I’m anxious about leaving my bad job for a better one

This was originally published on August 7, 2012.

A reader writes:

I don’t know if this is normal or not, but I’m having some workplace separation anxiety! Here’s the situation: I have been desperate to leave my job for some time now. I haven’t been happy here, I’m always frustrated, I disagree with the structure (or lack thereof) and my bosses’ ethics. Yesterday I went on my second interview for a new job within a huge company, and its going well. It is a great opportunity, especially since I’m working toward my MBA. I’m very excited.

And very scared.

I’ve been at my current job for nearly a decade. I love my small group of coworkers, and value my relationships with them. I have this desk that I sit at every day and business cards with my name on them. I have customers that I enjoy talking to and have built relationships with. I get to wear jeans and t-shirts everyday. I have a lot of freedoms here.

But, I’ve been unhappy for a reason, right? I don’t feel like I’m going to get anywhere further than where I already am — we haven’t had raises in years and hours often get cut when we’re slow. Oh and my boss … he’s a peice of work. He micromanages everyone. He lies about what he’s doing. We never know when and if he’ll show up for work. He has been caught extorting money from the company. His personal relationships are toxic and he allows them to influence how he runs the company. He makes poor financial decisions and is beyond disrespectful to his partner and his employees.

So why do I feel so attached to this place and why am I suddenly reluctant to leave? When I started to get my act together to look for jobs, it changed my attitude here. I became more positive and I became a lot nicer to my coworkers than I have in a long time. I began to appreciate them more, particularly because we are all in the same boat. But I don’t want that to be my reason for staying here when I should be leaving. I have a golden opportunity to move into a position with guaranteed room for advancement, education assistance, a stellar benefits package, and documented stability. It would be a big gold star on my resume. And most likely I’d leave behind the emotional rollercoaster of my current position, and the harbored resentment toward my boss.

It’s a no brainer, right? So why do I feel so torn? Is this normal?!

It’s so, so normal.

I don’t think I’ve ever left a job without feeling at least a little sad, even when I was dying to leave and knew the place was really dysfunctional. It’s hard to leave somewhere where you have a lot of history. As bad as a job might be, there are still usually some things that you like or at least feel really comfortable with — even if it’s just the physical space you work in or your routine of getting a coffee and and a cookie from the deli downstairs every afternoon.

Plus, leaving the familiar and going somewhere new can be hard — it’s the unknown, you don’t have a routine there, and it can be daunting.

There are people who leave jobs with nothing but glee, but I think for people who really care about their work, there’s usually at least some anxiety and missing-it-before-you-leave.

(The good news is that it usually goes away within hours or days after you actually make the break and leave.)

The key is just not to let it get in the way of your making good decisions for yourself. It sounds like you have plenty of reasons to leave, and you know that. Don’t let comfort and familiarity loom so large in your mind that they prevent you from moving forward.

By the way, I think you nailed a really common phenomenon when you described how your attitude changed once you started to seriously look for another job. When you stop feeling stuck and start realizing you have options, you start feeling more in control of the situation, which in turn will improve your attitude. You don’t even have to be looking for another job for this to happen; it can happen just from realizing that you’re choosing to be in your job for the time being (because you prefer it to the alternatives, because you value the short commute or the money, or whatever your reason might be). Feeling that you’ve made a deliberate choice after weighing all your options, and that you’re not simply stuck, is generally pretty good for your state of mind.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Betsy

    I think those of us who are prone to imposter syndrome are hit particularly hard by this. For a little ways into every job, I’m feeling like I’ll never figure everything out, and any day they’ll realize their mistake and fire me. When I’ve been in a job for years, and I KNOW I’m good at it, a jump into uncertainty is nerve-wracking.

    1. Sasha LeTour

      You hit the nail on the head.

      I don’t know if it’s my past, my thought process, my upbringing, or just how I am generally. But whenever I’ve left a job, it’s always been with a deep sense of regret, like “I know I could’ve fixed things here if I’d really tried.” Not only has that been untrue in most circumstances, but it is also unhealthy, as I forced myself to shoulder the blame for workplace toxicity that was generated many levels above me, and which I did not have the authority or tool set to fix.

