Lately, stress is high and tempers can be short. So you may find yourself at your wit’s end—angry, upset, or ready to quit your job. But what may seem like a good idea in the moment may not be the best bet for the long term. Known as “rage quitting,” an impulsive decision to throw in the towel may not serve you well if you haven’t considered what it will take to find something new or if you give up more than you have to gain somewhere else.
But when you feel as if you can’t tolerate the challenges of your work and your colleagues (so “you’ve had it”)—how do you find the calm you need to make a good decision?
Brain science is helpful to understand: When you’re steaming mad or triggered by something, your brain switches to a fight-or-flight response and your amygdala takes over. This is the part of your brain responsible for automatic emotional and behavioral responses. When you’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack, it overshadows the part of your brain that’s responsible for regulating emotions and evaluating actions. In a state of great upset, you essentially have less access to your rational, logical thinking processes. And if you take actions in that state, you’re more likely to regret them because they will probably not be in your own long-term best interests—based on the limitations of your thinking.
But you can manage yourself, you can reflect on what’s best, and you can take wise action. You just need a little know-how in order to put this approach into practice.
Check in with yourself to manage emotions
When you’re on the edge and need to talk yourself back, the first thing to do is breathe. Breathing can oxygenate your blood and help your brain stay open to more expansive thinking rather than a more narrow, threatened response. Taking a few deep breaths also buys you some time to think critically and consider how you want to react.
In backing away from a quick-fire and emotional response, you can focus in on your thought process. The way we think about the situation can either escalate or de-escalate our frustration. Each of us is in charge of our emotions. Remind yourself to be patient and that you are capable of dealing with a tough situation with assertiveness and poise.
Remember: Often when people act in a way you find difficult, it is more about them than it is about you. The rude email you received from a colleague may reflect the stress he is going through. Maybe the dressing down you received from a customer mirrors the pressure she is under at her company. These explanations don’t make their behavior acceptable, but when you understand it your own emotions can come under your control more effectively.
When you’re in the grip of intense emotion, it’s also effective to give yourself a dose of some natural scenery. Multiple studies show access to nature can be restorative. Take a quick walk around the block, get a breath of fresh air through a window, or take a moment to admire the view outside. Any of these options can be effective. Also consider distracting yourself with some tunes. Music can have a similarly positive effect and give you back a bit of calm so you can consider your best next steps.
Take time to reflect
When you’re so annoyed that you’re thinking of quitting, it’s important to take stock. Make time to reflect and think things through. This will also help you to reengage your more lucid, balanced thinking processes so the action you take is your best path forward.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Is this an unusual situation or a trend? If you’ve been struggling for years with a boss who lacks integrity, it may be time to take action. On the other hand, if a normally even-keeled coworker has just lost her cool with you, it may be an opportunity to forgive and move on.
- What role do you play in the situation? Consider your own responsibility in this circumstance and give thought to how you might improve your own skills or responses in order to contribute to a positive atmosphere or a solution to the problem.
- Are you overreacting? Also consider whether your response is in proportion to the issue. Sometimes your own challenges outside of work can shorten your fuse. If you’re in the middle of a move, the small glitch at work may upset you more than it normally would. Or if you’re working through a tough time with your partner, it can color your perspectives about the person at work who doesn’t seem to be responding quickly enough. Even getting too little sleep can make you more likely to experience anger. Maintain your perspective by understanding how your broader context may be coloring your response.
- Will this matter in the long term? While things can seem monumental in the moment, it’s helpful to consider whether they will matter tomorrow or next week or next year. Expanding the time frame can remind you that the issue may not be as significant as it seems and give you permission to set it aside.
- Can you influence the situation? Another helpful consideration is your own degree of influence. If the source of your frustration is a systemic issue over which you have little control (a toxic culture, for example, or a leadership team that lacks respect for employees), it might make sense to move on. But if the issue is something on which you can have a positive impact by recommending changes or modeling positive behaviors, the company can surely benefit from your endurance.
If you do decide that quitting is your best course of action, ask yourself a few more questions:
- Can you afford to quit? Even the most attractive candidate in today’s hot job market will require time to find something new, so ensure you have enough financial runway to find a new position.
- What will you lose by quitting? Even when things aren’t ideal in your current job, give thought to all you’ve already accomplished. Perhaps you have built a strong internal network that sets you up for your next promotion, or maybe you are a great fit with the company’s overall culture. Starting something new will require you to relearn and restart, so ensure you’ve given your best effort at your current role before you decide to give it up.
- Why did you start this job? Remember your rationale for taking your current role—fulfilling work, good pay, and growth opportunities are examples. Are there still things about it or about the company that represent these positive possibilities? If so, you may want to stick around a bit longer.
After you’ve taken time to think and reflect, you’re ready to take action. In studies published in the journal Cognitive Emotion, people felt less angry when they were able to take positive steps toward resolving issues, so taking considered, planful action can be empowering.
Your best bet may be to simply continue to manage yourself. Call a trusted colleague or a mentor and talk through the situation in a confidential manner. Often, being able to get something off your chest with a supportive friend can make a big difference. Alternatively, write a pointed email in response to the source of your frustration and then don’t send it. Remember, you can manage your thoughts, and when you take charge of your thinking you can control your emotions and reactions.
If you decide to do more than take steps to manage your response—make sure you have a plan. Identify the people who can be helpful and the tasks you’ll need to focus your energy toward. In some cases, it may be the right move to resign and move on to a new opportunity.
Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life, happiness, and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.