Opting out. It's a term that has become a part of our modern day lingo as dual career families have gone from being the exception to being the rule. Opting out (also called off-ramping) is most commonly used to refer to women who leave their jobs to become stay-at-home moms. But it has also been used to describe women who leave their jobs due to excessive stress or burnout. 

The decision to opt out is one that often weighs heavily on the minds of overstressed high-achieving women--and not just for financial reasons. Successful women typically pour their hearts and souls into their careers, which makes leaving--or even considering it--a heart-wrenching decision, despite how bad the situation may be. High octane women also often have powerful emotional connections to their work, making it more difficult to call it quits when things turn bad. But when making this kind of decision, it's important to consider quality of life, and when you're in a bad relationship with your job, quality of life usually takes a serious hit.

In High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, I use the analogy of battered women when discussing opting out because the dynamics that keep women in bad relationships with their partners are strikingly similar to the dynamics that keep high-achieving women in bad relationships with their jobs. For example, in battered women cases, it's rare to find women who "hate" their abusers. They don't like being abused, yet they often report "love" for their partner and have high hopes that he (or she, in some cases) will change. In fact, two of the biggest "pulls" that keep battered women in abusive relationships are the emotional connection they feel toward the batterer and their hope that things will change for the better.

These women don't love the person that is beating them up on a regular basis. What they love is the illusion of that person, the person they first met and fell in love with before the abuse started, the person they sometimes see glimpses of in between episodes of abuse. And they hope the person they love--that illusion--will return. But more often than not, despite promises of change from the abuser, the abuse continues. In fact, it often gets worse.

In much the same way, burned-out high-achieving women often stay at their job, even when it's beating them up day in and day out, because they love the illusion of the job based on a distant memory of what it once was and what it once meant to them. From time to time, they may see glimpses of what they once loved about it, which only serves to reinforce their hope that if they wait long enough, things will change for the better, return to what once was.

But in an abusive relationship, love or no love, illusion or not, when the situation does not change, the battered woman needs to get out for two important reasons: 1) so she won't continue to be hurt, or worse, die at the hands of the abuser, and 2) so she can have a chance to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. The same holds true for high-achieving women.

If your job has beaten you down, and it keeps beating you down despite your best efforts to change it, it may be time to face a harsh reality, which is ... it's probably not going to get better. In fact, if your relationship with work is that bad, it's probably going to get worse.

So how do you know how bad it is? Ask yourself these ten questions:

1) Do you dread waking up on work days?

2) Do you feel resentful when you're given new cases or new assignments?

3) Do feel like you're working harder and harder, but accomplishing less and less?

4) Do you feel underappreciated or mistreated at work?

5) Do you feel trapped or helpless because no matter what you do the situation never seems to change?

6) Do you feel irritable or hopeless when the topic of work comes up?

7) Are you missing appointments, deadlines, etc., or putting off assignments until the last possible minute?

8) Are you taking more sick days than usual?

9) Are you feeling increasingly cynical and disillusioned?

10) Do you feel depleted or exhausted (even on days when you've gotten a good night's sleep)? 

If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, you're probably burned out, feeling trapped in a bad relationship with your job, and seeing few or no options. Opting out may have entered your mind, but you haven't considered it a viable option because, like many high-achieving women, you still feel a strong emotional connection to your job. You may see it as a part of your identity, and if you're like many in these troubling economic times, you may depend on the income, which makes the option of opting out a real obstacle to overcome.

But obstacles don't have to be complete roadblocks. Rarely are there no options at all. So what are some things to consider?

One factor that high octane women, with their Superwomen mind sets telling them they can (and should) keep going regardless of how bad things get, often fail to consider is sustainability. While I fully recognize that some women must work to financially survive, the reality is that burned out bodies and minds simply stop working at some point. So if you feel like you can't opt out for financial reasons, what will you do when--not if--your body decides to take matters into its own hands and opts out for you? Which would be better? Having one or two years (or less) of burnout and distress before your body quits on you, or making the move now (or as soon as you can find something new)? Will it be a lower-paying position? Possibly. But what are the costs to staying? What are the intangible costs to your physical and emotional well-being when you stay in a relationship that is continuously beating you down and will eventually knock you out?

Clearly, the decision to leave a job, especially during trying economic times, is not one that should be made lightly. But if you're feeling burned out and battered by a job that is taking more out of you than it's giving to you, it's an option that should be carefully explored. It's also important to remember that opting out doesn't need to mean leaving the workforce all together; it can mean deciding to leave a bad relationship with one job so that you are free to move on to something more enjoyable and fulfilling, a place where you have a chance to rediscover the excitement and challenges of a new opportunity to shine and thrive. And who knows? It might help you discover a new passion (or rediscover a dormant one) that's just waiting for the right fuel to ignite it.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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