Society has taught us to fear quitting.

We associate stopping anything with failure. We think that giving up means we are not good enough. Quitting isn’t an option. We should always keep working. We should always persevere, no matter what.

I think there are good intentions behind perpetuating this idea. I’m a huge believer in perseverance. Fight for what you want and what you deserve. Don’t give up on things you’re passionate about. If you want to reach a goal, don’t throw in the towel when things get difficult.

That being said, I’ve learned over time that there is a line. It’s not that black and white. There is a big difference between quitting and stepping back.

When I say quitting, this is what I mean: when the going gets tough, you give in and give up. You run away. You take the easy way out, even though you could get through it if you kept going and worked through the discomfort.

Stepping back from something is not the same thing as quitting. Stepping back is intelligent quitting. It’s not giving up. It’s recognizing that something isn’t working. It’s understanding that saying YES / KEEP GOING is not always the best decision, for whatever reason.

The problem is that most of us don’t know how to tell the difference between stepping back and quitting. And because we are afraid of quitting, because we think society will shame us and we will be failures if we are quitters, we play it safe and don’t stop. Even when stepping back is in fact the smartest decision.

Less than a year ago, my health hit rock bottom. I lived day to day, moment to moment, in constant pain and fear. I didn’t know what was wrong with my body, didn’t know who could help me, had lost faith in all of my doctors, and just didn’t know what the hell to do. I spent the summer working two internships and visiting doctor after doctor, taking test after test. When the summer began, my family and friends suggested I quit at least one, if not both, of my internships. They were worried I was doing too much, because they knew how much time I was putting into figuring out my health. Visiting different doctors was like a full-time job on its own.

But I refused. I was not going to give up the internships that I was so excited about. I was going to prove to everyone that I could do it all, and that I wasn’t going to have to give anything else up. I had already been “forced” to drop the two summer school courses I planned on taking because I didn’t have enough time, and I refused to “quit” one more thing. I was mentally punishing myself for “failing” because I didn’t do summer school. That wasn’t going to happen again.

I struggled through the summer, and I fought hard to stay afloat. I was exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. Each day, I thought to myself, You just have to get through one more day. One day at a time. All I wanted was to curl up in a ball and hibernate for awhile, just to catch my breath. But I didn’t want anyone to know, so I kept going.

When fall came around, my parents suggested I take the quarter off. The thought of taking time off school was preposterous to me. Absolutely not. My friends suggested it as well, but everyone knew how hard it would be to convince me. If I’m anything, I’m stubborn. They didn’t want to push me too hard in case I pushed them away completely. I was torn. I knew in my heart that I needed a break, but I did not want to admit that to anyone out loud. In my head, I equated taking time away from school with failure.

I battled with the thought for weeks. I felt so much pressure from myself to stay in school, but everyone around me was telling me that I should just take the quarter off. They told me it wasn’t a big deal, lots of people do it. There were other reasons that I was so against taking time away from college, but not wanting to be a quitter was a huge part of it. I told everyone who would listen, “I’m not a quitter. I never have been, and I never will be.”

This is true. I’m not a quitter. But it wasn’t until much later that I learned that “never being a quitter” isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes it drives you into a hellhole and works against you completely. I didn’t understand that stepping back from school was not the same thing as quitting. I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to let my health problems take anything else from me. I didn’t want to stop something I knew I could do, just because it would be easier.

“Easier” felt like failure. I knew that my life would be much easier if I took the 10 weeks off. I would be able to focus solely on my health and dedicate the time to it that it deserved. The stress of classes and tests and papers would be off my back, which would be a huge relief considering the already monumental amount of stress I felt every day while I worried about my health. But I also knew I could do school if I stuck with it. I would make it work, and I would get good grades. I always make it work. But I would practically kill myself in the process.

In the end, I took the quarter off of school. The sad truth is that I took the quarter off because my doctors told me they would not allow me to continue school in the state I was in. That was how much pressure I had on myself. I had to be forbidden to continue classes before I gave in. I fought tooth and nail, like a child. I even tried to sneak in a 2 unit class, which would require me to still pay full tuition, just so I didn’t feel like a complete failure. That’s how crazy I was. (I didn’t end up actually doing it, even though I tried.)

