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Talking on the phone with a close friend the other night, something she said caught and held my attention. We were discussing a friend of hers who had remained in what was a toxic work position for years, hating nearly every minute of it, while her reason for staying was “I was scared I wouldn’t find anything better.”

This particular remark struck a chord in me, as it’s one I have heard time and time again, from friends, family members, acquaintances, romantic partners.

The premise is this: I am not necessarily so happy or satisfied with a situation in my life as it currently stands, however, I am going to stick in or with it because I am too afraid of the unknown and taking a chance to seek something better. I prefer what is “known,” (aka, comfortable or easier), even when not especially satisfying or great, to the unknown.

Why do so many people (and I’ve fallen victim to this as well) stay in situations, be it a job, romantic relationship, friendship, or other life situation, that is either: barely satisfactory, or even downright bad, in fear of letting it go and seeking better?

Curious about and having heard of this theme coming up routinely in the lives around me, I did some research. Turns out (though this isn't exactly news) that as humans, we are hardwired to hate uncertainty. Not surprising. However, in digging a bit further, this is where it gets interesting.

Apparently, a recent study found that we hate uncertainty even more than a certainty that something bad is going to happen. Is that not baffling? We prefer knowing something bad is to come, as opposed to not knowing what is coming. Hence, why people stay in the mediocre to even shitty knowns, to avoid the seeming vastness and gray of the anxiety-provoking unknown.

Some doubters might be raising their eyebrows and challenging, “wait, so you're telling me it's more stressful to wonder if you're going to be fired than being relatively certain of it? Or, that it’s more anxiety-provoking to be rushing to a meeting and not sure you will make it on time, as opposed to knowing for certain that you will miss it and thus, get in trouble?”

Yes. That’s exactly what I am saying (or, what the research is telling us).

There is a part of your brain responsible for dopamine output called the striatum, which releases dopamine like something akin to a geyser at particular moments in our daily lives.

When you experience something pleasurable, eating a slice of cake, being hugged, sex, the list goes on, dopamine is released. This feels good and thus, motivates us toward doing more of these activities.

Interestingly, the striatum also works with regard to negative input or stimulation. Propelling us away from punishment or negative consequences. To go a step further, the striatum also weighs, a mathematical calculation of the subconscious, what are the likelihoods of either these positive rewards or sensations, versus the negative consequences or punishment of occurring.

This alarm system is constantly weighing the likelihood of which side is more likely to prevail, and then alerting us most resoundingly when the odds approach something close to 50/50.

This makes sense with regard to say, animals in survival mode. They need to be ready to go, on their toes, and action-oriented when outcomes are least predictable. Thus, when results are uncertain and up in the air, this pushes us more fully towards action.

We like to be able to anticipate what the consequences, positive or negative, will be. When we cannot be sure, this freaks us out big time.

What’s crucial to both understand and remember though, is that despite our terror and anxiety over uncertainty and our attempts to control it by remaining “safe” within “what we know,” is that actually, all of life is uncertain.

Of course, we can try and predict how something may turn out. Sometimes we are right. Much of the time, we are flat out wrong and the result is any of a plethora of other conclusions or possibilities that existed beyond the realm of our immediate consideration.

The point being, as much as we want (and try) to control how our lives turn out by avoiding uncertainty and the unknown, we forget that life is one big unknown, one giant uncertainty and that ultimately, we have no idea how it's going to unfold or play out. And that a vast majority of the time, things end up evolving or shifting in ways opposite or contrary to what we might have imagined or assumed.

Further, our culture is one that views “having control” as a virtue and something worthy of much admiration. Congratulating ourselves when we feel we are doing a good job of “remaining in control,” as well as looking up to others who seemingly control their personal circumstances to a high degree.

This is an illusion. There are too many wild card variables beyond our control, including: all the other people surrounding us at a given time, traffic, weather, accidents, economy shifts, elections, illness, injuries, surprises, being in the right place at the right time, sudden life changes, losing a job or being offered one, deaths and births, opportunities popping up where we hadn’t anticipated them. The list goes on.

Our control is minimal. To a large degree, we can control both our feelings/thoughts/mindsets, as well as our own behavioral responses. That's about it though, for things which we have true personal control over. (And even that is subject to the variance and fluctuations of human instinct, as well as the hundreds of nuanced layers to each person, which are nearly endless, fluid, ever-shifting and changing).

So. The fact that we every fully have control is a fallacy. It’s one that has been debunked by plethoras of Buddhist thought processes, free-thinking, and philosophizing people for hundreds of years.

