We’ve all been stuck in personal ruts. Trapped on our treadmills.
You wake up one morning realizing you’ve somehow gotten yourself stuck. Certain aspects of your life aren’t moving forward anymore. Maybe you’re trapped in the same job, browning over the hot coals instead of actually burning out, but reluctant to make that crucial move to free yourself. Or you’re in a relationship that’s going nowhere, but there you stay, justifying your misery (or tedium) for some dubious better-than-nothing qualities.
Fortunately, vinyl records are making a comeback so that people can hear when a needle gets stuck in a groove, endlessly repeating the same sound. And maybe yours is, “I can’t get out…can’t get out…can’t get out.”
Well, people can, and do, get unstuck from all sorts of ruts, grooves, and treadmills. Every day people bravely leap forward and, yes, they stumble at first, but they’re in motion. Not every change is an unqualified success, of course, but most people hardly ever regret the actual experience of change.
Five steps out of the rut
If you’re really serious about exiting a rut and you’re willing to engage in an evening of self-exploration, here’s a five-step activity to help you get unstuck.
Step one Take the issue in your life that you feel most intensely traps you. Maybe your job and the promotion you haven’t received (or your reluctance to leave the job altogether). Or the city you’re living in, your current relationship, or circle of friends. Now on a piece of paper headed “My Stuck Situation,” draw lines to create three columns. In the first, list every reason you’re reluctant to make changes. In the second, list the worst-case scenarios that might occur if you did make changes. And in the third column (here you can fantasize galore!), list all the possibilities your life can open to if and when you make the leap.
Step two Look carefully at the Worst-Case Scenario column. Try to find the right words to describe the emotional undercurrent running throughout this entire list. Somewhere there’s a key phrase, sort of like the fault line running through California. It might be “I fear the unknown” or “I have real issues with self esteem.” Or, perhaps, “I don’t want to upset my parents or disappoint people” or “Challenges frighten me.” There will be some phrase, and you may feel trembly in the very act of writing it, but there it is. Like it or not, it’s part of your character, it’s you. But, of course, you can change. People do, each and every day.
Step three Write that key phrase boldly across the top of a second piece of paper and prepare for a life review. Think back over you entire biography and start listing examples of how this key phrase permeated your significant life choices. Did you always take dumb jobs because you feared challenges? Did you always find yourself dating jerks because you felt unworthy of anything better? Did you always stay in the same town because your parents made you feel guilty about leaving? As you develop this list, the words, “Yikes!” or “Gosh!” might escape your lips, because you’ll be amazed at how ancient some of these issues actually are. All this is just fine. Becoming aware of yourself like this, even though it may be painful at first, is ultimately very healing.
Step four Start listing how the key phrase, which is a source of your stuck-ness, is currently affecting other aspects of your life. Is it one reason why you’re always eating the same food at home and at the same restaurants? Watching the same TV programs? Taking the same vacations? Same hairstyle? Same clothes? Choosing partners like your mom or dad?
And finally, step five On yet another piece of paper, re-write all those worst-case scenarios—I can’t upset my parents, I fear the unknown, etc. You’ll probably feel just a teensy bit nervous as you write them out, but, remember, they’re only words. Nothing has actually happened, has it? Now make a plan of action for each of these worst-case situations. Go into detail. Rehearse imaginary conversations. When tackling your worst-case scenarios you’re like a general preparing for battle.
A defense against our fears
Psychologists tell us that we use unhealthy, stuck behaviors as defense mechanisms to avoid those issues we fear facing. For example, if our parents told us that being unemployed was “being poor,” then we may fear unemployment to the extent that we spend our lives in miserable (but safe) jobs. In order to get unstuck we have to probe our fears, see how they’ve created negative patterns, and deal with them by solving unrealized worst-case scenarios.
In this example, figure out how much money you actually need to live and how much you’d save by not staying in your current job. Are there other jobs that excite you but pay less? Could you manage a roommate to offset your rent? Or do you want to leave your job and travel to a new town or city or country and pursue a completely different job (and might your family truly enjoy coming to visit?)? The possibilities are endless.
Here’s a thought-provoking piece that includes some ways to think about your potential to do jobs you haven’t done before.
As you finish up this paper project, it’s a little premature to think you’ve exited the rut just yet. It’s late at night and you’re still in the same job, same city, same relationship. You haven’t lost any weight, if that was on your list.
But now you’re freshly aware of some new aspects of yourself. Tomorrow take a few baby steps—reach out to a new friend, walk a few extra blocks, look into opportunities in that town or city that seems like a good fit. In the days to come you can consider the bigger steps, whether that means calling a headhunter to position yourself for a new job or joining a group where you can make new friends.
All along, being stuck in a rut has simply been a way to protect yourself from fears you’re reluctant to face. Acknowledge the fears, realize the worst-case scenario isn’t really insurmountable, and BAM! you’ve broken free.
David Edelberg, MD