Should you stay or should you go? Whether it’s leaving a job, a romantic relationship, or a friendship — the decision to stay where you are or make a change can be incredibly daunting, particularly if there’s no urgent reason to leave (i.e., if you’re not being treated badly and you don’t absolutely have to get out of the situation). Just because there’s no dire need to escape a situation doesn’t mean you should necessarily stay put if you’re unhappy. After all, the time we have here is limited, and spending in situations (or with people) that are just okay, fine, or average isn’t any way to live a positive, fulfilled, and happy life.
The stay-or-go question is something most of us will face at some point in our lives (if we haven’t already!). Unless there is some clear indicator that something must change (i.e., abuse, profound misery, etc.), actually making such a choice can be incredibly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that many of us will default to staying where we are, even if we’re unhappy, simply because it’s easier than making a decision.
But… do you really want to stay just because it might be difficult to go?
No, you don’t. You should want to stay because it’s worth it, because, even if there are difficult times, you get something meaningful and important out of your job / relationship / etc. You don’t want to stay where you are simply because it’s the default answer. And, honestly, no one else — not your boss, your spouse, your friend — really wants to you stay simply because it’s challenging to leave (and, if they do, they don’t truly have your best interest at heart and who wants to work with / date / love someone like that?). When you’re staying just because it’s easy or because you fear what will happen if you leave, you’re not fully invested in the situation. You’ll always have one eye on the door, hoping something or someone will propel you to make a change. When “stay” is the default, you’re not there because you want to be, but because you feel you have no other good option. And that lack-of-choice feeling can turn quickly into disinterest, distain, and even resentment — all of which will negatively taint the situation and likely other aspects of your life, since rarely is one area of life (love, work, etc.) not influenced (for better or worse…) by another.
So what do you do if you find yourself in a place where you’re wondering whether or not to stay? What do you do if your situation is fine, but still causing you to be unhappy? What if your relationship has changed to the point where you no longer recognize yourself (or your partner)? What if you’ve grown so uncomfortable at your place of work that you dread going there every day? What if you just feel like there’s something off about your situation and you don’t know if it will somehow right itself or if, in order for you to be truly fulfilled, you need to leave?
If you find yourself wondering any of the things above or whether you should stay where you are or go somewhere else, before you take action, you need to do a bit of soul-searching. Every choice you make — particularly the big ones involving your career and your relationships — can change the course of your life forever. I don’t say this to scare you (the worst thing you can do is become so scared that your fear is paralyzing and you make no choice at all!). I say this because, when it comes to big stay-or-go decisions, it’s important to take time to really think about what’s going on, what you want, and how you feel you can get from where you are to where you’d ideally like to be.
No choice will ever be without flaws. For every choice you make, even if both options are great, there will be pros and cons. Just think about choosing between two ice cream flavors that you love. Yes, both might be delicious, but if you choose strawberry over chocolate, you’re missing out on that cocoa flavor. Likewise, if you opt for chocolate, you won’t get to taste the tangy sweetness of strawberry. Neither option is bad, but when you choose one, you’re going to miss out on the other. Which is why, when it comes to stay-or-go scenarios, it’s essential to take time to carefully think through your options, weigh the pros and cons, and also be willing to think outside the box a bit. Here are five questions to kickstart that kind of thinking if you find yourself wondering, Should I stay or should I go…?
How much of your unhappiness is caused by a specific person / job / situation / etc.?
It’s all too easy to say “I’m miserable because my job sucks” or “I’m so unhappy because my spouse drives me crazy,” but it’s important not to make assumptions about the reasons behind your mental state. When you find yourself complaining about your situation, dig deeper and ask yourself if it’s really that person, job, or situation that’s bringing you down. For example, if you’re unhappy with your spouse, are you absolutely certain that your spouse specifically is the reason you’re unhappy? Or could it be the situation you and your spouse are currently in (maybe you just had a baby or s/he is going through a tough time at work)?