It only took a few weeks for me to realize that I hadn’t really quit. I had stepped back. And it was the best decision I ever made. Week 1 of no school, I was embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t in school. My whole life, I’ve been “the smart one.” I’m good at school. I’m on the right track, I get straight A’s, I’m going to do amazing things that only “smart” people do, I’m such a hard worker, blah blah blah. I had let “never quitting” become my identity. I thought that taking a quarter off meant I was a slacker. I thought I would get off track and my whole life would be ruined.

LOL. I was so wrong.

Those 10 weeks away from school were the most important of my life. My health finally received the time and care that it needed. I grew monumentally as a person. I had time to focus on me, and I got to do things I had always wanted to do. I learned so much about myself, and I became emotionally and mentally stronger than I could have ever imagined. I discovered what I wanted to do with my life, and I finally realized that I actually do not give a shit what anyone else thinks. I was/am pissed at society for ever making me think that taking a quarter off was a sign of weakness or a sign of failure. I now see it as a sign of incredible strength. I am so proud I took that quarter off. It takes courage to deviate from “the plan” and to do something different from what society tells you is perfect. Stepping back was the smartest thing I could have done, because it truly saved my life.

Since realizing the difference between quitting and stepping back, I’ve started to see the importance of stepping back from things in other aspects of my life. It’s taken a long time, but I gain more clarity every day. Now that I’ve seen that “stopping” is not a weakness but a true strength, I’m not afraid to step back from anything that is an obstacle to my health, happiness, or goals.

One example? Relationships. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been putting a lot of effort for a very long time into many relationships that aren’t serving me. The love I give is not always reciprocated. The support I offer is not received or offered in return. It’s all about the little things. I don’t want one-sided relationships in my life. Ever.

And the reason that I keep trying, the reason that I keep putting effort into these “friendships,” is that I subconsciously associate ending a relationship with failure. Like the end of a relationship means I didn’t do enough. I blame myself for why things went wrong. The thought of ending a longtime friendship has always seemed unthinkable to me. Not an option. When I feel taken advantage of or ignored, I ask myself, Why am I even trying to continue this relationship? And for SO long, my answer to that was, Because you can’t just stop. You have to have a relationship with this person. That’s just the way it is. 

That way of thinking was drilled into my head for the first twenty years of my life when it came to “important” relationships. I’ve never had a problem dropping anyone who was disrespectful or unkind to me. If the relationship was somewhat recent or if the tie wasn’t too close, it was easy to say BYYYEEE if the person didn’t act like a true friend or was just being annoying. But I never allowed myself to step back from relationships that were close, important, and longterm. I thought that was quitting, and I wouldn’t let myself quit just because things got tough.

But it’s not quitting. It’s stepping back. It’s making room for more positivity and love in your life. Stepping back is an intelligent decision when it means you get the time to cultivate the most important relationship you will ever have in your life – the one with yourself. And I’m all about intelligent decisions.

Fear of failure when it comes to “quitting” pops up in almost every aspect of our lives. It’s kind of weird how much it comes up. I bring this up because understanding the difference between stepping back and quitting has been so liberating, it’s kinda unbelievable.

I notice the fear so often now. I’m hyperaware of it. I know other students are embarrassed to admit they took time off of school, took a gap year, dropped out, switched majors, transferred schools, or changed their life plans. Why? There is nothing embarrassing about stepping back from something that doesn’t serve you anymore. It is freakin’ AMAZING to have the courage to step back rather than stay in a situation just because you are afraid of what anyone else might think.

Many adults are embarrassed to talk about quitting their jobs or changing their life paths. People are embarrassed to say they are getting a divorce, that they’re breaking up, that they’re not friends with each other anymore. Why? People change. Lives change. If you weren’t happy in that job or in that relationship, then I admire you for stepping back and looking for something else that serves you. It’s impressive as hell to leave the comfort zone and enter into the unknown.

The fear is everywhere. Vegans afraid to start eating meat. Teens afraid to think about joining another religion. Young adults afraid to move out of a bad roommate situation. Athletes afraid to change their sport.

Stepping back is not quitting. Stepping back is not failure. Stepping back, when it’s right for YOU, is smart. It’s putting yourself first, and not giving a shit what anyone else thinks, says, or does. If anything is WINNING in my book, that’s it. Putting yourself first and doing what’s right for you, which sometimes means stopping doing something you’ve been told, or are telling yourself, you need to do. Don’t be afraid to step back. It might just catapult you forward in ways you never imagined.

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