We have all had some version of these motivational quotes surface in our minds like “our greatest weakness lies in giving up” or “you didn’t come this far only to come this far” or “there is no failure except in no longer trying.”
Many of us are taught, from a young age, quitting equals failure. To quit is to demonstrate a lack of work ethic, perseverance, and resilience. To see something through until the end is to show tenacity, grit, and courage.
But is there not wisdom in walking away from things and people that require us to abandon ourselves? Is it possible that giving up on something that makes us unhappy is actually the scariest, riskiest, yet most courageous choice we can make?
I found out for myself.
Last fall, I began a Ph.D. program in psychology after graduating with a Master’s degree from a different university. Momentum and ambition still propelling me forward, I decided to continue the path of becoming a professor, mentor, writer, and researcher.
Not even two months into the Ph.D. program, I found myself in a haze of self-doubt, depression, and general disinterest in the work. My goals became blurry; I could no longer see them clearly like before.
I longed for the familiar buzzing of mild anxiety that pushed me in the pursuit of my daily tasks. When in small doses and healthily managed, anxiety can be a positive thing. It can drive us to take steps toward fulfilling our purpose. It can be the tap on our shoulder to step up our game. It is a gentle reminder to keep going and not give up.
After all, giving up did not feel like an option. There was no way I would quit. I reminded myself that I had chosen my direction this entire journey. To throw away this opportunity must mean I was lazy or simply unwilling to work hard enough.
When we get what we want, there can be enormous guilt and shame in admitting we aren’t happy.
Yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that when I looked around, after having been such a confident traveler, the path I was on was no longer recognizable. The path of which I had been so certain stopped leading where I thought.
Apathy replaced anxiety, and resignation replaced resolve. But I was too afraid to turn around despite knowing the only way forward meant the only way was out.
A lot of graduate students experience imposter syndrome at some point in their educational journey. This is the psychological phenomenon in which we attribute our accomplishments and successes to luck rather than our own qualifications, thus feeling fraudulent and like we don’t belong.
The best way to make this distinction is to ask yourself: is my concern about whether I deserve to be here or is it about whether I even want to be here?
Learning how to make this distinction is critical because the former question leads to self-criticism and self-doubt. It is often not the best reason to walk away if it’s the only one.
But the latter question can lead to a renewed sense of intuition and freedom. We must switch from asking ourselves “what if I’m not cut out for this?” to “even if I’m cut out for this, am I fulfilling my purpose, and does this bring me joy?”
My answer was no.
After nearly a year in fearful paralysis, I finally admitted there was no other way but to change course. I shared my decision to leave without yet having a clear picture of which direction to take next. All I knew was: it’s time to discard the map, the GPS, the travel guides, and the experts.
What if you can make a new way? One not yet paved? Driven less by ambition and recognition and more by the desire to spread light both in others’ lives and your own?
Perhaps it’s not about going forth and finding out who you should become. Maybe it’s about turning inward and becoming who you already are.
If doing so requires you to walk away from a relationship, withdraw from a program, quit a job, or move to a different city, then it’s likely those decisions are the most courageous ones to make. Don’t let fear trick you into staying in something that stifles your strengths and squanders your satisfaction.
Although there is power in the decision to quit, there is also great fear. None can deny that. But nothing is more courageous than admitting you got things wrong and doing something about it.
Life is about taking wrong turns and correcting the course. No journey worth following is one without obstacles. Sometimes you must overcome them, sometimes you must walk around them, and other times the bravest thing you can do is simply turn around and go another way.