The Psychology of Leaving

In my work as a psychologist I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of people who face a common career dilemma:

  1. They are dissatisfied with their current situation;
  2. They feel uncertain and anxious about alternative options.

This is when people get trapped in a dilemma; stay or leave?

From working with so many people in this situation, here are some general points I’ve observed.

The mind instinctively prefers the status quo

Our minds prefer the stuff they already know, because it is safer.

The problem is, most of my clients want more out of life than ‘safe’.  Overwhelmingly, they want the chance to author their own lives, make positive decisions, and to break free from inertia.  Yet it is impossible to do this without taking a risk and minds prefer certainty…

So people often end up staying where they are, but more by default than choice.  They console themselves with hopes that their situation will get better.  And the organisation often responds, offering enhanced status and perks.  I remember I was offered a promotion and a £5,000 pay rise.  Yet what I needed was a more fundamental change in my life.  Most people want a sense of control and authorship over their lives and that was certainly the case for me.

By accepting these short term compensations, we duck the human need to author our own lives – the ‘hard choices’ that Ruth Chang so brilliantly identifies as the way to build identity and meaning.

Other people have a stake in the status quo

Another common issue is that those around us often have a stake in the status quo. These vested interests can be hard to tease out, especially as they often show up as a kind of protective concern.

In my case, I had perhaps 3 or 4 friends who ‘got’ the change and offered support.  Many of the rest questioned and even ridiculed it.

Moving towards what we value always takes willingness

On the flipside of what we most value is always something that we fear.  Therefore, for the really big decisions in life we need to:

  • Define what we really want – for example meaningful work or more autonomy;
  • Develop willingness to experience some anxiety in exchange for making a choice which is in line with our values.

Without this willingness, it is very difficult to break out of patterns that are not working.  Change is essential for renewal, but it always takes courage to take that first step.

Change is never ‘in’ or ‘out’

There is always the temptation to see (career) change in terms of black and white. Do I stay in my job, or leave?  Yet the reality is rarely like this.  All of my clients make intelligent transition plans to gradually shift towards something better.  The most common is to stay in their current job, but changing their relationship to it so they can work on a ‘plan b’ on the side.

No matter what the choice – stay or leave –  the most important thing is the plan that follows.  After all, the plan is where we deal with the reality of what follows.

So what’s the right answer?  Of course there is no right answer, only context and choices.

But in general, whilst it is usually easier in the short term to stay, I notice that those who leave rarely regret it.  In fact, they almost all start to feel more authorship over their own decisions, and greater vitality, meaning and purpose in life as a result.

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Leaving

  1. Great point. We are willing to stay even in our misery since we know how that works, instead of taking the risk of the unknown, which is far more scary at times because we don’t know that path. But in life there is a need for risk, otherwise we will not know the joy and wonder of what we have accomplished or are working toward in conjunction with our values.

  2. I was sticking with the status quo for years but decided working for the government would never make me happy. It was hard to leave and change my mentality, but I’m now in private practice and am so less stressed than I was before!

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