dr.K's tiips

When Should You Stop Trying? The “Hunger Artist” Syndrome

Frequently, people reveal to me that they invest their lives in what has become a hopeless pursuit. Laboring over doomed initiative, despairing to repair badly broken relationship, undoing what cannot be undone – the possibilities for futile pursuits are endless. I have often wondered what is the underpinning of this behavior. After all, as we all know, letting go is sometimes the best remedy for unsuccessful efforts. In deciding whether to continue or stop a particular endeavor, we struggle with a host of competing forces. We often feel that we have to choose between two options: either stubborn persistence, or premature surrender. Either one does not make sense. Continuing to fight to the bitter end or giving up without trying are both depleting and distressing.

We tend to glorify perseverance in face of the intractable; those who “never give up” are perceived as heroic. Conversely, those who stop trying too soon are scorned as “failures”. Therefore, the communal pressure is to continue and try even when a recalcitrant issue becomes clearly hopeless. It makes us feel heroic for not giving up.

So many of us have thrown away precious pieces of our lives, struggling with the unyielding.

As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that one of my duties is to help my patient decide when to stop trying. This process is compounded by the dependency on the person’s perception and account. One of my methods is to look beyond the “good reasons” – i.e. the person’s subjective and often self-deceptive point of view, to uncover the “real reasons” – i.e. the complex, and more objective factors that produce the issue. In deciding when to stop trying, we should consider: 

  1. What delineates between the difficult and the hopeless?
  2. What is the difference between strategic retreat and a failure?
  3. What makes one kind of effort necessary and another superfluous?

Those questions are at the core of much anguish over a fruitless struggle.

Naturally, It feels wrong to quit something you have invested so much into; there seems to be no right or “good” timing to actually stop trying. How would you know if all this effort was in vain? Try this: juxtapose the time you have spent so far with the tangible and real results. The math is not straightforward but still possible. In other words do not think about the future – it is always elusive and uncertain. Look at the past. Look at your investment and the yield. Often this simple exercise results in a startling awakening; could it be that so much of your life, time and energy, has been invested with such disappointing results? I often think of the cartoon character that in haste continues in thin air after having overrun the cliff: Only when the character looks down, realizing its predicament, does it plummet. This zany cartoon logic is actually quite prevalent. Many continue to run on thin air not daring to look at the reality lest they drop.

Of course some struggles can never be designated useless. Such is the struggle of parents for their children. Parents cannot give up – we are conditioned by our genes to forgive our children and continue to support them. Sometimes, as in the case of drug or alcohol abuse, the struggle may yield no results other than the notion that the parent has been trying anything they can. This notion in itself is worth the struggle and provides the parents with unending energy. Another case is of those who dedicate their life to some pursuit larger than themselves: people who struggle politically, ideologically, etc. In these instances, the struggle is in itself the goal and as such cannot be deemed hopeless. But thankfully, most of us do not need to sacrifice our life for a sick child or a particular ideology. Our life’s “ordinary” futile struggles occur in the two Freudian spheres: Love and work.

Ask yourself:

Does your romantic partner merit the inordinate energy you spend hoping to be happy in your relationship one day?

Should you spend a large amount of your only life trying to succeed in a career you are obviously not happy with?

Let’s sharpen the focus: here you are, in charge of your only life! Even if you believe in reincarnation this is the only life you have as yourself. And yet, you throw away chunks of your precious life- days, months and years – on something or someone that is depleting your sense of well being, causing you pain and seems immutable.

What could be the reasons to this unhelpful behavior?

Here are some possible reasons:

  1. You do not like yourself and secretly feel that you deserve this life of punishment.
  2. You are an incorrigible optimist and hope against hope that your efforts would somehow succeed eventually.
  3. You do not see/realize the futility of your efforts.
  4. You believe, ideologically, culturally, philosophically in suffering.
  5. You believe in efforts for the sake of efforts.
  6. For you – trying harder, irrespective of the results, is satisfying in and off itself.
  7. You have extraneous reasons beyond your control: family ties, all kinds of debt, a deep sense of duty etc.
  8. You feel ideologically beholden to promoting sacrifice for the others over your own needs. You put your needs last.
  9. You believe that your life should be a life of service no matter in what context. (And perhaps in extreme, you have unconscious masochistic tendencies)
  10. You enjoy being a martyr, feeling sorry for yourself and/or receiving pity from others.
  11. It gives you something/someone other than yourself to blame for your unhappiness.

I am sure that there are more reasons, but usually it is a mix of many of the above.

My work has taught me that we are largely irrational beings. Our logical presentation to ourselves and to the world around us is merely the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The complex “you”, in all trillions upon trillions of cellular activities, is silently happening below the surface, ever present but not conscious. If you had to consciously operate even a trillionth of your cellular activity, you would not have survived even a split second. But the subconscious activity is not on “auto-pilot”. In fact often the conscious “you” is more likely to be operating on automatic predictability. The cellular activity, the unfathomable iceberg, is constantly piloted – fine-tuned by our nervous system and by the cells themselves. In the setting of this astonishing, wondrous machinery given to us at birth, we are like a goat trying to operate a space shuttle. Not only are we unhelpful: we are often an outright interference to our harmony and equilibrium. We consume and inhale manmade toxins, rest too little, worry and stress too much over petty issues, get enraged by the soon to be forgettable, etc. Luckily, our body’s resilience has the power to repair, at least to an extent.

But our body rightfully does not trust us. It lets us focus only on very narrow band of attention. And for nature at large, what we do with ourselves does not really matter.

Once our expiration date arrives, our body disintegrates to the basic building blocks, our molecules, which then get recycled into another cellular collection. But you, you are never going to be replicated. Not even one second of your life can be retrieved, repeated or lived again.

This is the question I ask myself every day: Does my life, my only life, my one time existence as myself, make sense to me?

I suggest you ask yourself the same question. Don’t be scared; you are not a cartoon character, you are not running on thin air, and looking down would not make you fall into the abyss. You have enough defense mechanisms that would soften the blow of the answer. You will be able to ask yourself these follow-up questions:

If something in my life does not make sense, what is it?

What is the price I pay for not examining this question?

What can I do to change what doesn’t make sense?

How can I live with the change?

Admittedly, this line of questioning is better off done at the therapist’s office. Why? Because the therapist can help you stay honest, and not let you disappear into another layer of myth and self lies that “ helped” you sustain the unnecessary suffering. We have little courage to face ourselves alone. And a good therapist is the right companion and guide for this particular journey.

There you are, holding the steering wheel of your life in your hands, looking into the future with a mixture of excitement and fear. At long last you are navigating your life in a trajectory that minimizes the negative and maximizes the positive. That simple and obvious concept always turns out to be better than what you thought of as “the only way”.

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