Quiet quitting: a problem or a survival mechanism?

There has been a lot of talk about the quite quitting recently. It is an intriguing phenomenon and the level of attention it gets deserves at least an attempt at an explanation. It apparently concerns so many of us. There are probably multiple angles one can justifiably take on the issue: sociological, economical, historical, anthropological, technological or others. I will offer only one angle on quiet quitting and that will be predominantly psychological.

While there can be number of factors that make quiet quitting a distinct phenomenon, possible to research for example in working environment, I am taking a more general view here. By quiet quitting I understand the feeling of exhaustion in an overly competitive society. This is present in today’s China as well as in the United States or Europe.

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This may seem like a generalisation of a phenomena that has been commonly described in relation to work environment, however I do so because I believe it affects not only our work life but also our personal lives. One can wonder, for instance, to what extent women (or men for that matter) today feel under pressure to be “a perfect mother” and whether what we denote as quiet quitting does not or will not soon apply in that realm as well.

It seems to me, and data support it, that stress is a prevalent disease of the modern times. Quiet quitting is a solution to this stress when it reaches the level where we are no longer able to conform to the ideal that is put in front of us. It is therefore, in essence, a survival mechanism.

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One can of course question why our resources are so scarce that we need to quietly quit, while others in a similar situation are seemingly able to respond proactively to the demands that the environment puts on them.

Comparing ourselves with others and seeing that there are those who make it while we do not, without having a plausible explanation for it, makes us suspect that we are lazy, generally less worthy than others, or less lucky in talents we have been given, depending on interpretation. But we need an explanation for the situation when we quietly quit. Either we attribute the fault to ourselves (“I am not good enough”) or we attribute it to the environment (“They don’t know how to use my talents and skills”). Either way, we feel disconnected from our environment and we feel we do not fit.

If I feel I am not good enough, this alone may suffice for some years to keep me motivated to become better and keep trying. Eventually however, I realise the futility of the exercise and the exhaustion comes. I find myself in the place where I started – feeling not good enough and looking for external affirmation, only with the added experience that trying to meet or exceed expectations is futile. I therefore resort to passivity. It will not deliver affirmation I am looking for, but I will at least survive.

If I put the blame on the environment, I put myself in a position of a victim, who is powerless to do anything about it. It equally leads to passivity.

Quiet quitting is therefore a symptom of a defective strategy to satisfy underlying need for affirmation or security. It is not the problem, it is the symptom. The problem only becomes visible, after we are no longer able to continue investing into a defective strategy believing it can work. It comes with a crash of our ideals and beliefs. I would be surprised if quite quitting came without at least some level of depression. It seems to me that while some people may successfully suppress depression when quietly quitting by using defence mechanisms such as rationalisation, it is inevitable that the loss of hope must come with a feeling of pain, sorrow, and sadness, whether conscious or not.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that people who quietly quit may appear in psychotherapy as clients with depression. I believe the same underlying mechanism is at work as for burnout, except I view burnout as a more extreme form of quiet quitting when the employee is no longer able to perform minimum necessary to keep herself in the job or performing a role required of her (for example being a mother and raising a child).

It would be interesting to know to what extent are the dropping fertility rates in the Western Europe a result of this internal exhaustion to comply with perceived and presented ideal of a parent.

Let us now turn attention to reasons why some people seemingly manage to confront the demands of today’s world, while others do not. As I wrote above, I see the primary reason for exhaustion in the fact that our activity comes not from a spontaneous creativity and joy of being active in the world, but it serves to satisfy the need for affirmation or security that we feel we lack. It is a defective strategy that will not work, because the need is insatiable. I will address later why that is.

It is interesting to note that in 2022, Gallup found that roughly half of the U.S. workforce were quiet quitters. This would mean that approximately half of the U.S. population have unhealthy motivation patterns. My view is, that seeking affirmation or security in what we do and achieve is a result of a defective attachment in an early development of a child to a primary caregiver (usually mother). This view has a basis in the attachment theory. Attachment dictates whether we feel safe and valued and can relate productively to the outside world without viewing it as predominantly hostile or dangerous. A child that develops insecure attachment will experience problems in relating to and responding to the world in adult life. She will seek validation and security in external environment where it cannot be found. That is the reason why the need is insatiable.

Interestingly, recent research on the type of attachment in population showed that approximately half of adult population have a defective type of attachment.  I would not be surprised, although I am not aware of any research on that, if the group of quite quitters significantly overlapped with those who lacked healthy attachment in their upbringing. If I am right, the solution to quite quitting (possibly also burn out) is not to be found on a practical level but requires deeper emotional healing.

About the Author:

Viliam Kuruc worked for 15 years in business as a management consultant for Kearney and in strategy for ČEZ, innogy/e-on and Penta subsidiary Svet Zdravia. He now leads his own psychotherapeutic and consulting practice and works with individuals and companies to identify and resolve issues that prevent clients to fulfil their potential and lead a productive life.

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