      For example, I was a creative director at a mid-sized NYC ad agency for many years, and while I loved the job at first, it consumed, and then, nearly ruined my entire life as the years went by. My boss had a habit of not acknowledging what I was doing for the company while expecting me to do more and more, faster and faster. I guess this was his way of “rewarding” high performers, but despite bringing in over half the revenue for the Digital Creative dept. by the end of my tenure there, I was also billing 70-80 hours a week, working through every holiday and vacation with no comp time or even a ‘thank you,’ and was making 40% less than other CDs in my market.

      Despite that, I felt like crap when I finally resigned, and was also plagued by deep twinges of anxiety. I felt I would never get a better job, and I believed it, too. Now, I am a manager at one of the world’s largest/most respected agencies, but if you’d asked me several years ago, I’d have estimated that I would not even be in this profession any longer.

    2. Steve

      You just gave a name to something I’m prone to, and I had no idea other people experienced this. I have had imposter syndrome most of my work life thus far.

  2. Colorado

    Excellent advice as usual Alison! I especially like “Don’t let comfort and familiarity loom so large in your mind that they prevent you from moving forward”. Go for it! I guarantee when you walk out that door, you will feel relief you haven’t felt in 10 years. It’s like being in a dysfunctional relationship. You don’t realize how bad it was and made you feel until you’re on the other side. Good luck!

    1. manybellsdown

      Yes! Change is scary, even when you actively go looking for it.

      Mr. Bells was in a similar job situation a couple years ago; 12 years at a company and being their most senior employee (he’d been there longer than one of the partners!) had made him the scapegoat for anything that went wrong.

      On a whim he sent his resume to a company in another state where some former co-workers had gone. They *pounced* on him. It’s been such a nice change to see him in an environment where he’s valued and complimented and respected. And worth uprooting everything to do it, since he makes easily 3 times what I do, when I’m working.

    2. KTM

      I was coming here to say the same thing! It sounds exactly like the feeling you get when you are considering getting out of a relationship. You start reflecting on all the good things and think how difficult it will be to start with someone new. You start being nicer to the person because you know it’s coming. Even if you recognize you’re not in a good relationship, you still have history with that person and there is still some level of comfort and familiarity.

      BUT, you started job searching/considering leaving someone for a reason… you will hopefully end up looking back and thinking how did I stay for so long? Good luck!

  3. Stephanie

    Just remember what convinced you to send out resumes or what’s appealing about the new job. Remembering something like “Oh, there’s zero room for growth in CurrentJob” or “PossibleJob offers tuition benefits” quickly erased doubts I had when job searching.

  4. Darcie

    Thank you for this question! I have been thinking very much about this lately. Good luck with your move, OP!

    1. Twentymilehike

      Thanks! And thanks Alison for reporting this! I was the OP for this eons ago, and the actual job in question didn’t work out, but a year later, after reading lots and lots of AAM, and focusing on my professional and personal growth, I landed an even better job at the same company with an amazing new boss.

      Granted, I still really miss some things about my old job, but the pay off was worth it and I knew it was what I needed to do. I finally feel like my career is going somewhere!

      For anyone else feeling this way, Alison’s advice is so, so relevant. Do what’s best for YOU. When the right opportunity arises it just feels like all the stars align :)

    1. Rebecca

      Exactly. I miss this. I suspect I could perfect cold fusion, and be told, well, there are other tasks to accomplish, what about those?

        1. Lili

          Grrr, that sounds familiar…

          Living a workplace is somehow like going through a divorce.
          It takes time to be over it and move on.

  5. Rebecca

    When I left my first job, I had these same feelings, but I’m so glad I left. I had 8 wonderful years before Job#2 was gobbled up by BigCompany, and now I’m back to the same situation that made me leave Job#1.

    I am confident I’ll be able to find Job#4 and look forward to going to work each day.

