Your new boss shifts the goal posts, demanding a much higher volume of work from you than the high level that was expected before. You take one look at all the new tasks you must do, throw up your hands in despair, and angrily write out your resignation letter. Did you give up or did you surrender?

The predictable but deplorable response of your long-term partner gives you a moment of crystal clarity. With great calmness you see that this is not like any relationship you ever hoped for, and despite your mammoth efforts on its behalf, it is never going to be. You tell your partner that the partnership is finished and leave, feeling only enormous relief where you would have thought there would be grief. Did you surrender or give up?

Even more importantly if you are a therapist, how do you help confused clients distinguish between these energetically different responses? We look at felt emotional differences, differences in potential outcomes, and strategies you can use to help clients differentiate between the two.

Surrender and giving up: what’s the difference?

Rather than offer strict definitions, let’s look at the qualitative differences between these look-alikes, which are vastly different behind the similar surface act of finishing our engagement with something, be it a relationship, situation, task, job, goal, or life itself.

In giving up…

We feel hopeless, defeated, exasperated. Mental health writers have described the experience and accompanying emotions using words such as: quitting, pressurised, squeezed, dark, extreme, intense, fuelled by a strong emotional reaction, and taking a stance of not believing in magic or miracles. There is a sense of pain, stress, and failure: of shutting down. Giving up may be a desperate attempt to exert power where, in truth, we have none. But we believe that giving up will protect our heart from further hurt. Sometimes we exert our will in giving up, but we do it ineffectively.

In surrendering…

Conversely, in surrendering we feel peaceful, calm, often with an accompanying sense of relief. There is a sense of letting go, of acknowledging our human limitations and fallibility; we simply do not have all the power we would like to have in the situation. We probably made the decision to stop engaging after disidentified deliberation and a candid acknowledgement that we are not in control; we may not achieve the outcome we hoped for. We use our will in surrender, but we do so skilfully, effectively, often with more good will for ourselves and others than in the emotionally-charged atmosphere of giving up.

An example

In February of 2006, New Zealander Rob Hewitt — a fit navy diver with much experience — became separated from his dive buddy on a recreational dive and surfaced far from where the boat had been; it eventually took off without him. Rob made international news when he was found alive after 75 hours of floating in the cold ocean waters around Kapiti Island on New Zealand’s North Island. People could scarcely believe that Rob had endured such an extended saltwater soak, replete with poor weather, unpredictable and strong currents, and circling sharks.

In the course of being taken on his three-day ride by Kapiti’s currents, Rob wrestled with how to use his will to survive. At times, he seemed somewhat closer to land (Kapiti Island), but trying to swim toward the shore exhausted him without getting him onto terra firma; the currents were too strong, yet if he didn’t try to swim, he feared the currents might carry him further out to sea. On the second day, he was despondent after repeated attempts to swim ashore and decided to put his head into the water until he drowned himself. At the last moment, he pulled his head out of the water, realising that giving up was not the answer.

On his third frigid night, Rob realised that he needed to surrender fully to his situation. He further knew that, if he awoke in the morning having survived the night again, he would be rescued, and his job was just to hang in there until it happened. His physical actions — treading water and trying not to accidentally drown — were similar to earlier in his ordeal, but there was a big difference now. On this final night, Rob was at peace instead of panicked and despairing. He reported feeling “spiritually balanced”, and understood that his life was out of his hands. While calmly willing life, he surrendered to the possibility that he may not survive. His navy colleagues found him the next day, very close to death with a body that was now 66% saltwater (death comes at 72%), but alive.

Rob wrote about his experience in his own book (Hewitt, 2007) and was also one of the people profiled in Meg Carbonatto’s (2009) book on resilience. Carbonatto, a psychotherapist, acknowledged in her story on Rob that not only she, but also many of her colleagues, had not really grasped the difference between surrender and giving up during their training. Now, said Carbonatto, it was clear for her: giving up was about defeat; surrender was an act of letting go in order to prevail (Carbonatto, 2009).

Different outcome potentials

Perhaps it is that attachment to a preferred outcome, that inability to let go, which sends the person giving up down a different road than the person surrendering. We can examine surrender and giving up from the perspective of the outcome potentials in each case.