Why then do we attempt to control our lives by staying in situations, whether a job, romantic relationship, friendship, or other life situation, that are either:

— not good/toxic/damaging to us, either emotionally or physically.

— long past their expiration date and something we have outgrown or moved beyond, which if we let go and seek something other, are likely to be far happier.

Why do we stick with situations that meet the above criteria when, so often, doing so contributes strongly and directly to our leading lives that are far less happy, satisfying, fulfilling, or healthy as they could be otherwise?

Why do we let this intense fear and distress over the “unknown” keep us stuck in life situations that are certainly not stimulating growth, that might be lame, barely satisfactory, or even outright crappy, when we could be doing similar or even totally alternate things which will make us happier and be vastly improved situations?

Some of us admit and face this fact, even though it’s scary and can entail heartbreak and pain, as well as anxiety over the coming change and initial unknown.

A majority of people though, turn away from this. Instead, inventing all sorts of reasons why staying in the same dead-end situation is preferable.


“Shared history.”

“I know what to expect.”

“Well, some of it is good.”

“I feel guilty leaving.”

“I don't want to hurt them.”

“It's too difficult.”

In the end, all of these excuses are the same, which is their ultimately keeping you locked into a situation that isn't to the best potential for your life path, keeping you stuck in the rut which it's highly likely you would be significantly happier and healthier moving out of.

And that's the very reason we are so terrified of making them. Terrified of the consequences. Terrified of being held accountable. Terrified of not knowing what lies down the path ahead. Again, we would apparently rather stay in something mediocre, or even outright awful, in order to avoid the unknown and new.

What we forget though is that allowing ourselves to fall victim to this fear and live our lives by it? And that avoiding risk, change, and unknown in order to feel “more comfortable” and less afraid?

This leads to a significantly less rich life, with far less possibility, novelty, growth, and prevention from living a life of all the awesomeness it could be. It leads to settling. It leads to regret. When allowing our fears to dictate our choices, this shortchanges us.

Endings are a necessary and vital aspect of living. Everything in life has cycles that entail a beginning, growth, and conclusion. This includes jobs, relationships, personal projects, life phases, and more. Seasons change. Animals procreate, grow up, age, and then die. There is a time for growth and flourishing, and a time for letting go in order to move forward.

Endings are necessary in order to make way for better things to come. Leavings can be crucial to allow space for something that's a better fit for us to enter the picture. A conclusion is often a springboard into further growth.

How can I assess if it’s likely time for an ending? A few questions to ask yourself:

— — If this situation stayed exactly the same as it is now, precisely the same in every way, am I totally ok with that? And will I be happy with this one year from now? Three years? Five years from now? Assuming that absolutely nothing about this situation or relationship will change. If not…you may have a compelling and potentially telling answer indicating a possible forthcoming necessary ending or leaving.

— — If this is a relationship or person you are dealing with (colleague, family member, close friend, romantic partner), are they open to feedback? Do they show any indication or self-awareness of how they could have been acting in hurtful ways? Do they show a sense of personal responsibility? And, after receiving feedback/constructive criticism, do you see any sort of a change in their behavior?

If the answers to these questions are mostly no, you are looking at a situation unlikely to change. And thus, a necessary ending might be in the works somewhere down the road.

However, if the answer to at least one of these questions is basically a yes (especially the latter one), you have a situation that may warrant some hope and sticking with a bit longer to see what happens.

And further:

— — Is staying within this, whatever it may be, going to cause me to lose something else from my life that is deeply meaningful and important to me?

If so, it might be worth reconsidering if you were to lose said deeply meaningful and important other thing(s) in your life. Is it truly worth the cost? If not, it might indicate this is time for a necessary leaving from the situation/relationship/habit/job that doesn't threaten something else immensely meaningful to you.

— — Does this situation cause me a medium to significant degree of stress/anxiety and emotional strife?

If the answer is yes, whether you potentially like or find some good in it, this is a strong indicator that it might be worth examining more closely and considering a potentially necessary change to something that doesn't cause a significant degree of stress, take a toll on your health, or cause emotional strife.

All of life is an experiment, as well as one big classroom. The point of which is for you to explore the path of growth, personal experiments, and taking as many opportunities and risks as you can, while you have the chance and are here on earth.

However, we cannot do this even close to fully by remaining in situations (jobs, relationships, life habits, ways of thinking) that no longer serve us, hold us back, hinder our growth, or even harm us.

In order to live our fullest and most fantastic life, we need to learn the art of necessary leavings. To be able to face, with bravery and honesty, when a phrase or situation in our life has come (or needs to come) to a close. And then, to walk courageously through the doorway of that necessary leaving and into the light of something new.

Originally published at

Written by

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

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