  6. Seal

    AAM is exactly right about this being normal. I stuck with my first job out of college for almost 13 years. The first few years were fine, but due to a combination of factors things went further and further downhill. Between the boredom of a dead-end job and the near-constant bullying from my coworkers I was miserable all the time. Yet when I finally pulled myself together and quit (without another job lined up, no less – things were that bad) I cried all the way out to my car. These were not tears of joy, but rather of regret for leaving and fear of not knowing what was coming next. But once I got home and realized I would never have to deal with that place or those people ever again, all of my regrets went away. I was lucky enough to be able to take the next few months off entirely, then temp for a few months before I found the job that started me on an entirely new career path. So don’t let your fears and regrets keep you from moving on when the time comes – you may miss out on the best thing that ever happened to you.

  7. anon in tejas

    change is scary, because the unknown is scary.

    I had the same feelings when I left my last job. I had grown out of the position and made clear that I wanted more responsibility/step up. They treated me rather poorly in some regards.

    But when I left, it was really tough. I was only there for 5 years, but it was really difficult to put away the known (good and bad) for the unknown.

    Even as I transitioned (the first few months at the new job), I occasionally had thoughts that I made the wrong decision. But I remembered that I left for several reasons, and a new position with new responsibilities is challenging, and to embrace and conquer the challenge. So, please don’t be too worried if you feel this way for a few months. Or at least know that you’re not alone.

    It’s been two years since I changed jobs. I am not 100% happy/satisfied in my current work. But I’ve grown leaps and bounds since leaving my former employer. I also have a lot lot lot less stress.

  8. Sunflower

    We have this very weird phenomenon at my company. Everyone moans and bithes about the company all day and then when someone leaves, they’re all shocked and act like they didn’t know jobs exist outside of this place and they just can’t believe it. It’s a very small company and if someone leaves, people talk about it for days.

    I think it’s also because you build sort of an alliance with coworkers about the company and it feels like you’re kind of leaving them behind and you wish you could take them out of the hell hole with you. Starting a new job, no matter how exciting, is also scary and you’re leaving behind the familiar and going into a place that you’ve never been before.

    I can only hope I am never plagued with a boss who takes resignations personally. I really don’t know how I would handle that

    1. The Real Ash

      they’re all shocked and act like they didn’t know jobs exist outside of this place

      That reminds me of an episode of Dilbert where Wally finds out that engineers are actually wanted by other companies and he would be treated better if he left the company he was at.

  9. Anon for this one

    Thank you so much for posting this. The timing is impeccable. I am starting to search for a new job after being at the same place for 5 years – a small, family-owned company. After not progressing much and feeling mistreated, it’s time to leave. But, it’ll be a sad day when I do!

  10. BB

    Between high school and college, I’ve quit 4 jobs and every single time, its been almost panic inducing- and only one of them was a professional job. The rest were part-time, summer money making jobs.

    I still miss my waitressing job a lot. I loved all my coworkers and the flexibility but I know I’d be miserable if I was still there. It’s okay to feel mixed emotions but it’s important to not let them get in the way of doing what you know is the right choice for you.

  11. lachevious

    “When you stop feeling stuck and start realizing you have options, you start feeling more in control of the situation, which in turn will improve your attitude.”

    YES THIS! Not realizing this very thing has kept me in more bad jobs/situations than I care to remember! There may be no such thing as a “dream job”, but there is something to be said about being in a place where you feel valued, needed, and productive. Finding *that* place should be the priority.

    1. Erioperi

      I thought the same thing when I read this letter… That episode of HIMYM resonated with me a lot when I was thinking of leaving my job!

    2. Lynn

      I was going to bring this up, too, but thought I’d search the comments for “Graduation Goggles” first… glad I did. Also, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought of this. It’s definitely graduation goggle syndrome.

  12. Totally Normal Person

    Been there, and yes, this is totally normal. I suggest you Google “Stockholm syndrome” and read up on the topic a little. Think about how it might apply to your situation. Doing this gave me a little perspective on why I was struggling with some feelings of reluctance when getting ready to leave the employ of one of the most horrible people I’ve ever known.

