One of the most upsetting feelings in life, if you ask me, is the feeling of being stuck. Whether it’s stuck in a bad relationship, stuck in a creative project, stuck in a job you hate (or that just doesn’t satisfy you anymore), stuck in the house or a city you’re ready to leave, stuck in a life you feel you didn’t choose for yourself, or just stuck not knowing what to do next, that feeling of being stuck in a rut can be unnerving and unsettling.
It’s like bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway. You’d almost rather be cruising on the back roads—even if it takes you longer—than sitting still for hours, feeling like you have no control over your progress.
So how do we get unstuck?
How do we move forward when we don’t know how to move forward?
1. Utilize the power of opposites.
Several years ago, I was trying to make a big, life-changing decision: should I stay in my full-time, good-paying job with great benefits (but where I was bored and dissatisfied) or should I quit my job to try and pursue my dream of writing a book?
I felt almost paralyzed over the fear surrounding this choice.
During that time, I read a book called How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore. One of the very first pieces of advice she gives in that book is this: when you’re feeling uncertain of what to do next, do something totally different than you’ve done before.
Here’s how she puts it:
“Stop answering your phone. Change your email address. Kill your television. If you don’t have a baby, have one. If you do have a baby, get a sitter. If you work too much, work more. If you don’t work enough, work less. If there’s a problem, exaggerate it. If you’re broke, go to the food bank. If you have too much money, give it away. If you’re north, go south. If you drink, sober up. If you don’t drink, start. If you’re in school, drop out. If you’re out of school, drop in.”
I love this approach because it speaks to the fact that sometimes when we get stuck in our same old ruts, the best thing we can do to wiggle out of those ruts is to jet out a totally new direction. If you’re used to sleeping in, wake up early. If you’re use to waking up early, sleep in. If you always eat junk, try vegetables for a week. If you are obsessively healthy, eat a piece of cake for heaven’t sake.
It’s amazing what breaking our routine can do for our bodies, hearts and minds.
What I realized, in my situation, was that I had a tendency to play things safe. That was a “rut” for me. So I coached myself to do something different, to take a big risk, and I’ve never looked back since. I can’t say what the right decision is for you, but I can say that doing something different can help to get you out of your old rut.
2. Wait to act
I’ll never forget a few years ago when I was trying to make a big decision about my business and I wasn’t sure what to do. One person in my life seemed certain they knew the right decision I should make, and this person urged me to act fast. If I didn’t act right now, this person said, I would miss my opportunity.
Unfortunately, I bought into that “you must act now” mentality and made a decision I ended up regretting later.
Remember: when you get into that panicky place where you feel like you’re going to “miss your moment” if you don’t act now, remind yourself there is really no such thing. If this really is “your moment,” you won’t miss it. It will be there for you later. In fact, anyone who urges you to act before you’re ready is more than likely hiding a personal agenda. They want you to make a choice that is good for them, that you might not make if you had too much time to think about it.
This is the car salesman who says he can only give you this “special deal” if you take it right this minute. He knows, statistically, that if you walk away, you aren’t likely to come back again later.
Here are some benefits to waiting another hour, another day, or even another year before you make a big decision:
- You can collect more information. Talk to your spouse or your friends or a mentor. Get some advice. Read consumer reports. See how your feelings change about something in different situations or even seasons. Patience is a virtue. Time can be your friend.
- You have time to think about pros and cons. Remember everything is a trade-off. Each choice carries with it pros and cons. Take time to weigh what the consequences of each decision may be and make sure you’re ready and willing to own the potential consequences of your choice.
- You can choose from an empowered place. Good decisions are rarely made from a place of desperation. We make the best decisions when we can choose from a place of inner peace and strength. That place exists in us, but can’t be accessed when we’re being pressured (or pressuring ourselves) to choose on the fly.
When you’re feeling stuck, give yourself some time and space.
Don’t be afraid to wait to act.
Focus on the internal (instead of the external)
Sometimes we can get so focused on achieving outside results we forget that our personal power comes from controlling what’s inside. Our bad attitude about a situation, our personal fears, our limiting beliefs, our perspective, the stories we tell ourselves, what we believe to be true about ourselves—all of these things are playing a drastic role in our circumstances.
And while we have very little control over what happens externally—the weather, what other people choose to do, opportunities that come to us, etc—we have complete control over our own mind. We get to choose how we act, how we think, how we respond, and how we process.
This is our power.
A year ago I made a conscious effort to stop trying to control my circumstances and start trying to control my thoughts. One of the ways I did this was by coming up with five meditations, or prayers, that I said to myself every morning. I wrote more about this in this post on overcoming limiting beliefs, so if you want to know how I came up with these specific phrases, you can read there (or you can check out this book).
But for the sake of this article, I want to say this: the changes that have taken place in my life because of my commitment to control my thoughts, rather than my circumstances have been unbelievable. Sometimes the blockage we’re experiencing in our circumstances is a really a blockage of our own mind.
Here were the five things I said to myself every single day:
- I am safe and protected.
- The abundant resources of the universe are available to me.
- I deserve to prosper.
- Every single thing that happens to me is an opportunity to learn.
- I release the need to identify as the victim.
If you are complaining, blaming, passing the buck, or criticizing yourself or others, you are handing over the most powerful force in your life—the power of your own mind.
How are you taking control of your thoughts today?
