January 2015

Getting Unstuck


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When we visualize “being stuck,” a number of different images might come to mind. At this time of year, we might picture being stuck in a car in the snow. Or we might imagine being stuck in a rut or groove, just doing the same thing over and over. And sometimes, when we feel stuck in a situation, we may picture ourselves “boxed in” by our circumstances.

All of these images conjure up a feeling of being trapped or caught, whether it’s in the snow, in a rut or in a box. So when we’re feeling stuck, we may be longing for a greater sense of freedom in our lives. This month let’s delve into the concept of “being stuck” and consider some steps we can take to free ourselves.

Choices

When we feel stuck, it can seem that there aren’t any good alternatives to what we’re doing now. Our current situation may seem like the only acceptable possibility, even if we’re not truly satisfied with it. At other times, we might feel that there are too many good choices to ponder, and we don’t even know where to begin. Feeling overwhelmed by choices can leave us feeling just as stuck as when it seems there aren’t any decent alternatives.

Stuff

Something else that we can feel overwhelmed by is stuff. We can feel weighed down by some of our belongings. We may find that general clutter is making it hard to move forward in our lives, because such clutter makes it difficult to find what we need when we need it, whether the item is a shirt or a cooking utensil or a book. In addition, we can feel weighed down by some of the items that we have stashed away in a storage closet, basement or attic. There may be knick-knacks and papers that we haven’t looked at in years; we may have the notion that it would be helpful to go through such boxes and clear out a bunch of stuff, but we just haven’t done that yet.

Anger, sadness and fear

Besides being weighed down by physical things, we can also be weighed down by anger that has outlived its usefulness. Holding onto anger for too long can lead us to feeling stuck in the past. We might feel that a person should have behaved differently or a situation should have turned out differently, and it can be hard to move forward if we are focused on the past in that manner. If, after we have overcome the harm that was done, we can be open to the process of forgiveness, we may be able to eventually release that anger and move on. (Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we have to forget what happened or that it was O.K. for someone to harm us; it simply means that we’re letting go of anger that no longer has a useful purpose.)

Just as anger can keep us stuck in the past, so can sadness or fear associated with long-ago experiences, whether the experiences are from our childhood or adulthood. In some cases, before we can become unstuck, we may need to find ways to heal lingering emotional wounds, either on our own or with professional assistance. Nowadays there are many kinds of resources that can aid in the healing process, including books, support groups, and various types of counseling and therapy. We may need to try a variety of approaches and to realize that the healing process may take quite a bit of time.

Expectations

Before we look at ways to get unstuck, let’s consider one more reason we may feel trapped: expectations. Other people’s expectations—and even our own—can sometimes lead us to feel boxed in. If we choose a career or partner solely based on the expectations that others have regarding what we should do, we may wake up one day and realize that we feel stuck in a job or relationship that doesn’t suit us. Or we might have our own rigid expectations about what our future is supposed to be like, and we might miss some promising possibilities because of the limitations imposed by our expectations. That can also lead us to feel stuck. Even when we’re in a situation such as a job or relationship that’s very suitable for us, if we expect that situation to simply stay the same for years, we can end up feeling stuck, and we may need to shake things up a little in order to move forward again.

Making changes to get unstuck

Let’s turn now to how we can make changes so that we can get unstuck. When we’re feeling stuck, what we really need is a shift in momentum. Sometimes it can seem like we need to make a huge change in our lives in order to become unstuck; that can be so daunting that we don’t do anything about the situation.

Fortunately, much of the time just doing one thing that’s new or different can be enough to kick off a shift in momentum. If we would like to get organized but have been overwhelmed by the prospect, we can try tackling just one drawer or box. It can be so satisfying to finish a task like that—we can find that the momentum that’s been generated carries us on to the next drawer or box. If we’re really unsatisfied with our job, just allowing ourselves to start to do some online research about other possibilities might be enough to get us moving in a better direction.

If we feel stuck in a rut in general, sometimes just changing up our routines can be helpful. Even something as small as ordering a dish other than “the usual” at our favorite restaurant can help us to realize that we can shake things up. Similarly, something as simple as driving a new route to a place we regularly go to might help us to get out of “autopilot” mode.

Guidance from books

When we need more than a small change to get us unstuck, there are numerous books that can provide guidance. One particularly valuable book is called If the Buddha Got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path by Charlotte Kasl. In it, Kasl provides numerous useful insights that are based in Buddhist teachings. She discusses how getting unstuck is related to how we manage our energy; she indicates that, to effectively manage our energy, we often need to give up perfectionism. Kasl writes, “Perfectionism creates tension and stress as we focus on getting everything done just right—often by someone else’s standards—as opposed to completing the task sufficiently and staying relaxed.”

Clearing out clutter

Kasl also notes, “A first step to becoming more efficient with your energy on the home front is to cut out extraneous tasks and get yourself organized….” So, while getting organized can be beneficial in and of itself, it can also help us to get unstuck in other areas of our lives. When we deal with clutter (whether it’s visible or hidden in drawers or boxes), we can make space for something new to enter our lives. By clearing out clutter, we’re allowing energy to move more freely in our homes and in our lives.

Resilience

While it can sound exciting to have energy freely flowing, it can also sound a little scary. Even though we may feel unsatisfied when we feel stuck in a situation, it’s what we’re familiar with and we know how to cope with it. In order to get unstuck, we’re usually going to have to get outside of our comfort zone (which is basically our zone of what we already know how to handle). If we have managed to develop a resilient approach to life, that can make us more confident when we try new things. When we feel resilient, we have a sense that we’ll be able to handle the various challenges that life presents to us. At some points in our lives, we might need to work on developing resilience before we can get unstuck.


Lastly, when we’re trying to become unstuck, it can be important to be patient with ourselves. Getting unstuck can involve forming new habits and, in some cases, can involve replacing problematic habits with healthier habits. There is evidence that it can take a couple of months on average for new habits to be established. We may want to find ways to obtain support from others when we’re establishing new habits or find ways that we ourselves can reinforce the changes we are trying to make. Usually it takes quite a while to get stuck and it can take a while to get ourselves onto a new path. Whether we visualize being trapped in the snow or in a rut or in a box when we feel stuck, with patience, resilience and a willingness to try new things, we can eventually find ourselves becoming free and moving forward.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the January 2015 issue

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