    1. Windchime

      Yes, this. I was also thinking of Stockholm Syndrome when I was reading this. You start to build a loyalty and an alliance to your workplace, even when it’s terribly dysfunctional. I was that way, too. And I was sorry to be leaving my coworkers and a job that was good to me in many ways. But now that I’m working at a place with excellent management and a much better culture, I’m amazingly happy to be out of the other place.

  13. Also anon for this one, sorry AAM

    I love this post – I feel so similar right now except I haven’t actually taken the plunge of applying. I’ve identified what I’m unhappy with and my job, I’ve spoken to my manager about many things over the course of a few months, and I haven’t had any indication things will get better here. The only reason I’m still sticking it out is because I haven’t been here even two years yet, and I was at my last 2 jobs for 2 years each, and I’m worried about my track record of longevity, although I am still young-ish (under 30) so maybe that helps. I just can’t figure out if I should leave. Your post has given me some things to think about. Thank you!

    1. Jennifer

      I second this too. There are things I like about where I work and I don’t want to leave, except the bad things are making me feel like the world’s worst human being a lot. There is just so much nitpicking going on that it feels like you can never do anything right, or right enough. And I don’t want to have to leave the org I work at because I like it–but I can’t find any jobs here I qualify for, so I’d have to leave elsewhere for some other town and I’m not super psyched to do that at all, or to have a driving commute. Plus I have whopping benefits and conveniences here that I probably won’t have elsewhere, and don’t want to lose. I feel like it’s easier to just put up with the unhappy than to go somewhere else that has other unknown stressors.

  14. KC

    This is so, SO normal, especially if you’ve got people or clients who you’ll really miss.

    Every job I’ve parted ways with included misty eyes and sorrow for the place and people I was leaving. This was true in spite of how unhappy I’d been or how dysfunctional aspects of it had been.

    And every new job I’ve started has involved a sense of dread, as you’re never going to be completely sure what you’ll be walking into. And if you were a rock star where you were, you’ll be starting over with a new reputation–and that’s scary!

    All of the crazy emotions are also a reasonable trade-off for being able to be happy and engaged in your work–you’re worth it!

  15. HistoryChick

    Wow, this one really hit home. I am going through the exact…and I mean EXACT same thing right now. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone and normal!!! :-)

  16. MissDisplaced

    I also recommend taking a nice vacation and some time off before you start your new job if you can. Take the time to clear your head so you can start from a fresh perspective.

    Best of luck!

  17. FRRibs

    If the current employer is large, has high turnover, or both, have you spoken with any alumni? It may be a boost to your spirits to speak with people who are happy with their choice.

  18. K

    I’m trying to leave my current job, which is certainly not a good one, and I feel the same way as the LW. Thank you for posting this letter again.

  19. Eve

    Totally identify with this. In fact, I just went through this myself, and have now been at my new job 2 months. What. A. Difference! I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing either in leaving my old job, but I kept reminding myself of the things I wasn’t able to change at the old job, and how the only thing left to change was…me. I stuck it out for 16 long and difficult months, and finally realized it was exactly like a bad marriage. And that it was okay to want to be happy in my work. On a whim, I applied for the same job in a field I’d long had an interest in, and on the way home from the second interview ( literally minutes after I’d left the building) I received a voice mail message offering me the job with everything I’d wanted. I’ve been amazingly happy since. It’s a much better fit, and I am so grateful I dredged up the courage to take a chance. One thing that had me worried for a long time was my age: I’m in my late 50s. The ad I responded to stated they were looking for ‘seasoned’ workers, and so I took that to mean older and experienced. Sure enough, that’s what it meant. They remembered I’d interviewed there 2 years before, but ultimately they hired internally for that position. We all feel *this* is the position I was meant to be in. I’ve read AAM for a long time, and have learned so much; I have changed my interview style, my resume, my cover letters, my attitude about working–everything. It’s made me a happier person and a much more confident employee.Thanks for everything–I will continue to read and learn.

  20. Katriona

    I’ve felt this way about every job I’ve ever left, even though they’ve all been relatively terrible (part-time, mostly retail) . I just put in my notice last week at my weekend job, which doesn’t even pay me enough to fill my gas tank, and I *still* had to spend weeks talking myself into quitting–and I’ve already got another career-track job, so it definitely wasn’t fear of the unknown.