Or, looking even deeper, is it possible that your sense of unhappiness comes not from another person but from something deeper, something harder to pinpoint so you point fingers instead of looking at the big? It’s essential to figure out if your unhappiness is more general. Take, for example, me and my career. Whenever I worked in an office environment, with a typical 9-5 workday, I was miserable. I would complain about the job itself and spend evenings crying at the thought of returning to work the next day. I was clearly unhappy, but that unhappiness wasn’t a result of the particular position. It was the general workplace environment that caused my emotional strife.
If you’re struggling with a particular person or situation, consider how much of your unhappiness is tied to that person / place and consider whether that type of environment is even something you want in the future. If you’re unhappy at work, do you need an entirely new career path? If you’re unhappy with your partner, is it because of him/her, or are the confines of a relationship in general the thing that’s truly troubling you?
Are you contributing negatively to the situation? Would changing yourself change things?
After contemplating whether the situation or person is, in fact, the true cause of your unhappiness, it’s time to turn your attention to yourself. Are you, in any way, contributing to your own unhappiness in the situation? Answering this question might take some careful consideration. It’s very tempting to say, “Of course I’m not! She’s the one who is always so negative in our relationship!” or “Definitely not. My boss is the absolute worst; I’m not doing anything to make the situation unpleasant. It’s all him!” But take a moment to really consider all aspects of the situation, including your contribution to it.
If, for example, you’re struggling to live pleasantly with your spouse, ask yourself if perhaps you might be difficult to live with. Or, if it’s your work environment that’s troubling, consider how you might, in some ways, be challenging to work around. We all have our flaws and, when it comes to answering the stay-or-go question, it’s important to take these into account. This isn’t to say that you should stay in a bad situation simply because you’re not perfect, but it’s important to consider all aspects of yourself before making any major decisions.
In conjunction with considering your own contributions to the situation, it’s useful to ponder what might happen if you were to change certain behaviors. If, for example, you’re always fighting with your spouse because he expects you to keep things neat and tidy and you tend to be more of a set-it-anywhere type, consider what might happen if you tweaked your own behavior and started making an organization a priority. This isn’t to say you should change who you are to fix a situation (this can lead to resentment if it’s not something you truly want to change), but when it comes to workplace, relationships, and love (or really any situation involving other people!) sometimes compromises must be made. The key to compromising effectively is making sure the pros and cons balance out. Yes, keeping your home tidy might be a bit of a pain for you, but the effort might be balanced out by having a more harmonious relationship with your spouse. Sometimes changing your behavior or attitude won’t change the situation at all, but it’s definitely something to consider.
What about your situation don’t you like? Would you find these things elsewhere?
In Question 1, you determined that, yes, the great deal of discontent you’re experiencing is directly a result of that person/job/situation. (If you didn’t determine that, it might be a sign that you shouldn’t leave the situation but, instead, should do some inner exploration to find out where the feelings of discontent are coming from.) You’ve determined the source of unhappiness — the situation or person — but now it’s time to dig even deeper and pinpoint exactly what you don’t like about this situation.
A good way to go about this is to keep track on the worksheet (click the link above to download it) or keep a list of reasons why you feel unhappy in the situation. (Tip: keep this private!) You can note very specific instances, such as, “I want to leave this job because I can’t stand the way my colleagues gossiped at the meeting yesterday,” or more general experiences, such as,”I want to leave her because there is a lack of intimacy.” Spend time on this, giving yourself a week or so to note specific and general experiences that make you feel like you might want to leave the situation.
Once you have a list of the things you don’t like about your situation, look closely at them. Are these things that would be present in another situation? For example, if a decrease in intimacy is your problem, is it possible that this would happen if you were in another relationship for a long time? Or, if you dislike working on projects with a group at work, is it likely you would have to also do this at another job? Remember: a new job, relationship, etc. will always be interesting and exciting at the beginning, but it, too, will lose some of its luster after time. This is why it’s so important to look closely at the things you don’t like about your situation and determine whether they are result of the particular circumstance or if they might also occur in another situation. No situation is perfect, and if you try to leave every situation as soon as it’s lost excitement and newness, you’ll spend your whole life searching for a reason to leave.
