Am I a failure if I quit my job?

Back in 2017, I was a fresh university graduate and I worked as a special needs therapist/learning aide. I also quit that job in that same year, eventhough it was a role I had enthusiastically applied for and had spent years during my Psychology degree working towards.

Imagine this: One morning, 10 months into the role, I found myself crying and physically unable to move in my young client’s school toilet, minutes before my shift started.

I was severely burnout and my body had decided to stop working with me. Out of desperation, I called my older brother (who had been checking in on me every day for a week because he knew I was struggling).

“What is stopping you from quitting? If you can pay the penalty for resigning early, why don’t you leave today?”

I reflected and finally admitted out loud to myself and to my brother listening many miles away in Johor, “I am scared to quit. If I resign, that means I have failed. I don’t want to fail, I cannot fail this job –

“It will be so embarrassing for me to quit my first job out of university – I don’t want people to think I am some millennial weakling. I would let down myself, my supervisor, my clients and my team.”

My kind brother, listened patiently and finally replied, “So what if you failed?”

In my head, I was shocked. I had grown up my whole life being told by my family and my community that failure was never an option for me. Anything less than an A+ was disappointing. Anything less than almost perfect was unacceptable.

“Roshinee, you are going to fail many times in your life. This is just one of them, and that is okay. Failure is a natural path of life and of being an adult. I have failed too, remember? I could not do my dream job after uni, I failed. I was let go from my job and I failed to provide for my family for months. Tell me, did you think I was a bad person or any less of a person when I failed?”

No, I did not.

“Exactly. It is what it is. It is okay for you to fail at this, it just did not work out, and that is a nudge for you to consider a different direction.”

And for the first time in a long time, I felt a heavy burden lifted from within. I had forced myself to keep working at a role, at an organisation that just was not suited to my values and personality. My brother’s advice kept repeating in my head – I finally felt like I was allowed to fail and move on. I sincerely could believe that my next step in resigning will not invalidate me as a capable, professional person.

I resigned the very next day, and it was one of the most important personal and professional decision of my life. I took a two-months mental health break before kickstarting my new career in advocacy.

According to my then psychologist, if I had stayed on a day longer, she would have forced me to take emergency leave so I could get hospitalised and medicated for severe anxiety. I am grateful that I had quit before I unintentionally did even more serious damage to my mind and body.

Reframing the stigma of failure

I have been working for almost five years now, and I am grateful that I had quit when I did.

When I finally built the confidence and mental strength to job hunt after my two-months break, I made sure my self-talk was positive. I reminded myself, ‘Yes, I had failed at my previous job because xxx didn’t work out but I can succeed elsewhere’ instead of ‘I failed at my previous job therefore, I am a failure and will always be’.

I took pride of the work I had done as a therapist, I acknowledged that I did my best to serve that community, but I also recognised that I had made a hard decision to leave a job (I had studied for) because I realised it just was not serving me anymore.

I tried on a new role, in a more compatible work environment, in an organisation with values I resonated with, and I never looked back since. But first, it had to begin with an acknowledgment of failure and restarting.

I share this story with you because a common question I get asked in my DMs is often from young professionals and fresh graduates who feel miserable in their job yet hesitate to leave, usually due to a fear of failing or letting others down.

Just like my brother had challenged me, I will challenge you to think about why you might have a strong aversion to the feeling of failure, and then reflect whether it is worth letting that fear continue jeopardising your mental and physical well being, your job/life satisfaction, or even your relationship with your community.

And to also ask yourself, SO WHAT?

So what if you failed at this role/position/organisation? Part of being a human adult is to take chances, take risks, and sometimes it just does not work out, sometimes we make mistakes. Unfortunately, our career paths are not always as linear as we (or our parents) want them to be – and I want you to know that we just have to be okay with that cause life is messy sometimes.

To be candid, the anxiety caused at my first stressful job was amplified because I was also dealing with the death of my mother and the end of my then long-term relationship, all at the same time. Sometimes I wonder if I could have coped or succeeded at my first job if the circumstances were less tragic, but then I quickly move on from that train of thought because it is not conducive for my mental health to ponder the impossible + invite resentment💆🏽‍♀️

Returning back to the theme of failing and making mistakes, here is a quote that I thought relevant:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing the world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect. whatever it is: art, or love, or work, or family, or life.

Whatever it is you’re off doing, do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Neil Gaiman

Thinking about next steps

If you are reading this, I assume you are at a crossroads in your career journey.

First, let me validate you by saying that having this self-awareness that things are not right, is a good start. Thank you for listening to the cues that your mind and body have sent you that things have to change.

Next, it would be helpful to analyse exactly what are your specific pain points – is it an incompatibility with your job description, your supervisor, your stakeholders, your skill levels, your organisational culture, perhaps all of the above?

I often reminded myself that I failed at my first job NOT because I myself am inherently a failure, but simply because it was an incompatible work environment for me. I hope you can remember this as well so as to avoid internalising any feelings of guilt or poor self-worth.

Understanding your pain point is an important prerequisite before you have an honest conversation with your manager. Should your pain point be related to specific tasks/individuals, it is worth considering a move to a different portfolio/project/supervisor first, if you are still unsure/unable to quit your job.

I wish you only the best in your journey to find a role deserving of your skills, personality, and values. Here are some additional helpful links for you:


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