5 Strategies to Help You Move On

It's hard to get unstuck from a relationship or job. The alternative is worse.

Posted Sep 11, 2014

If there’s a single, most common mistake we make, it’s staying in a job or relationship long past its expiration date. Try this exercise: Compare how many times you’ve heard someone say, “I’m sorry I didn’t give it more time," with how often you’ve heard, “I should have gotten out ages ago."

We are creatures of habit, geared to keep going and second-guessing. We know we need to get a move on but we hold on for a myriad of reasons—habits of mind, over-optimism, choosing the known over the uncertainty of the future, fear of making a mistake, and just plain inertia.

What can you do to jumpstart your process? Here are five research-based strategies to get yourself where you need to go and ought to be:

1. Recognize the power of intermittent reinforcement.

Do you realize that your inclination to stay put is actually increased when you only get what you want some of the time? It’s counterintuitive but true which is why when your lover/spouse/boss/friend says what you’ve been waiting to hear or acts the way you’d always wanted some of the time, you’re much more likely to get so very hopeful and give him or her just  “one more chance” or to “wait and see what happens.”  At moments like these, you need pull back and realize that there’s no pattern involved, just a lucky coincidence, and stop hoodwinking yourself. Optimism isn’t always your friend.  Keep in mind that some people in relationships often manipulate their partners using intermittent reinforcement as a way of asserting their power. Don’t fall for it. Remember that you deserve to be treated and responded to in ways that make you feel whole all of the time, not now and again.

2. Remember that ego is a limited resource.

Despite our obsession with it, multitasking is largely a myth. The only time you can do two things at once attentively is if one of the tasks demands little attention and scant mental effort.  Yes, you can back the car out of the driveway while talking to your passenger and answer your child’s question while making hamburger patties, but that’s about it.  You can’t navigate six lanes of traffic while dealing with your toddler, write a legal brief, or make crème brulée while you’re doing something else. Consider that you may be stuck because, in a rather literal way, you are spreading yourself too thin.

Research has shown that the mind/brain has a limited capacity when it comes to acting—whether that’s regulating a thought, an emotion, or making a decision.  You can call it willpower, ego, or self but the bottom line is that it’s subject to depletion, as the work of Roy F. Baumeister and others has shown. Exercising self-control—resisting the temptation of the a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, for example—led participants in one experiment to give up on solving anagrams much more quickly than those who had not been put to the test. Similarly, another experiment showed that those who had to make choices before unscrambling anagrams were more tired and caved more quickly than people who had no choices to make. Even attempting to suppress emotions, as another experiment showed, weakened subsequent performance on anagrams.

So, if you’re deciding to leave while you’re also working on resolving something else in your life, the likelihood is good that you won’t have the resources to get it done. You need to be single-minded and concentrated in your efforts.

3. Stop thinking about your investment of time and energy.

Humans are notoriously loss averse, as Amos Twersky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated, and the minute we begin to let the thought of splitting into our minds, we automatically counter with an inventory of everything we’ve dedicated to the effort. On a rational level, this makes no sense since focusing on the time you’ve spent in a job or relationship won’t recoup the days, months, and years past and lost and, more important, won’t help you fix what’s making the situation untenable.  The formal term for this brand of thinking is the sunk-cost fallacy and it’s guaranteed to keep you in place longer, if not forever. If you find yourself thinking or talking this way, stop immediately! Instead, concentrate on what you could be doing with your time and energy in a new place or with someone new.  The old adage, it turns out, is true: there’s no point crying over spilled milk.

4. Beware of the comfort zone.

Sometimes, we stay in situations because they are familiar to us, echoing patterns of behavior we encountered in our family of origin and childhood. Mind you, these situations may make us profoundly unhappy—despite their name, they don’t really make us comfortable in any real sense—but it can be really difficult to see what’s keeping us in place precisely because the familiarity of old scripts and patterns.  Your partner’s dismissal of your feelings—he or she tells you you’re over-reacting or too sensitive—makes you miserable but if you’re still not heading for door, you need to ask yourself who else in your life treated you this way. If your boss’ hypercriticality—he or she pounces on every misstep as if you’ve committed a capital offense—makes work a nightmare but if you’re still there and haven’t even updated your résumé, you need to ask yourself why you’re there, honestly and directly. Ferret out what feels “familiar” about the situation you find yourself in.

For better and worse, all of us tend to gravitate toward people and situations that make us feel “at home.” That’s dandy if you had a great childhood with loving and attuned parents and siblings. If you didn’t, it’s really easy to get stuck in emotional quicksand.

Deal with your emotions by following the strategies suggested by Ethan Kross and his colleagues. Most of us tend to relive our moments of emotional stress which only creates a tsunami of emotions and impairs our ability to cope. Instead, try to revisit what happened as if you are seeing it from afar or watching it happen to someone else; this strategy permits a “cool” view, rather than the “hot” moment of re-experience. Turn off the movie in your head. Then, instead of focusing on what you felt, concentrate on why you felt it. Focusing on why allows your emotional intelligence to kick in and starts you on the work of understanding why you reacted to the situation.  Get yourself to a place where you can say,” Yes, I can see that what he/she said was hurtful. No wonder I felt under attack and reacted as I did” or “ He/she made every effort to have the argument escalate by goading me on” and the like.  Cool-headed analysis will help you manage the feelings that come with deciding to take your leave.

5. Anticipate the stress of leaving.

Letting go is hard—even if it’s what you want and need and you are convinced it’s the right thing to do—and you should prepare yourself for feeling something less than total euphoria. Feeling some sense of loss is pretty much inevitable, even if the relationship or situation has been damaging or hurtful.  If your decision affects other people—children, in the case of divorce, or leaving a well-paying job or career, or moving your family—emotions will, of course, run higher, last longer, and cause more stress.  As a culture, we tend to be critical of those who are “selfish” enough to save themselves when other people are involved so factor that in; you may feel isolated by your decision. Under any circumstances, you’re likely to experience a mixed bag of emotion—relief mingled with anxiety, hopefulness coexisting with uncertainly, a good day with a bad night. Do your best to exercise your emotional intelligence and work at knowing what you’re feeling and why.

Often, second-guessing and ruminating come with the territory of making a major change in your life. The work of E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister has shown that simply making a plan—even if you’re not ready to execute it—can get you off the merry-go-round of repetitive and invasive worries. Of course, if you can actually spring into action, that’s the best route but simply visualizing and formulating an intention to act will help alleviate stress.

As someone who is taking wing herself, I wish you all good loft and great heights!


Copyright© Peg Streep 2014


THESE INSIGHTS ARE DRAWN FROM MY BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

READ Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt


Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney, Willpower. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Baumeister, Roy.F, Ellen Batslowsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice, “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, no, 5 (1998), 1253-1265.

Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Walter Mischel. “When asking "why" does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions.” Psychological Science, 16, vol.9 (2005), 709-715.

Masicampo, E.J. and Roy F. Baumeister, “Consider It Done! Plan Making can Eliminate the Cognitive effects of Unfulfilled Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (October, 2011), 4, 667-683.

Photograph courtesy of and copyright 2014 Diane Garisto