Many people remain in bad situations because they are afraid to quit, but they shouldn’t. Our guest says that if you take the time to carefully plan just how and when you’ll walk out the door, it’s easier to deal with the anxiety, fear and depression that can follow such a big decision. We’ll hear about steps anyone can take – and those they shouldn’t – when it’s time to quit and move on.
- Peg Streep writes non-fiction, is a blogger at PsychologyToday.com and the author of the book, Quitting: Why we fear it, and why we shouldn’t, in life, love and work
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17-04 The Art of Quitting
Gary Price: Quitting, whether it’s a job or a relationship can be a traumatic experience. If it’s done out of anger or frustration, just walking out and slamming the door behind you can feel exhilarating—for a while. But then there are the “what now?” Moments that follow, and those can be devastating. Staying in a bad situation can leave you miserable and hopeless, but many people do stay put because they don’t know how to successfully break away. Does quitting have to be so nerve-wracking? So fraught with fear and emotion? Peg Streep says “no,” not if it’s done right. Streep writes non-fiction, is a blogger at psychology today.com and the author of the book, “Quitting: why we fear it, and why we shouldn’t, in life, love and work,” now out in paperback. Streep says that to understand why we’re so reluctant to quit, we have to look back at our American heritage. The idea that “quitters never win, and winners never quit” seems to be part of our national DNA.
Peg Streep: There are a lot of reasons. This is an enormous country and originally the people who founded it, the people who traveled west to populate the country obviously success very much lay in persistence – overcoming the elements, overcoming various travails, simply having the gumption. That’s one of the reasons we hold the aspect of quitting as a negative thing. It’s so particularly American.
Price: She says that in this country we also celebrate “underdogs” – the men and women who face obstacle after obstacle but still manage to prevail and attain their goals. We like to think that it’s not just someone’s talent or ability that brings success, but also their “stick-to-it-iveness” that saves the day. This persistence is something that Streep says is part of our humanness and goes all the way back to caveman days when survival meant that you couldn’t give up…
Streep: You needed human beings to be hard wired to persist because most of the challenges were physical. So you didn’t want the Paleolithic caribou hunter dissolving into a puddle of depression because he missed his game. You wanted him to in fact say, “Oh, I missed it, but that’s okay. I’ll just make a couple of adjustments. Same thing with the physicality of the challenges of living at the beginning of revolutionary times. You needed people who weren’t deterred, who tended to be over optimistic about their chances and were willing to keep chugging along.
Price: Streep says persistence still benefits us in physical pursuits such as athletics and test taking. However, it’s not good in many aspects of life…
Streep: Where our tendency to overestimate our talents, underestimate challenges, focus on what we have invested in the situation, and be prone to bursts of intermittent reinforcement only increases the chances that we are on a tread mill and that we are stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck.
Price: So how do you know when to quit a job or a relationship or other situation in life that’s not living up to your expectations? Streep says that only the person who is in that situation knows for sure, but it definitely isn’t during that “last straw” moment…
Streep: It’s not just a question of timing. It’s a question of preparation. Quitting is not, as we think of it, a one-step thing. To quit well you must manage your thoughts, and manage your emotions about the situation that you are leaving.
Price: Then she says you have to organize your thinking and feelings about where you are going next, and then set up a plan and goals and get yourself headed toward the next destination. So it’s a question of the right preparation for your action, as well as the negative fallout that inevitably occurs after quitting, and being prepared to gear yourself up cognitively and emotionally for the challenges ahead. Quitting, Streep says, is actually “goal disengagement” and it’s a process that ends with getting to the next place and re-engaging…
Streep: So it’s not a, “I’m out of here,” slamming out the door thing. You do that the likelihood is you will find yourself stuck in a different way.
Price: Setting realistic goals is a matter of sitting down and deciding what you want, what will make you happy. Streep says that goals come in two forms: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Streep: The culture is very much focused on extrinsic goals – cars, money, houses, glamor, status. The science knows that the likelihood of your being and staying happy is far greater if you in fact choose intrinsic goals, that is goals that give you personal self-satisfaction, make you feel as though you have accomplished something, increase your sense of self and self esteem. Most people have a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic goals.Obviously people are subject to influence. The problem is that they may have an intrinsic goal, but it’s not theirs…”My dad wants me to be a doctor. My mom wants me to be a lawyer. Okay, I’m going to med school or law school.” Well, is that your goal or…somebody else’s?
