? Who is actually worried about whether or not I stay with my long-term partner?
Fear can often make us feel like there’s a dark figure is lurking over our shoulders, judging our every move as wrong or embarrassing. But, sometimes that feeling is more internal than external. Say I sign up for an adult intramural sports team, tell all my friends about it, then discover after two games that I hate it and decide I want to quit. My brain tells me, “No, don’t be a quitter.” But who is really thinking that about me? My friends certainly don’t care what I do in my spare time. And even if they do think I’m a quitter, is it more important to me to be happy or to prove them wrong? And if it’s just me thinking I’m a quitter, is there a way to reframe that thought? Why not think of myself as adventurous and flexible for trying something new in the first place? This type of mental flip can make quitting easier — even liberating.
It may not be that you’re afraid of letting someone in your life down — but try asking yourself, What do I really think will happen if I quit this thing? Is that a realistic thought? “We can pinpoint what it is about quitting that makes us anxious or makes us scared, and we can challenge those beliefs or perceptions or we can take action, despite feeling scared or feeling uncertain,” Dr. Hendriksen says.
To me, “being a quitter” means someone who’s not in control of their own future. But in practice, becoming a quitter has made me feel like I have even more of a say in how my life plays out.
While Dr. Hendriksen says it’s good to let go of things that no longer serve you, there is such a thing as a bad quit — usually, a quit that’s impulsive and not well thought out, such as rage quitting your job with no F You Fund in place. “If it’s both rational and seems like the right decision, then I think that’s a good quit,” she says. She also points out that the debate over whether or not to quit something is typically harder than the act and aftermath of quitting. “We usually feel the worst before we make a decision or before we do something. Once we do pull that trigger, we often feel less anxious because now we have more control,” she says. “It’s done. And so we’re not looking forward, we’re not anticipating it any more. Now we’re in it and we can take action.”
If you’re stuck in the debating stage, Dr. Hendriksen has this piece of advice: We often regret the things that we don’t do. If you’re looking to get out of a relationship or a job or any other kind of circumstance that’s draining you, ask yourself what’s really holding you back. You may be holding onto a flimsier reed than you think.
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