Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Let's start with a story:

I found myself unable to eat as I sat across the table from Martha on an August day at the local Mexican restaurant near my office, staring at the obligatory chips and salsa. Many years have passed, but the scene remains fiercely alive in my mind.

My work day had begun with a contentious phone call before I had even left home—terse, attacking, argumentative, and definitely not isolated.

Upon reaching the office, it was followed by yet another that left me so ungrounded I called Martha and asked her to drop everything and meet me for lunch. Being married to an executive coach comes in handy sometimes.

As Martha and I talked about these latest data points in a lengthening pattern of conflict over everything from budgeting to employee benefits to whether we should stop providing free coffee, I noticed I was physically shaking. My adrenaline and cortisol levels had spiked so high I was trembling, my heart pounding hard enough I could almost hear it.

As I became present to the physical manifestations of my uncontrolled psychological stress, something inside me shifted. I’d had enough. A feeling of calm flooded over me, as if a pressure relief valve had opened just before the strained vessel burst.

An hour later, back at the office, I tendered my resignation.

Not Alone

In retrospect, I have no regrets about my decision to leave. I do believe, however, that I could have done it better. I suspect the outcome was inevitable, but I believe I could have charted a smoother course to that same destination, one that left all involved a little less seasick.

In the intervening years, I have been continuously struck by just how many people we encounter who are weighing the same question I answered at the Mexican restaurant that afternoon under such terrible duress:

Should I stay, or should I go?

Their reasons vary, but the common thread is that all of them are unhappy in their current role. Some are in intense distress, like I was. Others are simply unfulfilled, feeling bored or stuck, not seeing the possibilities they hoped for. In between are the resigned, cynical, dejected, frustrated, and checked out.

In our work at Retexo, we regularly work with people on this broad spectrum of discontent, all of them wrestling with that same decision.

Confronting Contradictions

If you are one of the many people out there considering a job change, you already know that it how difficult the decision can be. How can you make it with confidence?

The Source of Your Suffering

Difficult decisions almost always involve an apparent contradiction—mutually exclusive conditions that cannot coexist. They sound like this:

  • I hate my job, but I need the money.
  • I like my work, but I can’t stand my coworkers.
  • I love my team, but my boss is intolerable.
  • I love the culture, but I could be making / doing so much more.

The contradiction is the source of your suffering.

It is the sharp rock in your shoe that inflicts a stab of pain with every step. Eliminate the contradiction, and the pain goes away. Decisions become obvious. If you hate your job and you just won the lottery, the “but I need the money” side of the conflict evaporates. Of course you’re going to quit.

Unfortunately, our complex world is full of contradictions, and they cannot be removed as easily as dumping the rock from your shoe. Contradictions like these are painful because we long for black and white clarity. Rarely do we find it.

In fact, real-world stay or go contradictions are typically much more complex:

I hate some aspects of my job, but I need the paycheck. I think I could be growing faster and earning more, but I really love my current company culture. There are many parts of my work that I like. I have great friends at the office, but some people on my team are awful, and so on.

What to do?

You could do what I did: Simply wait until it becomes intolerable. If you delay long enough, often one side of the contradiction will grow large enough that it forces a decision.

Leave that ember smoldering in the corner long enough and your contradiction will not go away, but right action will become obvious: I don’t want to abandon all my possessions, but the house is burning down with me in it.

Hard situation. Easy decision.

In my case, I was committed to learning and growing in my role and being there for the people who counted on me, but the stress was so intense I feared I was going to have a heart attack.

Again, hard situation. Easy decision (at that point).

To be fair to myself, I did not ignore the growing plume of smoke. I made many attempts to douse the fire, but in retrospect I probably waited too long to evacuate.

A Better Approach

Assuming you don’t want to wait until the house is burning down to make a decision, what can you do?

Start by naming the contradictions. Write them down. Make them explicit, in all their gnarly, entangled complexity. Embrace the messiness (expressed in this very intentional run-on sentence):

I am terribly stressed out and it’s affecting my personal life and although I think circumstances might eventually improve, I don’t know when, if ever, and I think I could get another job, but I can’t afford to be unemployed, and there are no guarantees and if I did it might not really be any better and I might have to move or have a longer commute which would take time away from my family and disrupt our life and my coworkers are my close friends but my boss is unkind and unreasonable even though the company owners seem like good people…

Try to tease that rat’s nest of contradiction apart into a few opposing pairs:

  • Stress is causing harm, but no guarantees with a new job
  • Coworkers are good friends, but boss is a jerk, etc.

Start a Shouting Match

Give those contradictions a voice. Let them fight it out in your head. Imagine them as two people, or an angry crowd in a shouting match. “I need more opportunities for growth!” “Quit complaining about your stupid personal growth; you’ll never find a team as good as this one!”

After your imaginary combatants have voiced their contradictory views, the question you should ask yourself is NOT, can I live with the contradiction.

The right question is this:

Can I live with it better?

Contradictions are everywhere. In many cases, the seemingly mutually exclusive conditions are very hard to change. Your opportunities are limited in your current job, but there are no other companies in the area that offer what you want. A new job would mean moving, but your entire extended family is nearby and they matter to you. Moving away from them is too big a sacrifice.

These are real-life scenarios. You probably cannot resolve that contradiction, at least not in the near term. But can you live with it better?

Sometimes the Answer Is No

Sometimes we have to make impossibly difficult decisions. But often we can find ways to rewire ourselves, to reframe our circumstances, or to reset our internal expectations so it feels a little better.

Maybe that rotten boss is triggering some adverse event from your childhood. Can you heal that wound, perhaps with help from a coach, therapist, or trusted friend so that one area is a little less sensitive? The rock is still in your shoe, but maybe the sharp edges have worn down, or maybe it moved to a spot where you already have a well-earned callus.

One thing is certain: this is your life, and it’s the only one you get.

Whether you choose to stay or go, do not accept a life of chronic suffering at work. A little better is still better, and small improvements have a way of compounding.

If you would like support in navigating the challenging contradictions of work and life, we can help. We’ve been there. We might not be able to fully resolve your particular contradiction, but we can almost certainly help you live with it better.

Schedule a free, 30-minute introductory session to get started.

Until next time,


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Executive Coaching, Corporate Training, and Group Facilitation

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Executive Coaching, Corporate Training, and Group Facilitation

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