Have you ever felt fear of “being a quitter”? That makes two of us!
I have recently let go of a dream of mine. I am not sure whether I should really call it a dream. It was something that I felt, from deep inside, I was meant to do in my life. Yes, it was not a dream. It was my destiny. And now it no longer is.
In my case, that destiny was to become a psychologist. But it could have been anything, really. Working at the circus, for instance, or moving to the Bahamas. Most of us find it hard figuring out what we are meant to do in life, especially because we inevitably change as time passes, and so do our necessities, our values, and our dreams. If there is one thing I have learned is that holding on to old dreams is only going to anchor us to feelings of dissatisfaction. And if we decide to quit those dreams, we may experience the feeling of failure.
How do I know that it’s time to let go?
Some dreams are harmless. They are just there for us to entertain in the hours of boredom, late at night and during train rides. They spice up life. They are healthy and necessary. I dream of travelling the world without ever worrying about money. I also dream of a quirky house with a conservatory and space to build my artsy atélier. None of these dreams bother me in excess because they remain pleasant: something to look forward to but that my well-being does not depend on. A lovely extra.
But sometimes dreams can become “toxic”. I’m talking about those dreams that keep us awake at night for the wrong reasons, that cause a feeling of unease in our stomach. It is those dreams we cling onto because we think they hold the key to our happiness. It is those dreams we have turned into active goals, only to realize they may not really fulfill us anymore. If you are in this situation, think twice, because it may be time to let go, so that you can continue your life journey with a light heart and a smile on your face.
For me, these are important signs that dreams should be reconsidered or, at least, dealt with differently:
1) My dream is a precondition for happiness
I need to reach this milestone so that I can be happy. Everything will be easier then.
2) I don’t enjoy working towards my dream.
I don’t take pleasure in the small wins along the way.
3) I don’t remember why I’m doing this
That rush of excitement is gone. I just don’t feel it in my gut anymore.
4) I would rather be doing something else
I feel I need time and space to work on new projects.
5) Succeeding has become an expectation
I have come far and thus now I must finish. Everybody expects me to.
6) If I fail, what else will I do?
This is my chance in life, my shot at being someone / doing something important.
So, how did I let go of my dream without feeling like a quitter?
Do you want to know the secret? Letting go of a dream is very easy, once you no longer view it as a dream. As you may understand, this is the trickiest part.
At this point I think I should tell you a bit about myself. When I started my studies as an undergrad, I believed that studying psychology was too conventional (what the hell, RIGHT?), and so I decided to study visual communication. While that was not a mistake, I always felt regret because I believed my ability in life, if I had to pinpoint one, was analyzing human behavior. Six years ago I decided to turn my career around, undergo research training on a discipline close to psychology, and start academic career. I planned it, worked hard, and succeeded.
But my ambition didn’t stop there.
I still felt like I should get my psychology degree, somehow. It was a crazy idea, right? After all I would hold a PhD in a sub-area of psychology before actually being a psychologist. So, what pushed me to getting my psy degree? In one word: FEAR. An irrational fear of being uncategorizable. I was secretly afraid of not being definable. I looked envious at those people whom, when asked what their profession is, could answer in one word: dentist, realtor, teacher. I am, technically, a cognitive scientist. That is confusing and always requires further explanation: But what is your background? Psychology? -followed by a 10-minutes explanation from my side that I very much dread. I wanted to be able to scream I was a psychologist, to wrap it up in one word. Furthermore, an official degree was the way to become a therapist and help people without being called a charlatan -or so I thought.
Beginning the path towards becoming a psychologist became the mourning process I needed. Letting go of something is essentially bidding farewell, and as a consequence we may experience grief too, and we must give that grief time to develop. The day I enrolled into the official psychology degree, I felt proud, I felt brave. I felt there was nothing in this world that could stop me. I had turned a dream into an almost tangible goal. After some time, however, I realized I did not really have time or energy to invest on that venture. But by the time I understood this, I had realized something deeper, almost magically:
That I no longer needed it.
That I am where I was meant to be, and who I was meant to be, and that I don’t need to be named in a specific way or put into a category. I am a researcher. And in my free time, an artist, a photographer, a writer. I still live in a slight fear of being a quitter, of never finishing what I start. But then I pause and think of all the important milestones I have already accomplished. Hence, I have zero regrets about quitting. End of story.
In sum, I think it’s good for us to give a shot to accomplishing our dreams, so that we can know whether they are still the right fit for us, and in case they are not, so that we can let go peacefully and with a clean conscience. Always keep in mind the following two questions: Why are you really doing this? and, more importantly perhaps, Will your life really be better (happier) once you’ve reached your goal?