3. Figure out what you’re afraid of
95% of the time what is blocking us is fear.
About two years ago, I was in a position where I felt more blocked than I ever had in my life. I felt blocked creatively, and in my relationships, and even in my career. I knew I had so much potential that I wasn’t exploring, and so much joy I wasn’t tapping into, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. I needed to get unstuck.
So I started seeing a therapist. I explained the whole story to her, told her I was feeling really stuck, and explained how I wasn’t sure what to do next.
Her response to me went like this:
I think you do know what to do next. You are just scared to do it.
That response stuck with me because, honestly, she was right. As frustrated and upset as it made me in the moment to admit she was right, I knew it was true. Sometimes fear is the greatest thing keeping us stuck.
I love what Seth Godin says about the power of fear to confuse us and keep us stuck:
Fear will push you to avert your eyes. Fear will make you think you have nothing to say. It will create a buzz that makes it impossible to meditate…or it will create a fog that makes it so you can do nothing but meditate. Fear seduces us into losing our temper. And fear belittles us into accepting unfairness. Fear doesn’t like strangers, people who don’t look or act like us, and most of all, the unknown. It causes us to carelessly make typos, or obsessively look for them. Fear pushes us to fit in, so we won’t be noticed, but it also pushes us to rebel and to not be trustworthy, so we won’t be on the hook to produce. It is subtle enough to trick us into thinking it isn’t pulling the strings, that it doesn’t exist, that it’s not the cause of, “I don’t feel like it.” When in doubt, look for the fear. —Seth Godin
If you find yourself avoiding your next step because you’re afraid, here’s a trick I use: I make the task easier. For example, if your next step in a book-writing process is “write chapter one” and that feels daunting, maybe you trick yourself into making progress by changing the task a little bit. What would happen if you changed it to: “outline chapter one” or “draw a picture of chapter one” or even “write the first sentence of chapter one”?
Sometimes just changing the size or shape of the task in your mind is enough to help you overcome your fear to getting it done.
4. Listen to your intuition
Our intuitions are so powerful. More powerful than most of us recognize.
I have learned this the hard way. Maybe you have, too. Have you ever not listened to your intuition and regretted it later? Our intuitions are not always be telling us the exact right details about a situation, but they are always telling us something important.
And yet most of us make a regular habit of dismissing our intuition, saying things like, “I must be overreacting,” or, “I am probably blowing this out of proportion”. Remember: every time you dismiss your intuition, you’re minimizing one of the most powerful tools you have to guide you toward your next right action.
Do not ignore your intuition!
5. Forget what people think about you
I’ve written about this before, so I won’t say too much about it this time around, but have you ever said to yourself, “oh, I could never do that because what would so-and-so think?” That mindset is keeping you stuck. In fact, I would argue this is the most common, most socially-acceptable way we keep ourselves stuck. Most of us are living our lives to impress someone else, all the while denying or distracting ourselves from what we really want.
“We have been culturally programmed so thoroughly to tune in to the subtleties of whether or not we are having the “desired effect” that we fail to tune in to what we really want or to see how strongly we are being motivated by wanting to be wanted.” —Polly Young-Eisendrath
Here is something I remind myself of almost daily: YOU are the only one who has to wake up tomorrow and live your life.
So YOU must make the decision that is right for YOU.
You are not in charge of what anyone else says or how they feel about your choices. You can care about them but you do not have to take care of them. That is simply not your job. We must learn to reframe the way we think about the sovereignty we have over our own choices if we’re ever going to reach our potential.
6. Move your physical body
Like most people in the 21st century, I have always understood the importance of exercise for my physical health, but it wasn’t until I read this article in Fast Company last year that I made the connection to the kind of impact physical movement could have on my brain.
If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress…To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy.
Here’s how this changed things for me.
Instead of saying, “I have too much work to do today to exercise” I started saying, “I have too much work to do to not exercise.” And instead of thinking, “I don’t have time to take a break to go for a walk,” I began to think, “the most productive thing I can do right now is to go for a walk.”
It’s not just a wives tale that going for a jog or to a yoga class can “clear your head.” It’s a scientific fact.
If you’re feeling mentally stuck, it might help to get physically moving.
7. Remind yourself you have choices
One of the most important things we can learn to do as we discover the power we have to shape and shift our lives is that we have choices. We always have choices. A friend reminded me of this recently when I called her to complain about a situation where I was feeling bullied and controlled.
She said, “remember you have choices.”
And that’s such a good reminder when we’re feeling backed into a corner.
You might be in a position where you have to make a big, life-changing decision and you feel like you don’t have any great options. Or, maybe you’re just feeling bored and stuck in your own life and you’re not sure how to break free from the routine that you’re in. Either way, make a list of the choices you have.
Each item on your list will have pros and cons.
Maybe you’re trying to decide between a college you can afford and one that is your “dream school”. Maybe you’re choosing between a bad relationship or being alone. Maybe you’re choosing between a job that doesn’t excite you (but will pay the bills) or one that you’re passionate about that pays you less.
Whether you have a list of 10 great choices, or you’re picking between the lesser of two evils, don’t forget to claim the power of your choices.
Because when you can remember that life is full of choices—and choices are full of tradeoffs—and that no one gets to make your choices except for you, you reclaim the power you have to get yourself unstuck and make progress with your life. And even when the choices aren’t ideal, I promise, that feels really good.