Walking away though, is a different concept entirely. Walking away is something you do for yourself because staying is bad for you. Not difficult, not challenging, not something you can tell yourself to just push through, but something that is harmful to you. You usually walk away from something you don't want to leave. You can quit something for a thousand reasons, but you walk away from something when you love yourself more than you love whatever you are leaving. It could be anything, but usually its a job, a person, a relationship, a dream- something you've devoted a significant amount of time and energy to. Nobody taught me how to walk away as a child. I think it might be one of those lessons you learn through trial and error, though sometimes I wish I'd been a faster learner.
How do you know when it's time to walk away? I think it's pretty situation-specific, but there seem to be a few common denominators. In my experience, they look like the following:
- Feeling exhausted. This feeling is pervasive—it's not some bad-day/bad-week/bad-month feeling—it seems to never go away.
- Feeling like, no matter how hard you try, you can never make any progress, despite working harder than you've ever worked before. In fact, it may seem like the harder you work, the worse it seems to get.
- Feeling afraid. Not the type of worry you feel about passing a class or getting a promotion you've worked for, but actually feeling yourself contract in some sense. This may also manifest itself as a constant and relentless stress.
- Being unable to live in the present moment, either because it's too miserable or because you're so focused on a future when things will be better, you're trying to forget today exists.
- Finding yourself chronically sacrificing your health for XYZ. This could be not sleeping, not eating good foods (or not eating much of anything because you don't have time), not moving enough (because you're too tired, or you're tied to your computer), not taking time for mental health.
- Feeling confused. On some level, you just feel confused as to why something you care about so much is so bad. There seems to be no connection between what you think it "should" be and what it is, which creates a feeling of confusion.
When you get to this place, it's good to realize that walking away usually involves some sort of loss, but that the loss that you think you will experience has probably already occurred; you just haven't acknowledged it. Walking away involves turning inward and trusting your own feelings. Part of you will want to stay just a little bit longer, to work just a little bit harder, to try a different approach, to... Unfortunately, doing so is usually dangerous. The signs above are warning signs- they are indicative that something is wrong. Problems resulting in these types of feelings are most likely in the process of coming to a head; to stay can often place you directly in the explosion. Or, oppositely, it can cause you to compromise and contort yourself, causing some sort of slow inner death.
The decision to walk away feels right. It doesn't always feel good and it doesn't always make sense (because maybe you don't have a backup plan), but it should feel solid. Usually it takes some courage. Sometimes it may not be accompanied by a next step. I think this can sometimes be simply due to the fact that, until you let one thing go, you don't have space or capacity to see something else.
There's a pretty awesome episode of This American Life called "Self-Improvement." The first story is about a guy who decides to walk away. I thought I'd include it just for kicks.