    OP, I hope you’re taking as much comfort as I am from the fact that so many other people go through this. I always thought I was weird for worrying myself sick over leaving jobs I didn’t even like, but the graduation goggles concept posted above makes a lot of sense.

  21. Sandrine (France)

    I feel this way right now. I’m burnt out. Call center work is NOT made for me, but for some reason, I’m darn good at it.

    I’ve been in it for about two years and a half, and I’ve been miserable for two of them. Compliments ? Oh, I get them. Respect ? Yeah, most of the time. Rewards ? Well, it took one year and a half for the bonus system to change so I could get rewarded for the quality of my work. That helped… a little bit.

    Now, I’m lucky that my boss has implemented something about three weeks ago: he partnered me with a newer employee to mentor me to help with some aspects of my performance (I do quality, they need quantity, so by improving some of my thought processes I can improve on all of that) . It’s funny because *I* mentored the guy when he got hired, and I’m proud of where he is now.

    I’ve wanted to quit for about two years now. A coworker did ten days ago… sort of. He was SO burnt out that one day he started hanging up on people when he felt like it, and he did it deliberately so he could get fired. The situation was so bad they decided to pay him for his two months notice… but he was allowed not to come in. They knew he didn’t do it because he was a slacker, but because sometimes the work gets to you.

    I won’t do this. I promised my boss. The current plan we’re on is helping with my mood and everything else, but I still have my eyes on other things. So now and then, I look at job postings, polish my resume, and try to improve my cover letters. My boss is looking to transfer me to a “get the hell away from the darn headset” department, and it’s not easy… but this is also some other hope.

    I’ve become a sort of robot. I go in, lament a bit, then joke with coworkers, take my calls, end the day, lament a bit then joke with my coworkers, have a drink with a friend and head home.

    I feel sad as heck most of the time, but thankfully, I’m hanging on so far. I’m scared of the future cause I know this job. But, in part thanks to AAM, I’ve learnt how to be responsible about all that stuff, so I’ll be miserable for a little bit if I have to, as long as I can pay the rent and feed the cats.

    Sorry it got so long… sometimes I just need to say things xD

    (feel free to kick my behind if this is too off topic or too rambly. Me and words… ha… )

  22. EvilQueenRegina

    Yes, I’ve been there! In my case it was slightly different in that I wasn’t actively looking to move at the time but was moved to another team in a restructure, but there had been moments when I had considered it.

    I’d had very mixed feelings about it in the first few weeks but my actual last day was very difficult in Old Job saying goodbye to all those I’d considered friends (it didn’t help that my move had ended up being faster than I’d thought but that is another story).

    At the time I was leaving, I knew that someone else at Old Job had an application in somewhere else, and I spent my first couple of days at New Job thinking that if she got the new job I’d go for the post she was leaving behind at Old Job. In the end, I found out she was leaving about two weeks into New Job, and by that time I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for it. I realised I’d been looking at Old Job through rose tinted glasses, and there had been genuine reasons why I’d considered leaving in the past (although in fairness, some of this had been about two particular situations that wouldn’t have applied if I did go back).

    There were lots of arguments for and against going back, and in the end I said to myself “Taking everyone else out of the equation, what do you want to do?” And I realised that since my gut reaction hadn’t been to apply for Old Job again, I was better staying where I was.

  23. Accountant

    One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten when it comes to this sort of situation is this:

    Don’t mistake nostalgia for regret.

    It sounds so simple, but I think it’s very profound. It’s normal to start feeling nostalgic when you’re about to make a change, but that doesn’t mean a change is a cause for regret.

    1. Laura

      I am making a note of this too – It can actually apply to lots of situations, even non-professional ones.

  24. ZoeUK

    I started a new job in January after four and a half years at an incredibly toxic workplace. I was delighted to leave my old job and practically skipped out of the building on my last day. However, the first 4-6 weeks in my new job were really hard. I had been so concentrated on how great it was to leave my old job that I’d forgotten how stressful it can be to be the new person and have to learn a new job, new building, new ways of doing things and meet loads of new people all at once. I regularly cried on the way home from work and wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. And then felt annoyed with myself because my old workplace was horrible and I couldn’t wait to leave!

