I was working with a coaching client the other day who shared that she had recently taken on mentoring a few younger colleagues. She had done this out of a sense of obligation, rather than a personal interest in doing so, and she was quickly realizing that the responsibilities were pulling her attention away from the things she cared more about and needed to accomplish. When I gently asked her why she was continuing, a bewildered look took hold of her face and communicated, “I don’t even understand that question.”
For the people-pleaser, perfectionistic good girls among us, the idea of “quitting” on a commitment that we’ve made can be not only frightening, but seem abhorrent. Questions plague us like,
How could I let them down now that they are counting on me?
How could I put them in a situation where the task won’t get done, or done well?
How bad is this really? Am I over-reacting?
Will they ever trust me again to follow through?
What will this do to my goals for the future?
These are sticky questions, meaning they tap into some of our deeply held convictions and schemas (our mental maps for the world) and so can be hard to dismiss, even when we want to. Often there’s a part of us that knows the “right” thing is to end the commitment, but our beliefs just won’t seem to let us go forward with that plan.
So what do we do when we’re caught between a nagging feeling that something that we’ve agreed isn’t working and the paralyzing fear that quitting will create harm?
We can start by taking some room, mentally and physically, away from the situation. It’s rarely the best move to quit something in the midst of doing it, unless of course you’re ethics or safety are in question. So make sure that you’ve been able to take the time to work through this from a place of as much distance as reality allows. Just like it’s hard to come up with solutions from the same mind that created a problem, it’s hard to see a path out from inside the prison cell. Give yourself the gift of time – even if this means sitting mindfully at a coffee shop for thirty minutes – to clear yourself to make a good decision.
Get a closer look at the beliefs at play
When you’ve got the headspace, consider what beliefs arise when you start to imagine stepping away from this commitment. Notice if you find yourself reciting ideas about what it means to be a good person or a hard worker. It can be incredibly helpful to use the tools of self-enquiry to discover insights. Ask questions like, “Where did I learn that if I commit to something I had to follow through until the end,” or “What do I fear will happen if leave this situation? Where do those fears sit in my body?” Your self-enquiry may give you clues as to what your underlying beliefs about quitting are, and that gives you a place to work.
Common core beliefs about quitting include:
Successful people always finish what they start.
Trust is the foundation of a relationship.
Be tough. I should be able to get through anything.
If I’m struggling to accomplish something, I’m not working hard enough.
It’s not over until it’s over.
There may be twenty-eight others that are swarming in your head – and that’s great! Try getting them down on paper so that they exist outside of you.
Core belief work can be incredibly powerful, and it’s often helpful to do with a supportive coach, therapist, or friend. The idea isn’t necessarily to challenge the beliefs, but to let them grow up a bit. Often they settled into our brain before we had 80% of our current life experiences under our belt, and they’ve never been updated. Now that we’re in the positions we are, we have an incredible opportunity to evaluate and decide what to do with the core beliefs that have been steering the ship for so long.
Tune into what your urge to quit is telling you about your values
There’s a reason you’re thinking about stepping away from this task or commitment, and so it’s important to keep coming back to that. More than likely, it’s because it’s not jiving with one of your primary values.
Maybe it’s sucking up the energy that you want to be devoting to your family at this stage. Perhaps you value excellence, and you realize that you’re just not the right person for the job. Maybe you thought it was one thing, and it turns out that it’s more of something else, something less central to your personal mission.
Tune into that sense of dissonance. Try very hard not to dismiss that part of yourself. If you’re tempted to say, “I’m just too lazy to do this,” or, “I’m not even good enough to be helpful,” GO DEEPER. Don’t let yourself stop there. That’s the overly simplistic (and usually highly inaccurate) response. If you feel “too lazy” to devote your Saturday mornings to the volunteer group you joined, perhaps it’s because you are truly burnt out and need that time to recuperate after a long week. If you feel ineffective on the board you just joined, recognize that the board chair may have not had a clear sense of what the skill sets currently needed were.
Do some perspective taking
Consider things from someone else’s vantage point, particularly that of the person you may fear letting down or pissing off. Could they be disappointed that you can’t continue? Sure. Will they get over it? Pretty much always.
It’s a totally natural tendency, but we tend to overestimate our significance. Often the tragic story we’ve created in our heads about how the other person will take our quitting is far too dramatic for the reality of the situation. People are incredibly resilient, and underestimating them can be almost narcissistic on our part. Give others credit for being able to tolerate bad news. We all have to do it sometimes.
It can also be helpful to put yourself in the position of that person, who right now is faced with someone who is mentally half out the door and ambivalent about the commitment. It’s not exactly ideal for them or for the project or situation. As frustrated and disappointed as we may be when things change, most of us would say that we want people on our teams who are fully committed to our shared goal.
When you’re ready to actually make the move, consider some tips for how to notify someone –
- Be genuine and truthful whenever possible. Wanting to devote more time to a hobby or just to get more rest are completely legitimate reasons to make a change.
- Acknowledge that things have evolved for you. “When I committed, I was in a different place in my life. Now that things have changed, this doesn’t fit for me.”
- Be gracious and offer time to transition if you are able to and it will be effective.
- Avoid over-apologizing. It can feel to the other person that they need to start comforting and reassuring you, and that’s not the goal.
- Thank the person for the opportunity, if you feel grateful.
At the end of the day, I like to remember that in order to be whole-hearted, effective, and true – some of my key values – I can’t be over-extended or committed to tasks where I’m not the right person for the job. Quitting will inevitably be part of that as people and projects evolve and change.
The good news is that the freedom we can experience to do the things that are truly meaningful will make the discomfort of this process fade into the background.