4 Ways to Work Through Guilt About Leaving a Role — According to a Career Strategist

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Lee Koles166
Founder, Career Strategist at CareerSequel
June 16, 2024 at 5:54AM UTC

You did it!

After searching and strategizing, you landed a job that will take you to the next level of your career. You’re elated! …for a while. Then the guilt begins to seep in, clouding your once-excited mind with questions:

"Is my career move selfish?"

"Will my manager be angry?" 

"Will my coworkers feel blindsided?"

"How will my company get by without me?"

There’s nothing like guilt to zap the thrill that should accompany your next career move. Here are 4 ways to work through it so you can happily anticipate your next job:

1. Thank your brain.

“Guilt is also a way to express to others that we are a person of good conscience.” - Tom Hodgkinson, The Freedom Manifesto

Feeling guilty? Your brain is just trying to do its job. Humans are social creatures that need to work together - connecting, cooperating, and belonging in order to survive. Our brains are hard-wired with a “guilt system” that sounds an internal alarm when we consider acting in a way that could threaten or hinder others. It encourages us to stop or adjust our behavior to be more socially acceptable. 

Research involving Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) reveals that guilty thoughts activate specific areas of our brains. The logical-thinking prefrontal cortex assesses the situation and communicates with the limbic system, our emotion-regulating network. In the context of quitting a job, the prefrontal cortex considers the social ramifications of that decision, triggering an emotional response of stress, worry, and fear in the limbic system. 

What this means is that the emotions you’re feeling are perfectly normal; they serve an evolutionary purpose to perpetuate our species.

2. Have your own back.

“The moment you start to wonder if you deserve better, you do.” 

You are responsible for your career trajectory. Guilt shifts the focus away from personal goals and aspirations, to how a decision affects others. News flash: if you’ve been a dedicated employee (investing enough personal capital in a company to feel guilt about leaving), your manager and coworkers will be disappointed by the news of your resignation. This isn't a reason, however, to put your dreams on hold and stay.

If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one will. Your coworkers will happily keep you around for your expertise and friendship. Your manager will maintain the status quo. Leaving your position for a new opportunity isn’t a selfish act. It’s not personal. 

Ask yourself: Who would I be if I gave up my ambitions and stayed? What do my coworkers ultimately want for me? Those who care about you will wish you success, happiness, and fulfillment. How would they feel if they kept you from that? Your coworkers will understand that you must move on. They will be fine. What’s important is that you’re able to take on your next chapter.

3. Give the gift of change.

“Comfortable shoes and the freedom to leave are the two most important things in life.” -Shel Silverstein

You aren’t the only one making a career change. Each month of 2022 has seen over 4 million Americans quit their jobs. At this rate, 2022 will see over 50 million resignations- that’s an approximate 20 million increase since the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. 

With change comes innovation. Are you worried that your company can’t function without you? If so, this could be a sign of poor infrastructure; your willingness to work overtime or take on a taxing workload may have prevented the company from adopting sustainable practices and systems. 

Quitting can be the stimulant for change that the organization has been delaying. Leaving your job allows someone who is excited about the position to step in and take over. Change can be the gift of opportunity for all constituents. 

4. Embrace this milestone. 

“There’s no extra credit for staying longer in a situation you’ve outgrown.” -Kristin Graham

Growing up we have markers for our milestones: We progress from Kindergarten through grade school. We finish middle school and move on to high school. Graduation ceremonies mark the end of high school and college. The completion of each stage is often accompanied by a blend of excitement, anticipation, and nostalgic sadness.

Professionals are expected to grow, develop, and “graduate” too. You can leave a job, knowing that your time in that role has come to a close. Completing a job can be done while honoring the place you’ve been and appreciating those with whom you’ve shared a collective experience. 

Quit your job with grace, pride, and thankfulness for all it has given you. Stay tuned for what happens next!

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This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Dr. Lee Koles is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Career Strategist, and the founder of CareerSequel, where she helps professionals leverage their strengths to level up their careers. She is the host of the CareerSequel podcast. Connect with Dr. Koles on LinkedIn or apply to speak with her directly at https://www.careersequel.com.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for working through guilt about leaving a role? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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