Despite the subliminal messaging delivered to me via hustle culture, toxic positivity, and about 40,000 millennial-pink day planners, I'm a big fan of giving up. Not so much in the sense of abandoning goals at the first sight of an obstacle, but rather when a dream is essentially ruining my life. Because, that's pretty counterproductive, right? Goals and dreams should propel us forward, not tie us down and make us feel awful. So, knowing when to give up is actually a superpower of sorts.
"Sometimes part of life is choosing to let go of some dreams and to create or embrace other ones," says psychologist Paulette Sherman, PsyD. "As much as we are the creators of our lives, life also teaches us. We change and life brings us new opportunities, and sometimes they are better than the ones we thought we wanted."
Now that you know there's an upside to letting go of certain dreams that might be getting in the way of even bigger and better ones, you can feel a welcome sense of vindication in your desire to sometimes give up. For instance, quitting a relationship, a city, a job, or anything else, might be in the best interest of your mental health and happiness. And just so you don't think I'm a hypocrite, please know you wouldn't be reading this if I didn't give up on my dream of being a fashion designer. That said, having of sense of when specifically is the right time to quit is powerful knowledge to have. So below, Dr. Sherman shares three big red flags that can signify it might be time to throw in the towel on a given dream.
1. You'll know when to give up when the main reason stopping you is your pride
I thought being a fashion designer would be sexy.
In the literal sense, because I was aiming to design lingerie and had cultivated a whole impractical pinup girl image around it (inclusive of baby bangs, four-inch heels, and garter belts—in the dead of East Coast winter, no less). In retrospect, it's wild how married I got to my idealized image of my actualized dream, because in reality, it just wasn't materializing.
"Sometimes our dream derives from our ego and the status or idea of something rather than what it would be like on a daily basis," Dr. Sherman says. Basically it's really easy to delude ourselves with a perceived projection of what something may be despite reality showing otherwise. Just like you might fall in love with the false glamour of a chosen career, you may fall for a person who doesn't stack up to your image of them. I ultimately quit design school. At the time I was embarrassed, but having discovered that I hated designing helped—as did leaning into my more natural inclination to write.
"Sometimes we only discover [our strengths] by trying other opportunities that life presents us with," Dr. Sherman adds. "We see that those other opportunities flow. They create open doors and proffer success, whereas our old dream make us feel stuck and off balance."
2. You've been pursuing your dream for…ever, and haven't made progress
This was the biggest draw when it came to leaving art school. Despite having set myself up for what should have been a successful turn in design school (I even took courses in high school at the Fashion Institute of Technology), at a certain point, I couldn't lie to myself about the lack of growth or payoff I was noticing.
"[If] you're spending time feeling like a failure, and you feel like your life is on hold due to this goal, it may be time to entertain other things that can make you happier," —psychologist Paulette Sherman, PsyD
"[If] you're spending time feeling like a failure, and you feel like your life is on hold due to this goal, it may be time to entertain other things that can make you happier," Dr. Sherman says.
3. You would be happier pursuing a different goal that better fits you and your life
Dr. Sherman points to a study that concluded college students who gave up on goals that seemed unattainable had fewer negative thoughts and stress than those who did not. "The study found that when those students disengaged from one goal, it was really helpful if they engaged in a more productive one and focused on that. This way, you switch your focus but are still inspired and moving forward."
Goal disengagement is far less daunting when there's a plan in place for goal reengagement. That is, you don't have to have just one dream. You also don't have to have one relationship, one job, one lifestyle, or one single anything for the rest of your life. And you don't need to know what's coming next as a prerequisite for giving up on a dream that's not serving you. Learn to trust that in almost every situation, there is a Plan B, and keeping it in mind will reinvigorate you.
In my case, that's exactly what happened when I realized when to give up on design school: I quit, then landed myself a new dream, and got into journalism. Along that path, I gave up a million more times along the way. I gave up on being a fashion writer, I gave up on being an entertainment writer, and I landed on being a lifestyle writer, which I absolutely love. I'm a quitter and a success story all in one, and you can be too. All it takes is cutting yourself a break for being human and knowing it's never too late to start over.
While we're on the subject of positive negativity, here are a few quick tips on the art of saying no. And if you're thinking of breaking up, these are the signs to look for, based on your Myers-Briggs personality type.
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