Zen Habits: When to Walk Away

photo: Alicia Brooks

photo: Alicia Brooks

I think Kenny Rogers said it best – You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. We all have relationships with people, places and sometimes even things that we should end. Maybe you aren’t happy at your job. Maybe you have a friend who you have nothing in common with anymore. You might live in a place that isn’t the right fit for you, but you stay because of your job, or family or some other reason. Or maybe you are in a romantic relationship that is dead but comfortable. Sometimes it’s hard to admit to ourselves that – “it’s over”. But the sooner we do it, the sooner we can make the necessary changes to make it better.

But… how do you know when it’s time to move on? How do you know when it’s time to walk away? Should I stay and try to work it out, or is it not worth saving? These are not easy questions to answer. In order to answer this question you have to be able to look at yourself objectively and honestly – something that isn’t always fun. We have to look at what we have put into (or failed to put into) the relationship. When I was thinking about leaving Austin, I asked myself the same series of questions I did when I ended a romantic relationship in the past. It’s a good set of questions to help you navigate your way through emotions, ego, and truth. Being honest with yourself is the most important thing. Once you do that, these questions are pretty easy to answer.

  1. How long have I had this relationship vs. how long has it been a struggle? – This question makes it easier to see if you are looking at the relationship objectively. For example: I am ready to leave Austin, Texas. I took a few months looking at my feelings for the city to make sure. Was my unhappiness here caused by the fact that I just “miss Prague”? Maybe at first, but as time wore on I missed Prague less and less. I began to see opportunity in America and I began to get excited about moving. In my last year here I have been more unhappy than happy so, for me, it’s time to move on. I always say you need to give a place at least a year before deciding it isn’t for you. Maybe longer if you are in a foreign country. You need time for culture shock and orientation.
    But maybe you are in a long-term relationship with a person. Think how many of the last years were a struggle? How often did you feel happy, loved, appreciated, cared for? If those numbers are looking bad, then you need to ask yourself why you are still there. And that answer will always be the same: Fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of the unknown. Fear of independence. Whatever it is you need to find it, name it, and get over it so that you can be happy. No one deserves to be unhappy, and ultimately it is up to ONLY YOU to make yourself happy. You can’t change other people, but you can walk away from them and change yourself.
  2. Have you REALLY tried to make it work? – I’ve been here for just over a year. I have been employed the entire time. I have been out at night, and I have enjoyed going to parks in the daytime. I feel like I have tried and tried here, but I’m tired of trying. I just don’t like it. And that’s ok. There is a big wide world out there, and I have a lot more of it to explore. I know now for SURE that Texas will not be a home base for me. But at least I tried. I know positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that walking away is the right choice for me.
    How about with people? Careers? “Facebook friends”? All of these relationships can be draining on you. They can turn toxic and leave you feeling sour and negative. When endless work, blood, sweat, tears, phone calls, emails, and text messages leave a relationship (or situation, or personal ambition) no better than it was before – you know it’s time to walk away. Trying to change someone’s opinion is a waste of time. So is trying to change someone. When you notice that you are exhausted from trying pleading, compromising and reasoning, take a moment to look at where it has really gotten you. No where. It is time to leave.
  3. Realize that quitting isn’t really a bad thing. It’s sometimes the smart thing – How many TV movies are there about a woman in an abusive relationship who stayed with her abuser? Like a million? Most of us watch movies like this and think “Man, just leave. Walk away.” But of course, she doesn’t. And it ends badly for at least one person. We do the same thing in our own relationships. We create reasons to stay. “I can’t quit. It’s my JOB.” “I can’t leave, I have the kids to think about.” “We’ve known each other for 17 years. That’s a lot of years to just walk away from”.

    All of theses are great excuses. But they are just excuses. The real reason you don’t quit that shitty job is that you are AFRAID. You are afraid you won’t be able to find another shitty job. But I promise, you will. You might even find a job that isn’t shitty! Imagine that! Using your kids as an excuse must be in the secret handbook that adults get when they have kids. It’s a pretty weak excuse. The kids are fully aware of your happiness or unhappiness. They can smell it on you like a dog smells fear. Leaving a toxic relationship is the BEST thing to do for your children. And who cares how long you’ve known them. People change. I am not the same person I was five years ago, much less twenty. Some relationships cannot handle the test of time and maybe they were not meant to. Knowing when something is over is a sign of maturity. Being able to walk away gracefully is too. That means not gossiping about it. That means keeping “your story” to yourself. That means not down talking the other person to your kids (or teachers!) or anyone. It might boost your ego to get all that sympathy, but it also makes you look sad, guilty and desperate.

  4. Realize that you need space for new relationships – Each relationship in our life takes up space. It might be actual space (like your car, your family) and it might be emotional space (your job, your friends). Anything that takes up space requires attention. If your relationship isn’t being nurtured with attention it will die. No amount of money or new things will take the place of spending time together. No amount of soap and water will make that shitty car you love actually run any better. Maybe it’s time to make room for things that work. Only by showing up every day and showing your love through rigorous and consistent action can you demonstrate your love and commitment. Trying to fix a broken relationship through a trip to Paris or a fancy dinner is like trying to band-aide a gunshot wound. When you get rid of broken things it leaves room for new, unbroken things. New friendships will have room to flower. A studio for painting is now possible because you got rid of all that junk in the garage. The possibilities are endless when you just …make room.

I’ll leave you with a little Kenny for motivation, inspiration and because it has The Muppet’s and The Muppet’s are badass. Especially dancing ghost muppets. Just remember, “…every gambler knows the secret to survivin’, Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.”


3 thoughts on “Zen Habits: When to Walk Away

  1. It’s always hard leaving some place whether you like it or not. It’s easier leaving a place you don’t like but there remains bits you are sad. I was originally born in California and really dislike LA and it’s suburbs where I grew up but I still feel nostalgic for the parts I liked. While I know you don’t care for Austin, time might help you remember the good bits about it. And sadly, like relationships, cities and other things people leave sometimes you have to wait until you can. As I’ve gotten older I realize it’s not always easy leaving when you want. Good luck.

  2. Thank you for your helpful post. Besides fear, something that has kept me in less than desirable circumstances is low self esteem. Once you begin to truly believe you deserve a good life and respect from yourself and other people, it just gets better and better from there. Persistent effort in a 12 step program and other similarly positive resources can take time, but if you keep at it your life can change in ways you’ve never imagined.

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