Whether it’s a job you hate, a PTA committee you over-committed yourself to, or a certificate program that’s certifiably awful, you may feel like quitting. And you know what? That’s OK.
People love to tout phrases meant to be encouraging, like “You only fail if you quit,” blah blah blah, but the truth is that sometimes quitting is the healthiest option in a not-great situation — or because something even better has arrived on your doorstep.
Here’s how to quit with grace and integrity while making as few enemies as possible.
To quit or not to quit?
There are some positive reasons for quitting — your interests shifted, you got a better offer, you're moving or are switching careers or simply want a change of pace. But there are also some reasons for quitting that are less pleasant to deal with.
Some signs that the thing you want to quit is causing distress include:
- You regularly feel burnt out
- You’re constantly thinking about it when you’re supposed to be doing other things or resting
- You often avoid it or have a lot of fear around it
- You have a narcissistic or unsupportive leader
- Your health and mental health have been suffering
- You are being bullied or otherwise disrespected
- You are being harassed or discriminated against
In the case of the latter two points, you may want to report what has happened to whoever is in charge or otherwise take action so that the person responsible for causing you pain can be held accountable. Though, of course, that is also your choice; if you’d rather just quit and not have to deal with the stress, more power to you.
Tips for quitting gracefully
Not everyone is able to quit when they want to, but if it’s an option for you, here’s how to do so in a way that minimizes stress and doesn’t burn any bridges.
Don’t play the shame game
There’s often social stigma or personal shame involved in quitting — but there doesn’t have to be.
Quitting is a perfectly natural action that all of us will experience doing at some point, says Elizabeth Umphress, professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, and is better than staying in a situation that’s making you unhappy.
“Quitting should, at best, be treated like an amicable breakup: a recognition that the time spent together was valuable but it is time to move on,” says Kira Schabram, assistant professor of Management at the Foster School.
Do some soul-searching and practice self-compassion
Think about what you really want. What’s actually going to make you happy? Can the issues you have currently be resolved or do you need to seek a new opportunity?
“It could be that the grass is greener somewhere else or it could be possible to change your current situation to make it better for yourself,” says Umphress.
Be honest and realistic with yourself — and also kind to yourself.
Plan your quitting
It can be tempting to quit in a rush of anger or frustration — but try to reign it in, not just for the sake of the people around you, but especially for yourself.
You should have a plan in place, or at least an idea in mind, for what you’ll do after you quit. Finished with the PTA? Cool. What else will you do to be involved in your kid’s school experience? Done with that grad school program that doesn’t fit your interests? Awesome, so are you applying to different programs, trying to find a new job or doing something else that moves you forward?
“You want to leave a situation with a better outlook and a more positive outcome for yourself,” Umphress says.
Resist the urge to quiet quit or ghost
Maybe you still covet that participation trophy (literal or metaphorical) — but you feel like you’re lacking agency in a lackluster parent group or an elitist spin class. It can be tempting to still show up and go through the paces but only put in the bare minimum amount of effort — aka quiet quitting.
Sometimes, this strategy makes sense — like when it comes to interacting with a relative you don’t get along with but also don’t want to completely cut out of your life. But in most situations, quiet quitting doesn’t serve you.
In fact, staying in a situation where you feel unvalued or without power can actually make you more likely to lie or behave unethically, according to research by Jessica Huisi Li, assistant professor of Management and Organization at the Foster School.
“The narrative we’ve seen is that when people have more power, they care less about what other people think and do more unethical behaviors like cheating,” says Li. “But in one of my papers, I found out that not having power, feeling your self-esteem is threatened, questioning whether you are a worthy or adequate member of organization, or feeling unvalued, can cause that person to exaggerate or even lie about their performance or achievements.”
If the situation you’re in isn’t serving you, your best option in most cases is to be honest with yourself — and others — and quit outright.
You don’t need to overexplain why you’re quitting; a simple, respectful statement that this is what you’re doing and it’s what’s currently right for you, is all that you need to do. You don’t need approval from anyone else that you’re making the right decision.
Even if you’re leaving because something went wrong, you weren’t treated well, or you did not enjoy the experience, if you have feedback to give, do so in a way that is thoughtful and clear — even criticism can be shared in a thoughtful manner — because you deserve to leave feeling proud of how you handled the situation. This is especially important with a job, because you never know if you’ll need a reference or if a future employer will contact a previous one.
“In a 2017 study, my colleagues and I found that even employees who have left on terrible terms (for example burned out and walked out one morning vowing never to return), may change their mind when tempers cool and/or other opportunities are harder to find than expected. You just never know,” says Schabram.
Make the experience meaningful
So, you quit. Good for you. Now take some time to think back on where you were and what you learned while you were there: Chances are, even if things weren’t great in the end, you still got something valuable from the experience.
“Although you might be grateful that you never have to interact with a certain team or person again, also try to reflect on what you learned from the situation and take that new learning with you to improve your next experience,” Umphress says.