Opening up and shutting down

To surrender is to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers and that there could be another way; to give up shuts down new possibilities. In surrendering, we agree that, while we ourselves may have limited power, we can step aside so that the universe can work its magic on our behalf. Giving up is like planting ourselves in the way of an oncoming miracle and proclaiming that we don’t believe in them. One response opens us up to an abundance of solutions; the other shuts us down. Opening up to surrender invites new opportunities and people and grace into our lives, whereas shutting down blocks the flow of possible solutions to us.

Timing and effectiveness

Surrender is an effective use of will, in that the stance is open; we say, “Ok, I accept not now, but maybe later?” In the meantime we continue to take appropriate actions (if there are any), whereas a giving-up response would see us shift all of our energy elsewhere, having decided (prematurely?) that “It’s now or never”. In terms of the laws of attraction, we may genuinely surrender to not having something in our life and decide to move on. Often, as soon as we really let go of the need to have the missing situation/person/outcome, it wafts quietly back into our lives, sometimes in a completely different form! Conversely, insisting on a particular outcome may push it away from us, metaphysically speaking, in that we subconsciously fuel the lack of the thing, pushing the ongoing lack into manifestation. By acknowledging our limitations instead, we can use our will more productively.

The paradoxical power in powerlessness

Every night of the week somewhere in the developed world, there is an Alcoholics Anonymous (or similar group) meeting. In it, the recovering addicts will take an important step toward their full recovery by acknowledging that they are powerless over the drug that has captured their will and re-wired their brain. They will surrender, asking for help. Like Rob Hewitt, they are letting go of the need to be in control of the process. They do this not to admit defeat, but to triumph. In their admitted weakness lies their power to change the outcome.

Engendering surrender instead of giving up

We come to the $64,000 question of what you do as therapist to help a client who is stuck somewhere between frustration and despair, with no felt way to move forward to either immediate victory or genuine surrender. There is no silver bullet here, but let’s review what you might do in the context of what we’ve been discussing.

  1. After hearing about the problem, the client’s set of perceived solutions, and what they have tried, you can explore the client’s emotional experience of the stuckness or perceived failure. How long has the person been considering the options? How strongly, if at all, are they indicating a preference for a particular course of action? What is their emotional landscape like as they journey through deliberations?
  2. Tease out how open the client is to different perspectives on the problem. As therapists, our stock in trade is reframing. How willing is the client to understand the problem from a variety of angles? One of them may engender a greater capacity to be present with or transform the issue.
  3. In terms of engaging with the problem (or not), what is your knowledge of the client’s temperament, especially as regards the problem: is the client a never-give-up type who could learn when to walk away, but hangs in way past the time that that is a workable strategy? Martyrdom isn’t necessarily surrender. Conversely, is the client someone who walks away from problems without really working on them? The person may have a habit of giving in without attempted solution, leaving a trail of unresolved problems in their life. Not all problems demand surrender; some can be overcome by working on them.
  4. If there is genuinely no way to change the situation (for example, when someone is diagnosed with an incurable illness), what tools are available in your armoury of techniques to help the client let go and arrive at the peaceful acceptance of surrender?

At the end of the day, it is always the client’s choice (or ours, with our own problems) to hang in with or walk away from a problem. But in the walking away, there is a world of difference, energetically, between giving in and surrender. You may have a critical role in moving a client from a paralysing defeatist act of giving in to a resolution of the issue through genuine surrender.


  • Carbonatto, M. (2009). Back from the edge: Extraordinary stories of human survival and how people did it. Auckland, New Zealand: Cape Catley, Ltd.
  • Hewitt, R. (2007). Treading water: Rob Hewitt’s survival story. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia publishers.
  • Mediashrinx. (2015). Surrendering vs. giving up — all about recovery. Allaboutrecovery. Retrieved on 20 November, 2018, from: Website
  • Nneka. (2007). 3 differences between surrendering and giving up. Retrieved on 20 November, 2018, from: Website
  • Richardson, T.C. (n.d.). How to know if you’re surrendering or giving up (and why it matters). Mindbodygreen. Retrieved on 21 November, 2018, from: Website
  • Gilbert, E. (2015). Quitting vs. surrendering. Elizabeth Gilbert — Posts. Retrieved on 20 November, 2018, from: Website