Getting up day after day and trudging off to a job you hate can be soul-crushing. And it only makes things worse when the job in question is one that many would envy because you worry that you are at risk of sounding ungrateful. All you can think about is how to quit a job you hate, but when you consider all the sacrifices made to get you to this point in your career, you feel paralyzed.
The anguish is real. In my work as a transformational coach, I see the fear and frustration on my client’s faces as they grapple with questions like, “Should I quit? This was supposed to be my dream job.” and “How do I tell my family and friends?” It is an emotional journey with a unique set of peaks and valleys, so I want to provide insight into why this happens and how you can move forward.
Separating Your Job From Your Identity
For many of us, our profession is inextricably intertwined with our sense of self, exacerbated by a toxic mix of technology and corporate messaging. Freedom or acceptance-based concepts like “You can work from anywhere.” or “Our company is a family.” fill your organization’s Slack channels, mixed with a sense of purpose like “We’re saving the world through our widgets!” These messages serve as emotional drivers that blur the lines between our professional and personal worlds.
I also see another driver of professional decision-making among cultures where people seek validation from those around them through their profession. That makes leaving your job much more challenging because it creates the perception that in doing so, you need to give up a substantial part of your identity. For example, I have had clients in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s tell me that they fear telling their parents (as well as other family members, friends, and colleagues) that they want to quit their job due to a concern about how they will react. They worry that people will see their decision as a failure.
These drivers create anxiety and frustration, which leads to professional paralysis, which in turn, produces more fear and frustration. But you can interrupt this cycle by building awareness around the motivators driving your professional decisions, some common reasons people leave their jobs, and developing an exit plan to ensure a smooth transition.
Unearthing the Why Behind Your Professional Decisions
Clearly, if you are unhappy at work, that is reason enough to quit. But let’s talk about why it is important to look deeper and gain some understanding of the forces behind that feeling and why the thought of quitting might leave you feeling immobile.
Feelings of Acceptance and Belonging
The desire for a sense of belonging is a potent motivator in our decision-making. So, when situations threaten this feeling, we can feel stuck. For instance, certain professions or organizations create high barriers to entry by imposing licensing requirements or endless rounds of interviews. That can create a feeling of pride, acceptance, and exclusivity among those who “make it” that is hard to resist.
Our Desire for Love and Approval
Another motivational force is our desire for love and approval from those closest to us. For example, in families, parents sometimes make significant sacrifices to help their children achieve professional success. But unfortunately, this sometimes means that the parents build their own sense of identity around their child’s accomplishments.
If this was the case for you, telling your parents that your job isn’t working out might create a tremendous sense of guilt because you are implying that they made the wrong decision. These feelings can lead to assumptions and create tension on both sides of the parent-child equation.
Conflicting Motivators Inherent to the Job
Other motivating factors also arise from within the job itself. Interestingly enough, these elements can be points of pride and pressure.
Some pride/pressure points include:
- Pay: You may feel pride for getting paid what you are worth, but pressure because the job pays too much for you to quit.
- Prestige: Although you may feel a sense of gratification for being in your profession, you may worry that you will lose your sense of identity if you leave.
- People: Some people find joy in their relationships with colleagues and don’t want to disappoint them by quitting.
- Purpose: For many people, their work gives meaning to their life, so they fear that leaving the job might suggest that they no longer believe in the organization’s mission or will have little reason to get up every morning.
- Process: The rigor of work provides a day-to-day structure many crave yet may also find inflexible and stifling.
- Progress: If you enjoy growing, learning, and developing in your role, you may be concerned that you will not be able to recreate those opportunities elsewhere.
These conflicting feelings can lead to misconceptions that we believe to be truths, creating internal narratives such as the following:
- “If I get this job, role, or raise, I should be happy.”
- “I will find the acceptance and respect I seek in this job.”
- “I suffered greatly to build my career. I deserve this; therefore, the costs of leaving are too great.”
But when these narratives don’t come to fruition – when we don’t feel the sense of happiness, belonging, or reward we expected, we begin to think something is wrong with us. That, in turn, can lead to job dissatisfaction and negatively impact our overall mental health.
Common Reasons to Leave a Job
Of course, like all relationships, many things that motivate us to stay put can also inspire us to leave if we look at them from the opposite perspective. Indeed, you can map the same points of pride and pressure I listed above to the most common reasons why people become disgruntled and decide to quit jobs they hate.
- Pay: “I’m not getting paid what I’m worth.”
- Prestige: “I no longer feel aligned with my profession, or I feel like I’ve given up too much to belong in this profession.”
- People: “I’ve lost trust and respect for my manager, colleagues, or direct reports.”
- Purpose: “I question the purpose of my profession and feel like I cannot make a difference if I remain with this organization.”
- Process: “The structures or processes that guide my work either make no sense or are unfair.”
- Progress: “I’ve reached the end of my growth arc with this company.”
Any of these points can lead to distress. But, when you combine work stress with cultural expectations from family and friends, the decision to leave can be paralyzing. So, we stick around even when it is not in our best interest. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that burnout from work is at an all-time high.
However, if you can separate your sense of identity and obligation from your job, you may feel relief as the path forward becomes clear. But for many, this is almost immediately followed by panic because now you can embark on a career that might be different from the hopes, dreams, and expectations that once influenced your decisions. So, how can you leave your job professionally?
How to Quit a Job You Hate, Gracefully
Unless your work environment seriously affects your physical health or emotional well-being, it is a good idea to prepare to leave your job, so you avoid burning bridges and end things on a positive note. So, ask yourself the following questions before you embark on quitting. But, don’t worry, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. The answer to these questions isn’t yes or no. It is yes, or not yet.
1. Do you need to quit now?
If the answer is yes, move on to question 2 so you can prepare to leave in a way that maintains your integrity.
If the answer is not yet, ask yourself which point(s) of pride and pressure you will address to build resilience in your role. Then make plans to revisit this answer later to see if things have changed. I’ve had clients make pledges to review their situation monthly, quarterly, or even every six months.
2. Do you have a plan?
Consider the positive, negative, and neutral implications of quitting. Do you have enough money, professional relationships, and emotional support to undergo this process? If not, what sources can you explore for career advice? For example, it is often best to train for a new profession or start a new job search and wait for a job offer before you quit.
How will you inform your employer? In many industries, the expectation for leaving on good terms is that you will write a formal resignation letter, deliver it to your boss in person, and engage in a few weeks’ notice period so your employer can start making succession plans. Then, in your final days, you wrap things up and do an exit interview with your human resources representative.
3. Do you know who you need to tell and when?
Part of the stress of considering a shift is deciding when to tell those closest to us. So, think about who you want to tell and what you want to say. Most importantly, think about when you feel it is essential to share this news. Depending on the personalities around you, you may choose to bring specific people along on your journey for support or wait until you have clarity around your plan before you begin socializing it.
Final Thoughts: How to Quit a Job You Hate
Deciding to quit the job that others brag about can seem daunting. But as you answer these questions for yourself and get clear on your timing, plan, and how you want to communicate with those who mean the most to you, you will begin to feel more in control of the situation and confident in your ability to move forward.
But don’t forget to start by building awareness of the motivations behind your professional decisions. That will help you build a meaningful and productive strategy and the potential to create the lasting change you seek in your career.