Quitting your job can be just as heartbreaking as ending a romance

Sometimes you’ve got to walk away.
Sometimes you’ve got to walk away.
Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
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Earlier this year, I decided to break up with my job. I was burned out from stress and long hours, and I knew it was time to find a position that was a better match. I gathered my courage and gave notice. And as soon as I’d left, I began to regret it.

Most people are familiar with the cycle of sadness and self-doubt that follows even the most logical of romantic breakups. Realistically, we may know we’re unlikely to make it work with the girl who lives 3,000 miles away or the commitment-phobic musician. But the initial aftermath of a split often involves some combination of remorse (“Was he really so bad?”), nostalgia (“I miss our road trips”) and despair (“Will I ever find someone?”).

Until this job, however, I’d never thought much about the emotional impact of leaving a job and coworkers behind. I’ve since learned that a professional breakup can be just as painful, and transformative, as a personal one.

My first inklings of regret came on my last day. As I sent a goodbye email to my team, I spun around in my chair and looked over at my work best friend. “Am I doing the right thing?” I asked, half-hoping she’d say no and beg me to stay.

“You are,” she assured me. “You know that this is what you want.” She was right, of course—I’d made this decision after months of careful deliberation, and I was confident about what I wanted.

Then the goodbyes started rolling in. By the third sweet email wishing me well, I was overflowing with feelings of love for my coworkers. I realized how attached I’d become to the people I saw at the office everyday, and how much I would miss exchanging emails made up entirely of gifs and brainstorming ideas over bubble tea.

I spent the next week moping around my apartment, texting my former coworkers to ask what they were up to and imagining what I’d be doing if I was still at work. I realized that I’d been so busy focusing on the parts of my job that didn’t fit, I hadn’t taken enough time to appreciate the parts that did. Clearly, I was having a lot of trouble letting go.

Speaking to friends about this felt strange at first. When we choose to leave a job or a relationship, the general narrative is that we’re moving onto something bigger and better. It’s the dumpees—the people who get laid off or broken up with—whom we normally associate with tears and a sense of loss. But I soon found that lots of other people could relate.

One friend told me that she’d felt heartbroken when she decided to leave a job that looked great on paper but was ultimately unfulfilling. Although she knew it wasn’t a good fit, she still fought really hard to make it work before finally deciding to move on.

“It was a real lack of reconciliation for my ego and my mind. I felt like I loved someone who didn’t even see me,” she said. She’s since found a role more in line with her career goals—but she still misses her old coworkers.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if companies’ increased focus on building a strong workplace culture winds up making it harder for millennials to move on. The distinction between coworkers and friends gets pretty tricky when you spend all day laughing (and working) with your fellow employees, wrap things up with an in-office happy hour, then collectively head out for karaoke.

Psychologist Lisa Orbe-Austin, who coaches clients on professional development, says she’s seen this issue crop up repeatedly in her practice. “There is a definite blurring of the line between colleagues and friends, and those relationships can mirror friendships and relationships outside of the office,” she says. “This is why it’s so important to have friends outside of your work friends. If your whole life surrounds them, then if you leave, your social life goes with it.”

Orbe-Austin says that we should be careful not to allow work (or our workplace friends) to form the entire basis of our identities. Belonging to a tight-knit softball league or volunteering at the same soup kitchen every Sunday can help ward off the pangs of social isolation that can come with a professional breakup.

She also emphasizes that it’s natural to feel some pain after leaving a job. She tells her clients it’s okay to process the experience as a loss and to actively work on healing.

“Reconstruct the narrative that helps you to move on,” she says. “There are things you’re taking away that will help you grow from this. Engage in the experience to learn from what happened.” It’s also comforting to remember that if your relationships with your coworkers are strong enough, they’re likely to endure even when you’re not spending eight hours together each day.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that a number of companies are making the experience of moving on easier for former employees, treating them more as alumni than as ex-lovers whose names must never be spoken again. Consulting giant McKinsey stays in touch with former employees through networking events and relies on them to help bring in new business and recruit talent. And companies like ratings firm Nielsen are following suit by launching online forums designed to maintain long-term connections with former employees. Such efforts can also help encourage alumni to come back, bringing new experience and clients with them.

Ultimately, it was the understanding that the breakup didn’t have to be total that helped me come to terms with my decision. Two months after leaving my job, I attended a party thrown by my old company. As with any run-in with an old flame, I worried it would be awkward. Instead, I got a huge hug from my former CEO and danced alongside my old friends. I felt happy and welcome, but free of any residual sadness. I knew I’d made the right choice—and a few days later, I started a new job. I was ready to move on.