Price: Streep says you have to be clear when you look at your goals, and figure out which are truly yours, and which belong to others. Then decide which are extrinsic – that is to do with money, status, and stuff – and which are intrinsic and deliver the self-satisfaction that makes you happy in the long run. She says that you also have to be realistic about just what you can achieve…
Streep: What you want to be sure is that it’s not pie in the sky thinking. I cannot at my age decide for example that I want to be a ballerina. I can’t be a ballerina. And there are many other things that I simply don’t have the talent to be, or the time to be. I cannot go to med school for example. So what you need to do when you set a goal for yourself is you need to be ruthlessly honest about your talents and the challenges that you are facing.
Price: To do this, Streep says that you use “mental contrasting” to think about the outcome you want – that job or that relationship – and then imagine the obstacles that lie in the way of achieving that goal and how you will actually cope with them. If you don’t go through this process, she says that your goals end up being nothing more than a pipe dream. Finally making that decision to leave can be fraught with anxiety, especially if you are looking at what you’ve left behind. If you’ve invested many years in a relationship or a job, you could look at leaving as a loss rather than a transition. This is another one of those mental states that’s hardwired into our brains…
Streep: Because human beings are very loss averse — remember that. And you say, “Wait, I’ve already spent seven years in this job, in this marriage, in this relationship. If I leave those seven years are gone. Maybe I shouldn’t leave. Well, okay, the reality of it is that you’re not likely in the next, say, three years to be any happier than you were the last seven. But your brain is telling you that what you really should be concerned about is your investments of the last seven years. That is a brain game that the brain plays with all of us, and of course it’s really not helpful thinking. What you should be thinking about is what the next three years would be like if you weren’t where you are now.
Price: Another obstacle to quitting is what Streep calls “intermittent reinforcement.” Because we’re hardwired to be overly optimistic, this reinforcement makes you second-guess your decision to leave, and offers false hope that the situation you’re in will improve…
Streep: Your lover finally says the thing you’ve been begging him or her to say. And you go, “Aha, we’re turning the corner, or your boss finally compliments you and you go, “Yes! There’s hope! My working problems will be resolved.” That’s intermittent reinforcement. You will hold on to that nugget and keep trying, not realizing of course that it doesn’t constitute a pattern. Nothing has changed in particular, but you are inclined to hang in.
Price: Regret is an ever-present possibility when you’re making a decision to leave a situation. Streep says that to be successful in quitting, you have to be able to think about just what it is that you might regret…staying…or leaving?
Streep: Most people tend to regret not things that they’ve done, but the things they haven’t. You need to be pretty ruthless with yourself and honest. I think it’s helpful to look at the situation realistically. Will you regret staying longer? What will you regret? Will you regret your actions or inactions? It’s an emotion and it can be managed.
Price: Perhaps the biggest incentive to planning to quit is what happens when you don’t – when you stalk out and slam the door behind you. Streep says that leaving in this manner can make it tougher to pick up the pieces and get your life back on track again…
Streep: The problem with that is that yes you will go through that door, but you will go through it laden with tons of baggage. You are completely immersed in your emotions. You have probably, if you are leaving a job or a relationship, burned a lot of bridges on your way out that door, you have no game plan going forward, and you will be prone to second guessing. You will be up till two or three in the morning thinking, “Should I have done that? Should I have not done that? What could I have done better?” It’s just a really bad idea. So if you plan on making your exit, plan it. Don’t let yourself get to a place where you find yourself in one of these explosive situations, because you will be creating one kind of stuck for the other kind of stuck that’s you standing outside the door surrounded by baggage — emotional baggage, thought baggage — and not knowing what to do next.
Price: Although it’s difficult to quit a relationship or a job, Streep says it’s far easier and productive if you take the time to survey your situation and plan out your new situation before you give up the old one. You can find strategies and planning tools for quitting well in peg Streep’s book, “Quitting: why we fear it, and why we shouldn’t, in life, love and work,” available now in stores and online. Streep also invites listeners to visit her on Facebook. For more information about all of our guests visit our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.
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