Why quitting is the new script for mental and physical well-being

We are taught that steadfastness is a virtue but, at times, letting go is a much-needed act of agency

Illustration: Suvajit Dey

It was perhaps in kindergarten that we first heard the story of the relentless spider, the one that tried, tried, tried again until a novice Scottish king resolved to defeat the English army. Or, perhaps, it was in primary school when we were taught that Thomas Edison failed only a thousand times (or 5,000 or 10,000) before he invented the light bulb. Maybe it was none of these legends, but the time we won a silver medal and a coach told us, “Next time, gold.” We were told that the world is our oyster, that the word “impossible” doesn’t exist in our dictionaries, that we can achieve anything we want, if only we persevere and never lose sight of the prize.

Then came Naomi Osaka, throwing a hammer in the works. In May, the 23-year-old American tennis player – the world’s highest-paid female athlete – withdrew from the French Open, citing mental-health concerns. The following month, she withdrew from Wimbledon as well. In a social-media post on May 31, Osaka wrote that she’s been suffering from long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 (where she won against Serena Williams) and has had a hard time coping.

Similarly, in July, Simone Biles, 24, shocked the world when she announced that she was withdrawing from the individual all-round competition at the Tokyo Olympics. The 24-year-old American athlete, the winner of most world championship medals and the greatest gymnast of our times, had said, “We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too.” Biles would later go on to clarify that her decision was not so much about giving up as it was about rearranging the definition of success.

Osaka’s and Biles’ decisions to choose what they wanted to participate in gave permission to others to do so as well. “That someone could take such a step at such a level… especially for a woman of colour. Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible,” says Shivangi Tiwary, 30, a Bengaluru resident. Biles’ decision resonated with Tiwary, who finished her post-graduation studies in gender, society and representation in 2020, but the road to it had been littered with obstacles.

In 2015, Tiwary left her MBA programme at Alliance University, a course she had entered mainly because her family expected her to. In the days after she decided to quit, in her rented one-bedroom apartment, Tiwary tried to self-diagnose why she felt the way she did. She knew she was suffering; she just didn’t know why.

Eventually, when her parents learnt of the situation, they were supportive, but it didn’t quite help. She says, “There is a lot of shame and guilt around quitting. You end up feeling you are disappointing someone but you don’t know who that is. It could be your family, society or that aunt who comes home once a year and asks why you didn’t finish your MBA.” The stigma against quitting was so high that Tiwary eventually completed her course in 2017.

The pressure to perform consistently well, with the world watching, is a weight to bear. The stakes are high, making us want to quit precisely when we are at the top of our game.

“What Simon Biles and Naomi Osaka have done is nothing short of pathbreaking: they have normalised asking for help at the highest level of achievement, recognition and fame… to put yourself first, and to prioritise well-being over work,” read a social media post by Mumbai-based entrepreneur and youth mental-health advocate, Nikhil Taneja in July.

In 2017, after a year in therapy, Taneja quit his job at Yash Raj Films. Taneja, then 30, describes that time as a high-point in his career – he was general manager at the production company and also a producer.

Following a diagnosis of clinical anxiety, Taneja had initially opted for a sabbatical. His therapist said that he was close to a nervous breakdown. “When you fulfil a middle-class goalpost that you’d set many years ago, you realise there is the next one and then another. How many goalposts are going to be there? Until therapy, I had never stopped to consider who I am or what I wanted. There had been no time to pause and reflect,” says Taneja. Quitting should have been the clear decision, but he was doubtful. “Did I quit because I was weak? Did I quit because I was not mentally ‘strong’?” he asks.

Our lives, and their reflections in art and cinema, are filled with cautionary tales that make quitting difficult, even when there is every reason to do so. And, when one does quit, it’s rarely allowed to be the whole story. People are expected to come back “stronger”, having rested and recharged. It’s the narrative arc for dropouts-turned-billionaires. It lists on life-coaching websites of “inspiring people who quit jobs to travel”. Quitting some soul-crushing (but well-paying) job in the city is acceptable only if you turn to a life that is radically different and fulfilling, like buying a vineyard in Italy or farming in the Nilgiris.

Shaheen Khan, a Delhi-based psychotherapist and psychologist working with Proactive for Her, a women’s digital health clinic, says, “I have seen that even if people are extremely unhappy with their job or if it’s a misfit, then too, they don’t quit because they feel quitting will make them a failure. Capitalist society has ingrained in us that if we are not working for money or generating stuff, then we are not a valuable member of society. This way, we function out of guilt,” says Khan. As a society that emphasises on community, taking time out for oneself is seen as a selfish act, she adds. We don’t hear enough people in our lives validating the decision to quit. “What we need to understand is that most people quit after months of pondering, quitting only when they can’t take it anymore,” she says.

