Walking Away: On the Power of Refusing to Stay

words by erica morton magill

“There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it signifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed.” — Edward Said, Orientalism

We had been in a meditative lotus pose for no more than three minutes when a woman in the back walked out. She didn’t return for the duration of class. I sat in my corner in awe of her courage to walk out without justification. She quietly, and privately took care of her own needs and left the classroom, unconcerned for what the teacher’s reaction might be. “Queeeeen,” I thought to myself. 

I used to think I would die if I disappointed someone. I thought that I would literally keel over from the angst and heartache of not being liked. As a result, I have strived desperately to fit other people’s molds, and remained in classes, relationships, communities, and organizations that weren’t healthy. And I have learned that regardless of my efforts to shapeshift and please, I will inevitably disappoint others.

Having acquired a few frenemies along life’s bumpy road, I’ve come to know that being liked is not the same thing as living well. In a 2014 commencement speech Jim Carrey says, “your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world…risk being seen in all of your glory.” 

Authority manifests in relationships by way of control and is enabled because of a power imbalance. A guru might demand that you follow her regimen precisely; a business partner may control your stake and stock in the company; as a parent you might monitor and decide what your child watches on the telly; a community may limit your mobility or outside contacts. In each example, someone or some group of people in a position of greater power because of status, force, or context, attempts to control someone else’s time, energy, resources, and creativity. Sometimes it’s with good reason, and other times not so much. 

There are instances in which agency is freely given – consent is agreed upon, and perhaps conditional and contextual. The BDSM community is a beautiful example of clear and shared ground rules for dominance, agency, consent, and providing clauses for shifting circumstances. 

There are other situations in which control and command are taken without permission: when people feel they have a right to your mind, body, heart, time, and energy. There are times when it’s safe and worthwhile to stay, to negotiate and find new ways of interacting that aren’t so hierarchically driven. But when you’ve exhausted that route, and there’s no longer a sense of mutual respect and care, do as the brave woman in yoga did and walk out. 

Theo Wildcroft, author of Post-lineage Yoga: From Guru to #metoo asks: 

“Can we say, ‘Thank you for your time, but I’m not learning anything here,’ and walk out? Could we even, just possibly, even confidently, point and say, ‘This emperor has no clothes on,’ gather up our things, and walk the hell out?”

Walking out might open you to other people’s rage and violence. And that is scary as all hell, particularly if you’re a people pleaser. I can tell you from the trenches, that you can walk away, be loathed, and you do not die. 

Conversely, if you find yourself with enemies, cheer yourself on! You’re becoming. You’re speaking up for yourself. You’re finding your true North. I’m not suggesting you should actively seek out unpleasant endings or bad relationships. What I encourage you to do is to continue to care for yourself and others with whom it is safe and mutual. 

“The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.” — Jim Carrey

Be kind. Think before you post. Pause before you snarl. Take a beat before you tear someone else down. Know that hurts live invisibly beneath the surface of the skin, and so be gracious. Remember that sometimes the kindest thing you can do is walk away. Not everyone will understand, and they don’t need to. They might haunt your Instagram and your inbox, but it isn’t your responsibility to stand up for yourself and continue defending, excusing, or sense-making.

Send them love because they’re clearly hurting. And walk far, far away. 

Erica is a Master’s candidate at SOAS, University of London, where she is completing a dissertation on the history, evolution and current practice of śavāsana. Her curiosity lies at the intersection of ritual, movement and the creative process. You can find more of her writings and offerings at yogafolk.co