Notes on Staying

Written by Jennifer Griggs

Every spring, a pair of mallards appears on a small stream we pass during our morning walk. For a week or so, they fly away when we pass by, their wings lifting them up and out of the water and carrying them over the nearby field. After some days, however, they stay put. This behavior change is referred to as habituation. (Animal behavior class in college.)

The evolutionary purpose of habituation is to help the mallards, and anyone who habituates, save energy. Birds spend a great deal of their day searching for energy. If they were to exert themselves every time we walk by, some of (much of) their hard-earned energy would be wasted. As they learn about the stimulus (strangers walking by), they learn that we are not going to hurt them and, inasmuch as a duck can make a decision, they decide to stay.

(You may wonder why I’m not talking about the frog-in-a-boiling-pot story because, if that were true, it would be apt. Turns out that this often told story, a useful analogy for all sorts of situations, is not actually true. A frog will jump out of a pot of gradually heating up water as soon as it gets too warm for comfort.)

Why we stay. Whether it’s an unhealthy personal relationship, a workplace, an organization, or a community, many of us stay longer than may be healthy. We become accustomed to the milieu, the air, the sounds, the way we feel, the people walking by, the way we’re treated, the unhealthy culture, the misuse of power, the sarcasm, the belittling comments. We need our time and energy just to preserve what little we have. 

Why I stayed. I stayed because I didn’t have the energy to think about what was actually happening to me. I was drowning in work and self-doubt…the feeling that it was my fault I was struggling. And yes, there were things I could have done differently to be sure. But things were being taken away from me. I felt alone. I lost agency. I lost the ability to advocate for myself. I lost my voice and belief that I was of value. I believed that I deserved less. As I write this, it occurs to me that what I didn’t have was the imagination to envision a different way of being and living. 

Taking time to step back and reflect on what we’re feeling, to ask ourselves, “Is this a good place to be?” is hard when we can barely breathe.

So what to do?

We are marinated in the way things are and have a difficult time seeing how things could be or should be. We can feel trapped, believing that no one else would want us, that we have no choice but to stay. We may not have the hope that we can find something better. Or we may not realize that being on our own is better than being in a place of harm. For some people, leaving actually puts them in greater danger

Notes on leaving. When things get bad enough or when someone else we love is affected, when the energy of staying is greater than the energy of leaving, we can take flight. We tap into imagination of what could be, we find the support to pull up whatever roots we have, we believe that the great unknown holds something brighter and more colorful than where we are. We believe that we are made for something different. 

What about you? Have you found yourself unable to leave? What helped you leave–a relationship, a workplace, an organization? If you find yourself in a situation that stifles you, what would help you leave? Who can help you leave? There are so many people who care about you and want you to thrive. What one step can you take today?


Image Credit Rachel Fang on Upsplash