Most of us have been urged since we were little to not give up, to carry on, and to “go our own way”. The idea that giving up is a negative choice, a synonym for failure, or a sign of cowardice or inability, is deeply embedded in our minds.

The majority of people tend to believe that those who give up are declaring themselves defeated. In life, there are paths which we begin uninspired, projects that become incompatible with initial expectations, objectives for which we lose interest, people who distance themselves whether we want them to or not. There are situations when “giving up” goes beyond the traditional meaning of being a loser.

There is wisdom in an honourable retreat from circumstances that no longer help us to grow and be happy. Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for everything: a time to keep and a time to throw away.

Thus, at times, giving up on places, purposes, roles, or relationships is the healthy alternative and not the number one enemy of perseverance. Other times it’s easier for someone to indulge in a certain situation and to remain passive towards change, under the pretext that they do not want to abandon a fight they have begun.

The decision to not make a decision

The reasons that lead to the idea that “things will work out somehow” range from fear, ego, and commodity to the need for conformism, a lack of vision or a lack of necessary resources to take a step back when stepping back could save us.

However, the decision to not make a decision does not guarantee success. If we do not abandon the race in the middle of a questionable road, it does not necessarily mean that we will get far.

Often, giving up, rather than persistence, holds the most pleasant surprises in store for us. How do we know if it’s time for that or not?

The test of feelings

Although feelings change and emotions sometimes play tricks, one’s state of mind cannot be ignored when making a decision. We know for sure that a decision that robs us of our peace and condemns us to sleepless nights cannot be the right one. At the same time, we know that a good decision does not force us to live with a burdened heart, blaming others for the burden.

When it comes to making choices, we are responsible. We should not allow circumstances or habit to sabotage the process just because we started on a path and we want to obstinately respect its course; just because we were trained for a certain profession and we want to practice it till the end, or simply because we are invested in a project and we want to turn it into reality at any cost.

In an article from 2013, published on, Stef Lewandowski, an IT specialist and entrepreneur, talks about the time when he was running a small business. In those times, simply talking to others about work-related things would make him feel stressed and angry, which would not happen when he talked about leisure activities or other private matters. On the contrary, then he was cheerful, enthusiastic, and friendly.

A simple indicator that tells you that it’s time to end a thing is related to the awareness of the feelings that come up when you talk about it, Lewandowski says.

Above emotions and feelings

On the other hand, we cannot only rely on our feelings for guidance. To like a thing is not a good enough reason to accept it, and to dislike something is not sufficient reason to reject it. Principles—those touchstones that are relatively unpopular today, when we allow ourselves to be led by pragmatic goals rather than internal motivations—are also important. Faced with a choice, our value system helps us define our options and weigh up different arguments. It warns us if we should take a big step back or not.

For instance, if we value forgiveness, we will be willing to give the one who wronged us one more chance, even if our feelings urge us to do the opposite. If we appreciate fairness, we will not tolerate unfairness, even if doing so would make us unpopular. If we stick to our convictions, we will withdraw when we are no longer able to express them freely, even if that means a significant change of direction.

The flexibility of moral decisions

In an ideal world, values should be the model for our daily decisions, giving us enough clues to know when, how, and where to end morally deficient situations, among other things.

A study published in 2019, however, concludes that people adjust their beliefs, and implicitly, their behaviour, depending on the objective they are pursuing. In other words, we adapt our values to the situation we are in, and not the other way around. This practice increases the tendency to indulge in a situation that is not necessarily beneficial in the long run.

It’s not just the relativism of our value systems that favours inertia, but also the absence of a plan B, the feeling that we are stuck on a road of no return.

Luckily, a lack of perspective does not mean a lack of options. While we hit a wall and stay there, life, with its multiple possibilities, unfolds around us. Focusing on the wall narrows down our perspective, while detachment from the situation helps us find solutions.

The “all or nothing” strategy

How many times do we not move forward because of the snowball principle, or to follow the herd? We start off timidly in one direction, then we let ourselves get carried away. We allow pre-conceived notions to shape our future while opportunities pass us by.

A way to avoid missing opportunities is to not limit ourselves to just one plan—to not put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. An “all or nothing” strategy often leaves those who use it bankrupt.

On the other hand, the comfort given by compromise is not always beneficial. According to a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people who have backup plans make less effort to achieve their main goals than those who focus on a fundamental aspiration (graduation, promotion at work, personal development, and so on).

Sometimes, the comfort of the thought of having a safety net weakens one’s motivation  for and investment in plan A.

Sometimes, the comfort of the thought of having a safety net weakens one’s motivation for and investment in plan A.

“There are certainly important benefits to making backup plans”, says Jihae Shin, the coordinator of the aforementioned study. “One is the psychological comfort it brings: People think, ‘I’m going to be OK even if I fail, because I can then do X or Y.’ It reduces the perceived uncertainty of the situation. Another benefit is that if you fail, you don’t have to dwell on it; you can quickly implement your backup plan. However, the costs of making backup plans haven’t previously been examined, and we believe that acknowledging both costs and benefits can lead to better, more informed decision making.”

Impossible desires and giving up

Besides values, feelings, and the occurrence of preferable opportunities, we must also take into account our chances of success when establishing our course, accepting that giving up becomes the right thing to do when the chances of completing what we set out to do are next to zero.

“By rejecting an unattainable goal, a person can avoid repeated failures and negative consequences for the mind and body,”  Wrosch and Millen write in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Sciences.

A study in 2001 showed that women older than 40 who gave up the desire to have children are less likely to be depressed than their peers who continue to persistently follow the goal of becoming a mother.

Goal disengagement is useful and adaptive, experts say, because it helps us redirect our energy and focus toward realistic, attainable objectives.

The danger of falling: “Rerouting”

Giving up also becomes tempting when—after achieving an important goal—we understand that maintaining the new situation requires sacrifice, compromise, or effort we are not willing to make or when we lose interest in a certain objective. This happens, for instance, when we work our way up to a management position but we later realize that the pressure is huge, or when we dream of moving to another continent, but family ties prove to be stronger.

In such a circumstance there’s nothing wrong with saying “Stop!” Flexibility is one of the mechanisms that keep us involved in a continuous process of adaptation to life’s challenges and allows us to make balanced decisions.

Right questions and answers

When we want to reconfigure our route, we must take into account what is good for us and those around us, those with whom we are in an interdependent relationship. For instance, there are mothers that believe that staying in a toxic relationship, perhaps even an abusive one, is a fair price to pay so that the children grow up with a father. Children, in this case, are collateral victims of the decision of not giving up on a shaky commitment, with a pale appearance of normality.

Regardless of the context we’re in, the decision to stop and start all over again is not at all easy. To make it easier to reach a helpful answer we may begin by addressing some questions like:

1. What do we really want to happen?
2. What are the options we can count on?
3. What are the resources we can use to build?
4. What are the limits we have to take into account?
5. What risks are we willing to take?
6. How does the final decision affect us (and those around us)?
7. What do the people who know us best advise us?
8. How can we avoid the occurrence of regrets?

We also read in Ecclesiastes that “the end of a matter is better than its beginning“.

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fear of failure

Sometimes the end, even if it does not happen as we anticipated it, is the saving door that opens up to an alternative road (otherwise intangible, neglected, or overlooked). It opens up to a new way for tomorrow. From this point of view we can say that giving up is not a loss, but a win.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social assistance.