7 Ways to Feel Good About Giving Up

Perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, is praised so highly and so often that sometimes we forget there’s another option. This week, by request from listener Sari in Melbourne, Australia, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reminds us that sometimes it’s best to throw in the towel. Plus, how not to feel like a failure when you call it quits.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #126

The slogans are countless: You only get out what you put into it; I never dreamed of success, I worked for it; nothing worth having comes easy. Even Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” claims that the holy grail of mastery is achieved only through decades of dedication.

But how often do you hear a slogan that says you tried hard enough—at building your business, chasing your dream, sustaining your relationship—and now it’s time to move on? Rarely. And how much blood, sweat, and tears are wasted on hopeless cases? A lot. Maybe you’ve been there—drained emotionally, financially, or both, but somehow you can’t bear to step away.

Why? Consider a concept known as the “sunk cost fallacy.” It comes from both psychology and economics and refers to a decision-making bias that leads us to pour more time, money, effort, or other resources into a project simply because we’ve already invested in it. We fall prey to this whether the stakes are high, like continuing to throw money and energy into a clearly doomed business, or low, like forcing yourself to finish a lousy salad just because you (over)paid twelve bucks for it. No matter the scale, humans are reliably illogical when it comes to calling it quits.

Why Do We Refuse to Quit?

Why did evolution do this to us? Researchers theorize that the phenomenon may come from an effort to avoid wasting precious resources. This rule makes sense when you look at it from a scarcity perspective—better to keeping slogging away if you’ve already invested limited resources, but at a certain point the logic breaks down.

For instance, it might seem a waste to part ways with a partner of many years, but continuing in vain to repair the relationship is no less wasteful. You could argue that staying in is actually more wasteful, and that bringing an unfulfilling, emotionally draining relationship to an end frees up opportunity to try again.

The notion of failure, though, is so stigmatized that it’s no wonder we keep the doors of our failing jazz bar open rather than truly facing the music. Plus, it just feels wrong to jump ship even though we’re likely to sink. However, that feeling may actually be the sunk cost fallacy leading us astray. What to do? Here are 7 ways not only to throw in the towel, but to feel good about it.

Tip #1: Write down not only what it’s cost you already, but what it will cost in the future.

Sometimes going with our gut can be useful, but sometimes our guts are best described by a certain spot-on quote from Nick Hornby in High Fidelity.

So bypass your gut by actually writing out gains and losses associated with staying in, and gains and losses associated with getting out. It’s similar to the classic pros and cons list and it helps you focus on the often-forgotten opportunity costs that come with staying in.

Tip #2: Reconceptualize “giving up” as “knowing when to quit.”

In this society, everyone from Thomas the Train to Sean Paul tells us to never give up. Indeed, the most straightforward never give up quote is attributed to Winston Churchill, who allegedly said, simply, “Never never never give up.”

But it turns out this was taken out of context. What he really said was, "Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."

Indeed, the idea of “giving up” is so unacceptable that sometimes we forget the maturity and integrity required to realize something is not working and that a change needs to be made. The take home: “never give up” should not be taken as a blanket statement. Indeed, giving in when it makes good sense, or is the honorable thing to do, is the right choice. I think even Thomas the Train would agree.

Tip #3: Think of giving up as a sign of wisdom. 

A study in the prestigious journal Psychological Science found that young adults are significantly more likely to engage in the sunk cost fallacy than senior citizens.

Younger adults have a stronger negativity bias, meaning they weigh negative information, such as losses, more heavily than positive information. The decisions of older adults, by contrast, generally reflect a more balanced approach to gains and losses. Turns out the older we get, the wiser and more prudent we may become about how best to invest our resources. In short, sometimes cutting our losses is the wisest, most mature choice.

Tip #4: Sometimes you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

One thing people hate about giving up is feeling like something outside their control got the best of them. However, you can regain some control by reframing your choice to get out as a tough-love executive decision. This project may be your baby, but sometimes, you just have to throw out the baby.

You may feel like you failed, but release responsibility for those things that had nothing to do with your competence, dedication, or character. 

Tip #5: Relabel “failure.”

Biases and fallacies aside, the heart of our resistance to throwing in the towel is our fear of failure. We’ve been socialized to see goals that never come to fruition as failure. It’s even harder when the failure is public, like a marriage or a business venture.

Choosing to end a relationship or a project, especially if you started out gung ho and all in, is a loss to be grieved. So give yourself the space to do so, but then, consider this: it’s not failure if it moves you forward. Call it lightening your burden, simplifying your life, making a better choice, taking stock, turning over a new leaf, moving on, rising up, whatever you want—none of which carry any whiff of failure.

Tip #6: You can’t control everything.

Sometimes life hands you circumstances that you just can’t turn around. You may put your heart and soul into launching, say, a bakery, but maybe the opening coincided with the low-carb craze, your landlord just doubled your rent, and there’s been a run-up on worldwide sugar prices.  Could you control any of this? Not on your life.  

You may feel like you failed, but release responsibility for those things that had nothing to do with your competence, dedication, or character.  

Tip #7: Knowledge is power.

One last tip: Take solace in knowing that everyone is subject to the whims of fate and human error, and most people don’t muster the necessary clarity and strength to challenge the sunk cost fallacy. So if you get out, consider yourself operating at a higher level of human reasoning!

To wrap up, you didn’t know then what you know now. What’s more, there’s no way you could have known. But now that you’re armed with knowledge, experience, and, dare we say, some wisdom, you’ll be ready to chuck your sunk costs and chart your course anew.


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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.