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Why it’s sometimes healthy to give things up

A woman sitting at the glass table. She appears to have given up.
Fiordaliso/Moment RF/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
A woman sitting at the glass table. She appears to have given up.

By Saira Mueller, CNN

(CNN) — Are you forcing yourself to continue learning a language? What about holding out for closure in a relationship that ended abruptly? Or continuing a friendship that leaves you feeling drained more often than not?

It could be ok — healthy, even — to give things like this up, says Adam Phillips, author of “On Giving Up.”

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

Phillips is a practicing psychoanalyst — someone who helps people understand themselves and make better choices in life, according to the American Psychological Association. For Phillips, this means letting people speak freely about things that are troubling them.

Lots of people have talked to Phillips about giving things up. There’s a duality to the notion, he says.

Most of the time, there’s an assumption that, by giving something up, people will get something better in return — say, giving up smoking in return for better health. Or, that they can’t change, and so they give up on trying — like when someone smokes so much it becomes part of their identity.

It’s psychological, but also deeply informed by cultural norms.

“We tend to value, and even idealize, the idea of seeing things through, of finishing things rather than abandoning them,” says Phillips in the book. “Giving up has to be justified in a way that completion does not … (it) is usually thought of as a failure rather than a way of succeeding at something else.”

Say, for example, that you’ve been trying to learn the guitar. For whatever reason, you haven’t been able to commit to it — but instead of giving up, you keep slogging through or telling yourself you still plan to learn.

In this scenario, do you actually want to learn the guitar? Or is it that you have other, more important things you’d rather focus your time and energy on? Either way, giving up may be the best option. It could actually be seen as an investment in succeeding at something else rather than giving up on the guitar.

To delve into the idea of giving up and how it affects people throughout their lives, CNN spoke with Phillips about “On Giving Up” after 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 things up — chocolate or alcohol — the assumption is obviously that you can change, that you’re able to change. When people give up they believe they can’t change.

So I was interested in the idea, given that lots of people talk a lot about giving things up, in this kind of exchange or a deal. If I give up something, the assumption is I will get something back that’s better. It seems to me that, like all exchanges, it’s a bit unpredictable.

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

What are some examples of cruelty that you’ve seen in relation to this?

If I’m an alcoholic, alcohol is my self-cure. If I give up alcohol, the question is, what was the alcohol originally there to medicate in me? You probably have got to give up drinking, but in order to give up drinking, the consequence is you find out, possibly, what your drinking was originally there to deal with, what it was the solution to or the self-cure for. That’s hard.

You mention in the book that hatred, prejudice and scapegoating hold so much sway over people — that it can be hard to give these things up — why is this?

We are full of feelings that we are very frightened of, one of which is hatred. So what we can do is we put our hatred into other people and then we try to get rid of the other people. The scapegoat is there to carry or contain all the parts of ourselves that we’re most frightened of or disturbed by.

In a better world, so to speak, we would be more able to contain the whole range of our feelings and therefore wouldn’t need to scapegoat other people — because other people are being punished for what are actually our forbidden pleasures.

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

Take it back a stage. So when I think, “What do I want? I want a cigarette or a drink,” at that moment I’ve organized all my desires and localized it.

Giving up smoking is the first step. The second stage, once you’ve successfully stopped smoking, is what are you going to feel then and can you bear the initial stage of deprivation and anxiety. So once you give it up, you’re going to be once again prone to a lot of anxiety, probably, and a lot of suffering — not forever, but temporarily. And you’ve got to be able to bear it and you’ll need a bit of support from other people.

A lot of people pick up a hobby, but then realize they don’t actually want to do it or have the time for it. But they feel like they’ve put so much time or effort into it that they don’t want to give it up.

What I want the book to do is to make the case for having the freedom to give up. We’re brought up 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 it’s difficult. But, on the other hand, do you actually want to learn to play the piano?

Similarly, it could be good to give up on relationships or interests when you realize they are no longer alive for you. But people find that extremely difficult, because we’re not supposed to give up. I say in the book that tragic heroes in plays are people that never give up, and in never giving up, they just create havoc.

Are there any examples of things that people should be okay with giving up and that people maybe should not be okay giving up?

People should be okay with giving up relationships when the relationship actually deadens them or bores them — or makes them feel powerless or worse about themselves. Being in a relationship should be because it brings out the best in you and you enjoy it.

If people want to be athletes, musicians, dancers, writers, whatever, you’ve got to persist. You’ve got to get over the resistances. 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 do.

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

Everybody has a different idea of what the life they want is or what a good life is. If there was one criteria, or one test, it would be: How alive something or somebody makes you feel — whether in their company, you feel genuinely enlivened. Almost as though the person brings out the best in you. Now, that can’t happen all the time, but it can happen more often than not.

Why do we have this notion that giving up is a bad thing?

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

In cultures where we are encouraged to work, to be loyal, to be consistent and to be reliable — if these are going to be our values, then not giving up is the point.

So it becomes a question of what kind of world you want to live in or what your idea of a good life is — and it may be one in which you never give up.

But it seems to me that there are plenty of examples of people who never give up who do terrible things, because they can’t have a second thought. They can’t revise things. They can’t reconsider what they’re doing. So, effectively, they’re sort of megalomaniacs.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I want people to make of it whatever they want, and to feel free to interpret it in their own way. It is not intended to be propaganda, or an attempt to persuade anyone of anything.

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