The confessions of a serial quitter

I have thought about this title for a lot longer than usual. It’s not flattering, it’s not carefully curated, it’s not how I would like to be perceived by others. I don’t want anyone to think I am a quitter, let alone somebody who gives up when things get difficult. I decided to go on a walk and think about it. I decided to sleep on it. But in the end I came to the conclusion that it most accurately sums up this blog post. Maybe you think I’m being hard on myself, but I’m really not. I’m actually being quite matter of fact.

In many other ways I am determined, hard-working, motivated and goal-orientated. I managed to gain a First in English Literature whilst battling a serious mental illness. I have a huge collection of sports medals and trophies and I competed in Henley Women’s Regatta after only one year of rowing. I have a CV as long as my arm thanks to the countless internships and jobs I have applied for and successfully completed. There’s no denying that I have achieved a lot of difficult and stressful things. But I’ve also quit too.

This is something I only really acknowledged very recently, namely when I read this piece by Ruby Tandoh about the art of quitting. She is a self-professed prolific quitter and is proud of it. As I read, I could relate to so much of what she was saying that it made me slightly uncomfortable. I realised that so many things in my life have come to a close because I have quit in a definitive, dramatic way. I’m sure this is the case for lots of people, as there’s no way you can still be part of the 14 extra-curricular clubs you joined at school, or the 47 societies you signed up for in Freshers’ Week.

But I’m not talking about quitting chess club or giving up the flute, I’m talking about quitting huge parts of my identity and sense of self. I’m talking about quitting things which have taken up hours, weeks, years of my life. These things are my life. Until suddenly they’re not.

The part of the piece which really hit me was this paragraph:

At every point, the reasons to quit felt compelling. First, there was a breakdown that sent me, briefly, to a psychiatric inpatient ward. There were breakups and bad teachers, an eating disorder and the insidious voice of my poor self-esteem. An ill-timed comment was impetus enough for me to set out for pastures new; a perceived slight would set in motion a downward spiral from which I could only recover with a decisive full stop, a quit. At the slightest discomfort, an itch would begin to settle in my chest, small at first but soon as insistent as a scream. Quitting felt like breaking through the surface of the water, like breathing again.

Honestly, I feel as though I could have written (a less eloquent version of) this myself. I get myself into situations and mindsets which only feel redeemable by a ‘decisive full stop’. I can’t see another way out, other than to completely let go, run away, firmly slam the door. The fight or flight response we learnt about in A Level Psychology comes to mind. I take flight with a melodramatic swoosh of my wings.

Perhaps this is part of my ‘all or nothing’ personality. I either do something to the absolute max, or I don’t do it at all. If I’m not going to do it well, then I really don’t have time for it. I’d rather I wasn’t like this, because it means I’m constantly judging myself and striving to achieve, rather than just doing something for the experience or for the sake of doing it. Nevertheless, it does have its benefits, as I can set my mind to something and usually succeed.

But when it comes to something I’m finding difficult, this mentality often means that I look for escape routes rather than ways of managing. I don’t always see that there are ways of making a situation better for myself that don’t involve dropping everything completely and running away. This probably makes me the least employable person on the planet, but if Ruby Tandoh can write about it and not end her career, so can I.

Just some of the things that I have quit in the last 10 years include: two competitive sports (both of which shaped my identity and took up considerable amounts of time), university (nearly twice), relationships/friendships, jobs, religion (I have now un-quit that) and living away from home (twice). I have of course quit other, smaller things, but the ones on this list are all quite life-altering. Quitting them was the equivalent of dropping all responsibility and jumping off the conveyor belt, eyes closed and hands over my ears singing ‘lalalala I can’t hear you’. If I let go, the responsibility somehow falls outside of myself and I can blame the external situation rather than my inability to cope.

As Tandoh acknowledges in her piece, quitting is often a privilege. Moving back in with supportive parents isn’t something many people can do. Leaving university is quitting something I was lucky enough to have access to in the first place. Tandoh says, quite rightly, ‘When you’ve got nothing, quitting isn’t an option’. This is true, but my quitting has often left me feeling as though I am – if not nothing – a shell of myself.

I don’t get a buzz from starting anew, because at the point of quitting I’m usually burnt out, worn down to the bone, barely able to function. While there may not be a buzz, there is a distinct sense of relief, a ragged, desperate sigh: At last, I can stop, I don’t have to do this anymore. 

My extreme, all or nothing way of living my life is not sustainable. It results in furious flurries of activity which build and build, until suddenly they explode into a devastating nothingness. I’m left reeling, surveying the damage in a state of numb shock, trying to figure out how to rebuild myself into some semblance of a person. Each time I do this, the model is slightly different. I’m a new version of myself, this time determined not to go back to how I was before.

I don’t think it’s the quitting itself that’s the problem. I’m proud of myself for stepping away from certain things when they have become damaging or no longer fulfilling. I think the problem is the fact that I have given so much of myself to something that a clean break feels like the only option. Whatever it is has become an addiction, so I have no choice but to go cold turkey. I tear myself away and let go completely, hoping there will be someone there to catch me and pick up the pieces.

What is the solution? I do know that the answer isn’t to be any less passionate or determined. I can’t go around on my tiptoes, stepping cautiously rather than throwing myself in headfirst. If I worried about all this beforehand, I wouldn’t start anything worth doing and I’d get nowhere.

Instead, maybe I need to learn to deal with situations in a way that is sustainable. Not everything I do needs to end in a dramatic retreat that leaves me uprooted and dazed. I can stop doing something and still be a whole person. I can quit something that isn’t working without feeling the need to justify my decision and transfer the responsibility. It’s okay to quit, and it’s also okay to change things about a situation so that it’s possible for me to keep going. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Sometimes it’s brave to quit, to step away in an act of self-preservation. I don’t regret quitting any of the things that I have in the past and I don’t believe that I lack perseverance. I just need to learn that it’s okay to quit and move on, taking full responsibility without reeking havoc in the wake of the decision. I don’t have to justify myself to anyone. No one is keeping score. Maybe then I’ll have mastered the art of quitting.

What do you think about quitting? Do you think it can be called an ‘art’?




  1. Anon
    July 19, 2020 / 8:55 pm

    Hi Hariella, your article – and the Ruby Tandoh one – have both resonated with me so much. I’ve quit 4 jobs with rather a lot of drama! The most recent time I promised myself I wouldn’t but I couldn’t help it. And it was as a result of a slight, an ill-timed comment. I too feel torn between “this is not a sustainable way to live” and “I’m proud for having the courage to walk away when things don’t work for me anymore”. I’m literally right now in the aftermath of a quit, and I feel really confused and anxious about the affect my propensity to quit is having on myself, my future, and my loved ones.

    • harrietella
      July 20, 2020 / 12:08 am

      Hey, thank you for your comment, I’m glad that you can relate to the feeling. I didn’t realise anyone else experienced this until I read the Ruby Tandoh piece! I know the exact feeling, it’s so difficult to know whether it’s a healthy decision or just completely unsustainable. I’m sorry you’re feeling confused and anxious. I hope things work out okay for you x

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