The art of quitting


Society tells us that persistence and perseverance pay off.  If the going gets tough, one should hold on, keep going, and not let go.  I’ve usually ascribed to this philosophy.  Even my doctoral dissertation was on grit, a construct defined by Angela Duckworth as maintaining passion and persistence when pursuing a long-term goal.  Through that process, I learned that grit was constructive, useful, and was most certainly related to achieving success.

Recently though, I’ve found myself wondering about the opposite of grit, “ungrit” if you will.  What if sometimes it is actually okay to quit?  Maybe even healthy?  What if one perseveres and a situation just isn’t working?  For instance, working in a toxic job environment where no matter how one approaches things, nothing changes.  Or what if one repeats harmful relationship patterns again and again?  I’ve realized that sometimes quitting is not failing.  Sometimes it is actually adaptive. 

Sigmund Freud wrote of the “repetition compulsion”, where we tend to recreate painful experiences from the past within current relationships.  We may keep choosing the same type of partner, for example someone who lies, cheats, or mistreats us.  Each time we do so, we are caught off guard when we are hurt.  We may be unaware that we somehow choose these partners and can come to feel as if it just happens to us.  But on an unconscious level, psychoanalytic theory proposes, we may have a need to rework past traumatic experiences in the hopes that this time we’ll get it right.  Only, we pick people with whom it’s impossible to have such a restorative experience.  We end up simply confirming our worst fears; that there is something wrong with us. 

Attachment theory addresses this phenomenon as well.  Our internal working model, or our paradigm of relationships and how people will treat us, is formed from our initial interactions with our caregivers.  From this very first relationship, we learn what to expect in future relationships.  We become comfortable with this pattern of relating, even if it isn’t healthy.  We stick to the known and are drawn to the familiar.  So, if we have an insecure attachment style, where we don’t expect another to be available to us, it won’t be shocking when another isn't available.  We expect it.  Our alarm bells are dampened.  It is too familiar to us and we don’t react as maybe we should.  We accept what we shouldn't accept. 

In these cases, it may actually be healthy to quit, to terminate a relationship, to even break off contact.  For instance, we may be better off with minimal interaction with a parent who has been abusive and who has little insight into their behavior.  Friends who keep disappointing us in ways we’ve been disappointed before may be friends that just aren’t good for us.  And partners who treat us in ways that are hurtful, despite our efforts to communicate our feelings, may be partners that aren’t right for us.  Even work situations can be unhealthy for us.    


1.     Notice patterns.  If we notice that we are unhappy in ways we’ve been unhappy before, it is time to analyze if we are repeating negative patterns.  Typically, one can call behaviors a pattern if it has happened three or more times.  If we feel like we're in damaging relationships over and over, it may be a sign that we are repeating a pattern.  

2.     Analyze our part in the situation.  Deciding whether to quit involves a thorough self-analysis.  What part are we contributing to our difficulties?  Have we tried to correct our behavior?  Voice our feelings in a productive manner?  Have we practiced open communication?  If the answer to all of these questions is “yes” and if the pattern still continues, we can begin to think about quitting.

3.     Analyze the other’s part in the situation.  If we repeatedly have detrimental relational interactions and we have tried our best to address our part and still, nothing has changed, it may then be time to think of quitting.  Are we repeating harmful patterns by choosing partners who are going to hurt us?  Are we too familiar with feeling bad so we aren’t reacting strongly enough and protecting ourselves?  Are we being unfair to ourselves and beating our heads against brick walls?  If it is clear that the other people involved are not putting in an effort and it is also clear that we are choosing to populate our lives with “toxic” relationships or “toxic” situations, we can think of quitting!

In sum, though grit is correlated with ultimate success, in some cases, “ungrit”, or quitting, may be just as important to our overall happiness.