Andrew and I have been rewatching The Office lately in the evenings, and I’d somehow forgotten how genius it is. We recently finished Booze Cruise, arguably one of the most memorable episodes of all time. It’s the one in which Michael takes the employees on an evening cruise for a camaraderie event and spends the whole night trying to find an opportunity to give them a motivational speech (about leaderSHIP, of course). But self-appointed party captain Michael keeps being thwarted by the more charismatic and authoritative actual captain, Jack, whom people would rather listen to.
Meanwhile, Jim finally gets up the guts to tell Pam about his feelings for her. Right before he does, however, her good-for-nothing longtime fiancé, Roy, finally asks her to set a wedding date. A despondent Jim heads out to the ship’s deck where he foolishly confesses his feelings for Pam to Michael. And Michael, unknowingly fulfilling his goal of the entire episode, gives Jim a motivational speech: “If you like her so much, don’t give up,” Michael says. “Never ever ever give up.”
Michael’s speech stuck out to me because I recently finished a book specifically about giving up — one my counselor’s been urging me to read for like a year now: Necessary Endings, by Henry Cloud (of Boundaries fame). She recommended it in light of my frustrations about my last job, but I didn’t read it until right after I quit, and I found it wildly enlightening. I’ve already recommended it to so many people that I thought I’d write about why it was helpful to me.
The book’s basic premise is that endings, which we’ve been taught to see as mostly negative, are a normal and necessary part of life. If we avoid endings, we stay stuck — in hopeless situations and unhealthy relationships — unable to move on in life and actually grow. It has now come up in my conversations with people who:
Are eternally frustrated/taken advantage of at work but aren’t making moves to leave
Feel guilty about stepping out of commitments even when it’s necessary for their own mental health or their own families
Can’t break off draining or unhealthy relationships because it would hurt the other person
(Cloud also explains the need for necessary endings for bosses with low-performing employees they can’t fire, people chasing unrealistic dreams, companies that can’t cut pointless product lines, and more.)
It’s far easier to list such situations than it is to get out of them — or to know when to get out of them. When you’re in them, you can usually think of a million reasons to stay. But the reasons we tell ourselves we’re staying often aren’t the reasons we’re actually staying, according to Cloud. One of the real reasons we stay is that it hurts to leave — the immediate, intense pain of calling it quits hurts more, at least temporarily, than the dull, drawn-out pain of staying stuck.
He advises that, to motivate yourself to pull the plug, you should envision yourself a year from now — play it out like a movie in your head — dealing with the exact same frustrations you’re having now. Yes, ending something will hurt, but it won’t hurt more than the cumulative pain of wasting another year of your life in your current situation. Any time you start getting comfortable again, picture yourself in a year in the same spot.
Accepting that things won’t change
I remember calling my mom the week I quit my job and bawling in the car on the way home. The immediate, intense pain of quitting was so real. I had put five years into that company — the entirety of my post-school adulthood. I had hung on for so long for various reasons: loyalty to certain comrades, a sense of trappedness, a delusional hope that maybe something would change, fear. For years, I had watched person after person walk out the door, but I had stayed and fought. And here I was, quitting — angry that I hadn’t quit earlier and angry that my quitting, like everyone else’s quitting, would change nothing. On top of the anger, I felt a deep sense of sadness — for the good times, for the people who’d fought hard for me, for what I was doing to them. But the company itself was broken at its very core and wouldn’t acknowledge it. “It feels like a breakup,” I remember telling my mom through tears, “where the other person is unwilling to go to counseling.”
Cloud makes a good point about such situations: “Your business and your life will change when you really, really get it that some people are not going to change, no matter what you do, and that still others have a vested interest in being destructive,” he writes in a section pointedly titled, Accept That Incurable Sickness and Evil Exist. “Once you accept that, some necessary endings get much easier to do. But until then, you might find yourself laboring much longer than you should, still trying to get someone to change, thinking that one more coaching session will do the trick — or one more bit of encouragement, or one more session of feedback or confrontation. Or worse, one more concession.”
Or, I might add, one more year.
There was a term that people at my old company used to describe why they stayed, a term that should’ve set off my internal alarm years ago, one I repeated to others frequently: “golden handcuffs.” It was our way of saying that, despite frustrations, the perks were too good to leave. I cringe now when I think of that rationale. In retrospect, the handcuffs don’t look golden at all — they don’t even look locked. I could’ve walked out the door at any time. I chose not to, and now I think it was less because of the perks and more because the frustrations were a known quantity. As Cloud puts it, “I know I live in hell, but I know the names of all the streets.”
