Why it’s sometimes healthy to give up things

Do you force yourself to continue learning a language? What would it be like to wait for closure in a relationship that ended abruptly? Or continue a friendship that often leaves you feeling drained?

It might be OK — even healthy — to give up such things, says Adam Phillips, author of “On Giving Up.”

The new book is an introspective look at the psychology of letting go and aims to give readers insight into their own lives.

According to the American Psychological Association, Phillips is a practicing psychoanalyst – someone who helps people understand themselves and make better decisions in life. For Phillips, that means letting people speak freely about things that worry them.

A lot of people have talked to Phillips about giving things up. There is a duality in this idea, he says.

It is usually assumed that people who give up something will get something better in return – for example, quitting smoking in return for better health. Or that they can’t change and so they give up trying – like when someone smokes so much that it becomes part of their identity.

It is psychological, but also strongly influenced by cultural norms.

“We tend to value and even idealize the idea of ​​finishing things, finishing them rather than abandoning them,” Phillips says in the book. “Giving up must be justified in such a way that the completion is not… (it) is usually viewed as a failure rather than an opportunity to succeed at something else.”

For example, say you’ve been trying to learn guitar. For some reason, you couldn’t commit to it – but instead of giving up, you keep working through it or tell yourself that you still plan to learn something.

In this scenario, do you actually want to learn guitar? Or do you have other, more important things that you would rather focus your time and energy on? In any case, giving up may be the best option. You could actually see it as an investment in something else rather than giving up the guitar.

To delve deeper into the idea of ​​giving up and how it affects people throughout their lives, CNN spoke with Phillips about “On Giving Up” following its release. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Adam Phillips: When people give up things – chocolate or alcohol – there’s obviously an assumption that you can change, that you’re capable of changing. When people give up, they believe they cannot change.

That’s why I was interested in the idea because a lot of people talk a lot about giving things up in this kind of exchange or deal. When I give something up, I assume I’ll get something better in return. It seems to me that, like all stock exchanges, it is somewhat unpredictable.

It was also because of how powerful – at least in some cultures – the idea of ​​sacrifice is, which is a version of something having to be sacrificed to get something better, and it seems that this often involves a lot of cruelty .

What examples of cruelty have you seen in this context?

When I am an alcoholic, alcohol is my self-medication. If I give up alcohol, the question arises: What effect did alcohol originally have on me? You probably need to stop drinking, but to stop drinking you may need to figure out what your alcohol was initially struggling with, what it was the solution to, or what it was self-healing for. This is difficult.

You mention in the book that hate, prejudice and scapegoating have such a big impact on people – that it can be hard to give these things up – why is that?

We are full of feelings that we are very afraid of. One of them is hatred. So what we can do is transfer our hatred to other people and then try to get rid of the other people. The scapegoat is there to carry or contain all the parts of us that we are most afraid of or that bother us the most.

In a better world, we would be able to better control the full range of our emotions, so to speak, and therefore not have to scapegoat other people – because other people are punished for what are actually our forbidden pleasures.

Do you have any advice for people who are trying to give up something or make a major change in their life?

Take it back a notch. So when I think, “What do I want?” “I want a cigarette or something to drink”, in that moment I have organized and localized all my desires.

Quitting smoking is the first step. The second phase, when you have successfully quit smoking, is about what you will feel and how you can endure the initial phase of deprivation and fear. So if you give it up, you will probably face a lot of fear and a lot of suffering again – not forever, but temporarily. And you have to be able to endure it and need a little support from other people.

Many people start a hobby but then realize they don’t really want to do it or don’t have the time for it. But they feel like they’ve put in so much time or effort that they don’t want to give it up.

I want the book to advocate for having the freedom to give up. We are raised to believe that persistence and determination are good things. Well, of course they are good things. If you want to learn to play the piano, you can’t just give up when things get difficult. But on the other hand, do you actually want to learn to play the piano?

Likewise, it might be good to give up relationships or interests if you realize that they are no longer alive for you. But that’s extremely difficult for people because we can’t give up. I say in the book that tragic heroes in plays are people who never give up, and when they never give up, they just wreak havoc.

Are there examples of things that it should be okay for people to give up on and that maybe it shouldn’t be okay for people to give up on?

People should be okay with leaving relationships if the relationship actually makes them jaded or bored – or makes them feel powerless or worse. Being in a relationship should be such that it brings out the best in you and you enjoy it.

If people want to be athletes, musicians, dancers, writers, or whatever, they have to persevere. You have to overcome the resistance. One beautiful thing that psychoanalysis adds to the conversation is that we resist things either because we don’t want them or because we really want them.

You have to experiment. The risk will probably always be giving up too soon, too quickly – but the other risk is taking too long to give up.

Everyone has a different idea of ​​what the life they want is or what a good life is. If there were a criterion or test, it would be: How alive something or someone makes you feel – whether you truly feel invigorated in their company. Almost as if the person is bringing out the best in you. Well, this may not happen all the time, but it can happen more often.

Why do we have the idea that giving up is a bad thing?

That is the question that the book addresses. And it’s a really good question. And I don’t know the answer to that.

In cultures where we are encouraged to work, to be loyal, to be consistent, to be reliable – if those are to be our values, then it’s about not giving up.

So the question becomes what kind of world you want to live in or what your idea of ​​a good life is – and you may never give up.

But it seems to me that there are many examples of people who never give up and do terrible things because they don’t have a second thought. You can’t revise things. They can’t overthink what they’re doing. So basically they are some kind of megalomaniacs.

What do you hope readers get from the book?

I want people to make of it what they want and to feel free to interpret it in their own way. This is not propaganda or an attempt to convince anyone of anything.

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