On Leaving Well
When I was, oh, eleven or twelve — I can’t actually remember, though I remember it was during the long reign of knee socks — I decided to quit Girl Guides.
I remember this because it was the first time I ever left anything by my own choice. I also remember that I fretted about it for AGES before I finally chose to tell my mom I didn’t want to be a Girl Guide anymore.
I was so worried about what it would mean if I left: I’d be letting them down, disappointing the leaders and abandoning my fellow Guides, and breaking my mom’s heart. It’s possible I was being dramatic, but it all felt very real to my preteen sense of duty and obligation.
In hindsight, it’s pretty funny that I worried so much about the impact of my departure, because I was not a very confident child. What I mean is, for someone with chronically low self worth and self esteem, I was very concerned about what a big deal my leaving would be for everyone, myself included.
Eventually, all this stressing and worrying and unhappiness evolved into a strong resentment. I was still going to Girl Guides, but I hated it. I spent the days leading up to Guides roiling in bitter discontent and resentment, feeling trapped by my perceived lack of choice and power to change my circumstances. I spent the time I was there feeling frustrated and annoyed and I spent the time afterwards wishing I didn’t have to go again the next week.
In short, I made it a misery, mostly for me. I was out, but I was still in, disempowering the choices I’d made and refusing to make choices that would have honoured myself, my desire and my sovereignty.
I think I waited out the whole damn year that way (delightful) and then worried all summer long, waiting until just before Guides was meant to begin again in the fall before I finally I told my mom I didn’t want to participate anymore.
She was fine with it. This was not the end of her hopes and dreams for me, it turned out.
Girl Guides still operates to this day, so clearly my departure didn’t cause the absolute anarchy and collapse I’d imagined it would.
Why am I telling you this story? Well, knee socks, for one thing. They’re in every photo of me before puberty, even when I was wearing shorts.
But also because you’d think I’d have learned from this experience to empower my choices to be somewhere, or to leave before making myself miserable.
Alas! I did not learn this lesson, or rather, I have needed to learn it over and over again. To this day, I still struggle with leaving things. Sometimes, it’s my fear of missing out — what if something cool happens and I miss it? — but a lot of the time, it’s my inability to prioritize my desires and needs combined with the ability of my fear to become an incredibly creative storyteller.
My survival mechanism convinces me of a myriad of made-up stories and beliefs about who I am and who I am not, and what it will mean about me, about them, about my past, my present and my future, if I choose to disembark from anything I’ve been a part of.
Jobs, careers, communities, relationships, you name it. If I’ve left it, I’ve suffered the deep turmoil I tend to create before I make the leap. I mean a significant amount of personal wailing, gnashing of teeth and subjecting my trusted loved ones to the litany of my indecision. I’ve come a long way and thankfully these days I tolerate less time in torment, but it’s still a predictable and familiar experience for me to anguish where I am before I move on to what is next for me.
It’s sort of like my initial choice to participate is engraved in stone and I’m not allowed to change it. I become a victim to my decisions, subjugated by my unwillingness to change my mind. I am enslaved by my suffering toleration of a circumstance that is no longer serving me.
Does this sound familiar to you? I see it all the time. People wanting a new job opportunity or to change their career, but needing to get to a boiling point before they make a change. Maybe you even like your job, but then a new and unexpected opportunity arrives and all of a sudden, you’re noticing your frustration with your current circumstances begin to mount. Grievances that felt like nothing begin to feel like something. You start to have reasonable probable grounds for leaving.
Maybe it’s an apartment or a city and you’ve been itching for a change of scene. Sometimes, it’s leaving a relationship that feels like an unsurmountable challenge. It might be a romantic relationship, a friendship or a family relationship. You start to feel chained and trapped in it. Or maybe it doesn’t feel terrible yet, but you just don’t feel like it’s the right relationship for you to be part of anymore.
What predictably happens when we feel stuck somewhere we don’t want to be, but we’re not yet ready to leave, is that we begin to collect evidence to validate our desire to move on. We begin to gather reasons to corroborate our desire for change, as though it requires justification and validation.
Often, those nearest and dearest to us unwittingly collude with our fear, agreeing that our boss is a jerk, our job sucks, The Establishment is corrupt, our romance is dead, our partner isn’t treating us right, our friends and family aren’t supporting us or respecting us.
Their external validation more fuel to the fire we think we need to make a move. You know, that fire you use to burn the bridges behind you.
Here’s the problem: this kind of fuel is inefficient. It burns hot and fast, and uses discomfort and discontent to power your actions. It feels like freedom, but that’s only because of the relief that your taking action — any action — provides.
This kind of fuel burns your sovereignty and your power under the guise of empowered action. It works, because you eventually reach your breaking point and amass the courage to make a move, but you’re still a hostage to your fear and your survival mechanism. You’re pushed by discontent, not pulled by desire.
In this game, you’re not leaving on your terms; you’re leaving on the terms of your survival mechanism, and as an emancipated victim you’ve become to the situation you’re leaving. You’ve disempowered your desire and dominion and empowered your victimhood and discontent as the impetus for change.
What if you didn’t need a warrant to vindicate your desire and justify your decisions? (You don’t.)
What if you could leave something good for something better, because that’s what you wanted and your desire was reason enough? (You can and it is.)
What if your situation didn’t have to be dire before you changed it? (It doesn’t.)
What if we didn’t need to run our choices and ourselves into the ground before we gave ourselves permission to take our next steps or change direction? (We don’t.)
You can choose your direction from your desire and your needs, end of story. You don’t need to justify or validate your needs or your wants, period. You can make a change without needing what you’re leaving to be vilified as an excuse to bow out.
You can leave something good for something better, or even just different. That’s a good enough reason.
A relationship or workplace doesn’t need to become (more) toxic for you to be allowed to choose to leave it. We don’t need to be imprisoned by our choices before we choose to set ourselves free.
Unnecessary suffering doesn’t make anything better. It costs you the experience of life you want to have and undermines the trust you have in your own desire and power.
It’s possible to leave well and without drama and turmoil.
As is so often the case, the suffering is optional.