What do you like about your situation? Would you find these good things elsewhere?
Now it’s time for some positivity! When you’re considering whether to stay or go, it can be challenging to focus on the good aspects of the situation. By the time you’ve gotten around to asking, “Should I leave…?” you’re often focusing a great deal of your attention on the reasons why you’re unhappy. These reasons might be perfectly valid — and should not be ignored — but what about the good aspects of the situation? It’s just as important to take those into account when making your decision.
Let’s say you’ve come with tons of reasons why you want to leave your job. Now it’s time to make another list — a list of reasons why your job is actually not so terrible. On this list you might include things like health care benefits or a steady income or even something silly like occasional catered lunches. If you’re considering whether to leave a relationship, now is the time to consider your partner’s good traits. What do you like about him/her? What attracted you to the relationship in the first place? What do you two not fight about?
After you’ve considered the positive elements of your situation, it’s time to contemplate how likely it is that you’ll find these things in another person/job. Yes, another relationship might have more intimacy, but will it also have the meaningful conversations? A new job might have a kinder boss, but will the benefits be the same? Of course, you don’t know what the future will hold — or what pros/cons you’ll find in another situation — but you it’s important to assess how much you value what you’re currently getting out of your situation and weigh the positives against the negatives you identified in Question 3.
How can you communicate your feelings? What reaction do you receive when you do?
This final question is the most important. People often leave situations because they feel unloved, unappreciated, or unheard. But there’s a difference between feeling unheard after you’ve spoken up and expecting someone else to know what you want and need. Communication is key. Whether it’s talking to your boss, friend, spouse, or partner, if you want things to be different, you have to talk about it. This can be very difficult (particularly if it’s around sensitive subjects like sex or money), but communicating your feelings is the quickest ways to determine if there’s a good reason to stay or to leave.
The key to communicating effectively is to be open, honest, and focus on sharing how you feel without making assumptions about another’s feelings or assigning blame. Two tips for doing this: (1) write down what you want to discuss and bring your notes with you, and (2) focus on the word “I” more than “you,” as in, “I feel hurt when you…” not “You’re always doing…” Being completely honest with someone, whether it’s a boss, friend, or partner, is much more difficult than it sounds, but if there’s a doubt in your mind about whether or not you should leave a situation, you’ll be much more certain about your decision if you share your feelings with 100% honesty (even if it feels a bit uncomfortable!).
Open, honest communication will not only give you and others an opportunity to see if there’s a way to fix the situation (maybe your boss had no idea you felt you weren’t being valued!), but opening up and sharing your feelings is an excellent way to get more insight on others, possibly making your decision even easier. The way others react to you — listening, helping to problem-solve, shutting you out, making unkept promises to change, etc. — will tell you a great deal about them and about how they handle conflict. It might also shine a light on how they feel about the situation. If, for example, your boss or partner makes no effort to help improve the situation, that’s a sure sign that they don’t value you and you would be better off in a different situation. Pay close attention to how others respond and take those reactions into account as you make your decision.
In most situations, the decision to stay or go is not an easy one — which is why so many just stay where they are, rather than doing the hard work of determining if that’s really where they’re meant to be — but if you truly want to live a positive, present life, it’s important to be accountable for yourself and where you are. It’s important to get (and stay) in situations because you want to be there, not because you feel like you have no other choice.
No matter how difficult it is (and sometimes it will be very difficult), you always have a choice to stay where you are or move on to something else. Don’t take this ability to to choose for granted. Spend time assessing what choice is best for you, make use of the worksheet above, and then choose the path feels right. Whether you end up staying or going, if you do the work before you make a decision, you’ll always know that you actively made a choice. Remember: this is your life, and you have the power to choose how you want to live it.