It was in therapy that Taneja realised that if he had a weekend or a day off, he would fill it up with activities to make the best use of time. “I would have this anxiety about a free day,” he says.

This intense regulation of time and the need to be eternally productive is possibly the most important reason why many of us hold back from quitting. We are expected to mark the milestones in our lives at the appointed times, none of which is helped by ambitious lists of “30 under 30”. The unhurried day feels like a wasted opportunity. Given how Asian countries have some of the longest working hours in the world, we grow up evaluating ourselves based on how productive we are. This makes quitting difficult, particularly if there is no job offer or a personal venture to back up the decision, or if the reasons are a toxic environment or a bully boss. The same can be said of those managing mental health, as though we let an illness win.

In a rather twisted way, the pandemic has greatly warped our sense of time and made a sudden shift in our lives, leading to a radical reassessment of these prescribed milestones. “During the second wave of the pandemic, people in Delhi were dying and we were still working, there were still deadlines, meetings were still happening. That’s a huge example of industrial time. We had to beat our bodies and minds into shape and do whatever was expected of us to churn out a deliverable and make money. We had to keep producing,” says Delhi-based writer, Riddhi Dastidar.

During this time, Dastidar, 29, volunteered with medical resourcing and then founded Mutual Aid India, which gathers fundraisers from grassroots collectives for marginalised communities. Volunteering, however, brought on its own share of grief, anxiety and fear. Dastidar, who has been managing her Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder since college, was reporting from Jharkhand on a freelance assignment for a publication this year. She got wary of the sheer numbers of people moving about without masks due to a failure of public messaging. Dastidar used to also write for Khabar Lahariya, a feminist grassroots news network, a job she quit in July this year. The flipside is that her lifestyle will have to be as frugal as possible. Quitting, she acknowledges, is a matter of privilege. “Clearly, I am an anxious person but all this made me realise that I badly wanted to finish writing my book, to focus on a project of my own at my own pace,” she says.

For Pune-based Nasrin Anwar (name changed), 25, quitting not one but two jobs, since the pandemic began, was a decision that was hard to arrive at. With a double Masters’ in economics and population studies, Anwar was faced with a job market that was waning. Her father was a lawyer and her mother gave tuitions, but, as senior citizens, neither of them could work. Anwar’s job as a data analyst in the public-health sector became far more demanding in the pandemic and her employers were tight-lipped about raises.

“After I sent out the email that I was quitting, I never looked back. I wondered why I’d stuck around for so long,” says Anwar. None of this meant that Anwar didn’t have to deal with the emotional fallouts of quitting. Even though it was a decision that was backed by her parents, they had already started dipping into their savings and they were ready to mortgage their jewellery for any worst-case scenario. “When you are not productive, it can badly hamper your self-esteem. And therapy isn’t affordable all the time either,” she says.

Anwar eventually took another job but the second wave of the pandemic changed things drastically. She lost her father to the virus and her mother has been dealing with post-COVID-19 effects ever since. “We were already in debt and I was in the strange position of being a 25-year-old who had to pay off the family loans,” says Anwar, who quit her new job over religious discrimination at the workplace. “The environment in the house is really tense and I can feel the weight of being a provider day in and day out,” she says.

It’s not leaving jobs or courses alone for the sake of one’s mental well-being that can be financially draining. After being in a bad marriage for more than a decade, Varanasi-based Preeti Didwaniya, now 43, decided to separate from her husband in 2014. “But married daughters living with parents are not so acceptable in Varanasi,” she says.

With a son to look after and only receiving basic maintenance for his schooling, Didwaniya had to look for salaried work, though her parents were more than willing to support her. Among the reasons that she had decided to leave her marriage was physical and mental abuse, in addition to the fact that she was not allowed to have a salaried job. Now, Didwaniya took up a job as a teacher, but as the divorce proceedings stretched on for years together, she reached a point where taking care of a household, her young son and the demands of the workplace were too much to handle together. “You quit one thing but there is another crisis to face. I constantly felt as if I had to flee, that anything could happen to me,” says Didwaniya, who left her teaching position. Her divorce came through last year in the pandemic, after six years. Didwaniya went on to open a daycare centre in Varanasi with the contacts she had built over the years since her separation.

Given these pressures, the art of quitting is tough to master and without many takers. Indeed, it takes a fair amount of unlearning to acknowledge that it might be a sign of agency to sometimes just give up. That quitting is not a desperate sign, but an investment in an act of hope, in believing that we deserve better.

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