I say I chose to stay, but I have to acknowledge — to give myself the grace of acknowledging — that, in dysfunctional environments, you often feel a very real sense of helplessness. It fills the air like pollution and slowly suffocates you. I’m grateful to those who quit before me and stated this clearly on their way out. I’m grateful to my former coworker who dozens of times sang out loud in the office, like a refrain for all to hear, “This is noooot noooormaaaaaal.” And I’m grateful to my other former coworker who admitted that the environment made her feel like she was bad at everything. To me, she was clearly capable, just unempowered. Hearing her, I realized that maybe the environment was also to blame for my feeling bad at everything. I never used to feel that way about myself, after all.
Cloud talks about the similar idea of learned helplessness, “a conviction in which the person adapts to the misery because they feel that there is nothing they can do about it.” They’ve done studies on dogs about this. Cage a dog and zap it enough times, and when you finally unlock the cage, the dog will stay despite your zaps. He’ll just stay and take it. Maybe that explains why we all thought we were wearing handcuffs.
In reading this book and in quitting my job, I did develop a newfound understanding for people who stay in insane and terrible situations. I have never understood, for instance, why women stay with abusive men. Surely there was some psychological explanation for it, but on a common-sense level, WHY? Now I think I get it because I was basically doing the same thing — insane and borderline-abusive had started to look normal to me.
The most legitimate reason I felt trapped was the bilateral cubital tunnel that I’d developed at my last job — intense pain that runs up both arms from my pinkies into my underarms and sometimes my upper back. The primary trigger is using a mouse and a keyboard, which is what I did (and do) literally the whole work day. Since it was a work injury filed with the company, they had to grant me leniency when the pain was flaring up. They’d already paid for two rounds of physical therapy, which hadn’t helped, and I was not a candidate for surgery.
“What am I going to do if I go to a new job and the pain gets worse and I can’t take all the breaks I need?” I remember worrying. But another part of my brain was skeptical: “What if my arms hurt because this place is making me a crazy person?” Ultimately, there was only one way to find out.
Hopelessness and when to suspend it
Cloud posits that hopelessness is one of the healthiest places you can reach in a situation. When you realize that a situation is not changing, you’re finally able to execute necessary endings. But how do you know if something is going to change or not? Things do change … sometimes. One of the most helpful parts of the book was a section in which Cloud delineates nine reasons you could potentially have hope that things in a difficult situation (like a job or a relationship) would change. As a rule, the best predictor of the future is the past, unless one or more of these nine things is at play. Here they are for you, his list of When to Suspend Hopelessness (if you’re interested, he explains them in much greater detail in the book):
Verifiable involvement in a proven change process
Business coaching, AA, rehab, counseling, etc.
Regular steps or meetings that, as he puts it, “do not depend on the person’s own whims”
Watching and measuring whether things are changing
New experiences and skills
Experiences (workshops, training) that go beyond just information
An internal drive to change and grow — a willingness beyond just concession
Admission of need
Seeing and owning that there’s a problem, wanting to change
The presence of support
Supportive people close by and rooting for success AND the absence of unsupportive people
Help from a professional with experience
Visible progress, even if it’s limited
These don’t all have to be in place by any means. But if none of them are visible, there is little reason to believe that things will improve, short of a miracle.
I’ve found this list helpful not only in evaluating whether situations and other people will change but also in evaluating whether I will change in various ways. They could apply to so many areas of life.
And though I’ve primarily relayed the contents of the book in terms of ending bad or unhealthy things (because this was how it most clearly applied to me right now), Cloud also spends a great deal of time talking about ending things simply because they aren’t the best use of our resources. Life offers more opportunities than we can take advantage of, and saying yes to the right ones means saying no to others. I basically feel like everyone needs to read this book now — if you have a job, any commitments, or any relationships, it’s probably relevant to you.
The thing that stuck out most to me about Michael’s advice to Jim was that, despite how inspiring and motivational it sounds, Jim doesn’t take it. Jim actively gives up, just a few episodes later. He confesses his love to Pam twice in the Casino Night episode, but she turns him down, so he moves away to take another opportunity at the Stamford branch, as he should.
Because Jim chooses to leave, Pam is left to do some soul-searching of her own, free from his continued attempts to persuade her. Of her own accord, she ends up calling off her wedding to Roy, a necessary ending several years in the making. She then begins the process of becoming a more assertive person, standing up to people in the office and speaking her feelings without fear. And in the end, it’s this newfound assertiveness that — spoiler alert — puts her on the path toward a happily ever after with Jim.
Now I’d like to cultivate the ability to say “Give up” in a motivational way. Give up — you’re worth more than what they’re putting you through. Give up — it’ll be okay. Give up — it’s the most assertive thing you can do. Give up — I’m rooting for you. Give up — your future is bright.