In the first few months of the new year—especially this new year—I always find myself drawn to beginnings: new projects and fresh starts; a shiny novel idea of the life I could be leading. More often than not, however, my momentum quickly stalls. I get overwhelmed or dragged down by what mere weeks or months ago felt like opportunities. The problem? I don’t make space for what I want. I’m afraid to “give up,” and so I hold on to what doesn’t serve my goals. Despite my ambitions, I’ve stayed in soured relationships and jobs that made me miserable long past their expiration dates—and I’m not alone.
This phenomenon, known as loss aversion, is near universal and has major consequences on our lives. On average, we’re twice as motivated by loss as we are by gain. This means a potential new job, big move, or breakup needs to feel twice as valuable to us before we’re confident in leaving our comfort zones. Considering the unknown is, well, unknowable, how can we ever be sure of when to bail? Tired of this pattern and in need of answers, I turned to Meghan Marcum, PsyD., Chief Psychologist at A Mission for Michael. If you find yourself in an existential rut, wondering whether to move on from a situation, or ashamed of “giving up,” read on for our expert advice on avoiding loss aversion.
The simple fact of it is, humans are hardwired not to take risks. It’s a handy instinct for, say, avoiding ancient predators, but this mindset has its modern-day drawbacks. This ties into our very normal, but not always useful, talent for steering clear of pain at all costs. "People experience loss aversion due to cognitive bias," explains Marcum. "There is a perception that more pain will be associated with losing something compared to the pleasure of gaining it. The loss felt from losing a resource can feel worse than acquiring it." In avoiding immediate discomfort, we sabotage ourselves in the long run.
We’re also susceptible to another behavioral economics phenomenon: sunk cost fallacy. “Sunk cost fallacy describes a tendency to continue engaging in a behavior because we have already invested resources despite the potential consequences," Marcum says. "It essentially means not letting go of something because the process has already taken time and energy.” Simply put, we want to see returns on our investments; thus, the more we invest, the more dedicated we are on seeing an endeavor through until we benefit—even after it becomes clear we won’t hit pay-dirt any time soon. This can apply to relationships, work, creative projects, or even something as simple as not switching to the cheaper cable company, because you’re “loyal” to the slower, pricier one. (I speak from personal experience.)
So: How do you know when to pull the plug? If you’re not sure whether to stay or go, Marcum recommends giving yourself a reality check: “It is important to make a realistic analysis of how your time, energy, and financial resources are being utilized. A list of pros and cons can be helpful in deciding whether a job or relationship is worth continuing or not.” Writing out the benefits and drawbacks of an endeavor can help you see clearly when a situation is working for you, and when it isn’t. I once had a wise therapist remind me to include both practical and emotional data on my lists—if your job helped you buy a new mattress, but you’re too stressed to sleep most nights, both pieces of information are relevant to your final decision. As Marcum puts it: “If the consequences have been consistently higher than the rewards, it may be time to consider moving on.”
Even after we end things, our relief can be complicated. In a culture of grit and perseverance, how do we not blame ourselves when things don’t work out? “There is a natural tendency to feel shame or regret when we let go of something that once had value,” says Marcum. We can become more confident in our decision, however, when we accept that life isn’t a zero-sum game: “It’s important to recognize the journey of life will bring both successes and failures,” she notes. Realizing everyone fears letting go can be deeply validating; it’s also a nice reminder that anyone who might criticize your choice to start over is managing their own anxieties, and their outlook has very little to do with your experience.
Additionally, while it’s true the only way to let better things into your life is to release stagnant or negative attachments, it’s also totally healthy and normal to mourn the loss of a less-than-perfect situation. After all, nothing is all good or all bad; remembering the positives is part of the process of moving forward. We can only put our energy into so many endeavors at once, and you’re more likely to be happy and successful if you focus on those that work for you. “While it is appropriate to process the feelings of loss associated with letting go,” says Marcum, “it’s also important to recognize everyone has limits. We will try and fail at some things; recognizing our limitations and placing energy into areas where we can feel accomplished and achieve personal growth are necessary to our well-being."