    I’m now four months in and I feel a lot better. There are still some things I’m getting used to (but in a good way – not being micromanaged, yay!) and I’ve had to keep reading the AAM posts about not taking your baggage from a toxic workplace into your new one. But everything considered, my new workplace is a great fit for me and I wish I’d made the move years ago.

    What you are feeling is totally normal. Good luck in your new job!

  25. Laura

    This happened to me just two months ago when I announced I was leaving Oldjob. I was fairly desperate to get out of there because it was very dysfunctional, and stressful to the point of impacting my physical health. Once I started looking for jobs, I felt better about being there *for the interim*. Once I announced my departure, I actually felt a bit uncomfortable and wondered if I was doing the right thing by leaving my comfort zone!

    However, now that I’m at a new place I love, I don’t regret leaving one bit. My quality of life has improved greatly, and I realize the momentary doubt and discomfort was so worth it!

    1. Laura

      I should like to add that, like other commenters, reading AAM helped give me the confidence to go out and look for other jobs. With a more polished resume, a great cover letter, and sharpened interview skills, I felt like a good candidate. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was one. Thanks AAM :)

  26. Jayhawker

    Another one where this is right on the money. I’ve been at my current position for 3 years now and it feels like an annual ordeal when I get fed up and send out a bunch of resumes. Then I get interviews and talk with other managers and find out that I still have it way better than many others and other companies are out there if I do decide to leave. Then I get happier and content…. until the next snafu. The time dwell seems to be shortening between snafus though… so we’ll see.

  27. claire

    Same boat. Work is fine, customers not baf but boss an alcoholic and wife (who works there) is a lying enabling drama queen. Her kids work there and get all the raises. Been here 15 years with one raise. Scared to leave because it is a steady paycheck AND because I feel like he will make my life miserable. It is a small family owned business and my family knows his family. I can’t stay though I’m done with yelling and panic attacks. What do I do to leave without feel of ruining my reputation? Every important connection in my life thinks he is great not realizing how fake he is.

  28. Pat

    Similar boat with variations. Job1 has a manipulative maniac working here-she is a nightmare, but she is tenured and a union member and no one can stop her. Job2 calls and offers me a job, which will get me away from the maniac coworker but it will cost me some money and some vacation time. (I worked at Job2 before and am well respected. But I am also well respected at Job1 minus the nut case. So I think my happiness is most important, and I take job 2 and resign job 1. Only Job 1 boss counters with a raise (so now the gap is larger between the jobs, 10K and 8 additional days off per year, and Job 1 boss is wonderful about me leaving, respectful courteous but acknowledges he can’t stop the maniac in the office. He would rather I stay. Good boss at both jobs, great benefits at Job1 and good benefits at Job2. Still at a point that I could retract my acceptance of Job2, feeling full of self doubt. And I absolutely suffer from Imposter syndrome and am having serious second guessing of myself and anxiety. HELP!!?? Please! Should I stay or go?

  29. Alex

    Thanks so much AAM. Right now I don’t feel nearly as scared/ anxious / sad as I did before I read this and all the comments below. WOOHOO. I’ve been working in a healthcare organisation for ten years and truly loved the first eight! But we’ve had unbelievable challenges for three years and I have not been getting the support I need for the last two! Responsible for a key internal service for over 3000 staff made me feel very personally accountable, but without the resources or support from above, this lead to not being able to provide a fit-for-purpose service, which in turn has lead to much criticism from below, even with the odd ‘you’re doing really well’ from above. I’ve just landed a great new job which is the next step in my career, but since handing in my resignation yesterday I’ve felt down and out, sad and anxious. Now I understand why and that I’m not alone, also I’m really confident that all these negative feelings should leave me soon after I move onto my new job. I’ll come back and post an update about these emotional feelings as things progress over the next couple of months when I start my new job, and I hope my experience will help others and boost confidence during this changing period!

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