I’ve had so many conversations with a variety of people in the last few months about feeling “stuck”. The conversations range from people feeling stuck in dead-end relationships, to wanting to move forward in their careers but not knowing where or how to proceed, to people who feel like they’re living inauthentic lives who want to the find their true selves, to people who can’t seem to move past events that wrecked them or threatened their identities, to people who literally feel physically stuck by the stupid COVID situation.
I totally know what it feels like to be stuck. I went to therapy for years complaining to my therapist about how stuck I was. A mental image had developed in my mind over time, where I envisioned a bird trying to fly and explore, but there was a rope tied around its leg, keeping it from being able to move beyond a very small circumference of existence. Looking back, my mental metaphor was spot on….I had a very real leash holding me back that was built with multiple threads… self-doubt, critical voices (both real and perceived), controlling relationships, no sense of my true identity, and incorrect beliefs.
Fortunately, I no longer feel tied down and restrained by this invisible leash. My belief in my own self-agency has increased by leaps and bounds. This week, as I had some more conversations with several people about feeling stuck, I began to make a list of the things that I did that really made all the difference in radically changing and transforming my life. Maybe some of them will resonate with you, if you, too, are feeling “stuck” in life.
*Note: I recognize that traumas in people’s lives and mental illness can play a significant role in a person’s ability to get unstuck. My opinions here are not a substitute for quality therapy and mental health resources. I also recognize that I have a certain amount of privilege related to my ethnicity and socioeconomic status that I in no way want to minimize by what I write here.
So, here, in no particular order except for the very first step, are my 10 ways to pursue ‘unstucked-ness”:
1. Grieve what you’ve lost, and grieve what you needed that was never given to you.
It is SO easy for us to stay stuck in the past….to live off the exhaust fumes of our memories and all the what-ifs, what-could-have beens, and what-should-have-beens. The fact is, the past is dead and gone, and when we insist on dwelling on the past, we are just dwelling with ghosts – nothing real. The past can never be changed; it is what it is.
That being said, I understand the frustration of wishing that things had been different. For years I struggled with wishing I could have a complete college do-over. I was depressed so much during my undergrad years that it was really all I could do to put on a brave, happy face most days and try to get my schoolwork done. One of my greatest frustrations was my mediocre performance in organic chemistry. I wanted for years to retake that class and kick its ass. I wanted to redeem myself, show that I really did have the smarts to apply for medical school, and prove that it was just my dumb brain and low self-esteem that held me back.
I’ve also kicked myself so many times for decisions I made years ago. Why did I get into that relationship? Why couldn’t I have been brave and done that one thing that I really wanted to do? Why didn’t that person love me the way they should have?
But this is what I realized: there are so many lessons we can learn from the past that will help guide our future, but to constantly wrestle with the past wishing it were different is an exercise in futility and it only causes us unnecessary suffering. However, we can’t just walk away from these things and pretend they don’t matter. We must still take time to grieve them, which is different from arguing with their finality. It’s OK to mourn and cry over people and relationships that are broken and gone, it’s OK to be profoundly disappointed by opportunities that passed us by, it’s OK to recognize areas where different actions would have served us better.
In fact, I would say that the primary, foundational step in getting unstuck is to identify all the areas from our pasts where we hurt, face them head-on as we are able, and grieve the hell out of them. This is so especially true when we weren’t given the love and nurturing we needed from our parents and other loved ones. Determining the areas where they failed us, and mourning those, is OK…it’s not blaming them. It’s self-care for us to realize where we were hurt, and move forward to find healing for ourselves.
2. Stop the comparison game.
Being victimized is one thing, submitting to victimhood is another. One way that we stay stuck is to dwell on our personal situations and then compare them with those of others who we think have it better than we do. This kind of mentality gets us into trouble for SO many reasons, including: 1) We don’t know all the details of other people’s stories or how they got to where they are now. To do apples/apples comparisons between our lives is sort of dumb. 2) We are each unique individuals with different talents and gifts that we can offer – the world doesn’t need exact replicates of other people. 3). When we constantly compare ourselves and what we have with others, we will always suffer – it’s inevitable.
The only way to get unstuck here is to refuse to be a victim. People may do horrible things to you, they may treat you unjustly, they may abuse you or ignore you or neglect you…but how people treat you does not have to dictate how you respond to them or to what life gives you. People who hold tightly to a victim mentality will always see themselves from a place of lack, and that’s a really hard place to move forward from.
3. Take stock of inventory.
COVID sucks, there’s no way around it. That being said, it has offered many of us a subtle gift because while much has been taken away from us as individuals and society, we are able to recognize so much of what remains that we never paid attention to before.
So many spiritual teachers talk about how if we can’t accept and be content with the present, we’ll never be content when the future comes, because the future always becomes the present. A perfect future is ALWAYS an illusion…an unrealistic dream.
To get unstuck, we have to look at all we have….REALLY look at it, and appreciate it for what it is: our belongings and possessions, our relationships, our strengths, talents, weaknesses, failures….all of it. This gives you a baseline to work from, and inevitably, you’ll probably discover that you do have some really good things in your life that you might have been taking for granted while bemoaning your “stucked-ness”.
4. Decide which voices to stop listening to.
Everyone will have an opinion about how you should live your life…literally everyone. But most of these opinions are misinformed and won’t serve you well. So you have to be ruthless in deciding who of your current relationships you are going to allow to speak into your life, and then you have to start constructing hard and fast boundaries.
Many of us did not have the most encouraging voices speaking to us as we were growing up. I would say that most of the time the people behind these voices were simply doing the best they could with what they knew, but it doesn’t negate the fact that those voices had an impact on how we came to view ourselves and understand the world. We usually love and respect the people behind those voices – but we must recognize the ones that were, or maybe are still, hurtful and stop listening to them.
There’s a saying in the Bible about how prophets can never be honored in their hometowns. This is a pretty obvious dynamic: when people watch you grow up, they tend to create stories in their minds about who you are, and when you start changing, it’s hard for them to let go of those stories. So, they treat you the way they always have, and interact with you the way they always have, even if you have become, or are becoming, an entirely different person.
It can be really, really hard to leave behind the voices that held you back for so long, but it is critical do to so. It doesn’t mean that you stop talking to certain people, or that you stop loving them – it means that you compartmentalize at some level, and disallow access to specific areas of your life. Unfortunately, some people won’t respect your boundaries as you try to grow and become unstuck, or they may become angry and manipulative with you as they see you grow and move forward. When that happens, choose yourself. Don’t be held back by those unhealthy voices, even if they are motivated by good intentions.
5. Find your people.
Continuing from the last step…as you’re moving from being stuck, you can’t just go at it alone. You’ve let old voices go….but you need to fill that gap with people that are moving in the same direction as you.
One of the biggest….the biggest….helps for me when I decided it was time for a life transformation involved changing the people I interacted with and listened to. This was actually kind of hard though….I started moving WAY out of my comfort zone to meet and talk with people that I formerly would have never talked to. This really made all the difference…I can’t emphasize it enough. Meeting and becoming friends with wildly different kinds of people served to broaden my mind about EVERYTHING, introduced me to new ways of thinking and living, gave me new experiences, and ultimately helped show me that the life and human experience is much vaster, nuanced, and beautiful than my tiny world had ever been.
In this day of Internet and social media, finding your people is much easier than it used to be. Sometimes, when I haven’t been able to find the “in-person” support I’ve needed, I’ve found it through social media. I have online friends who I’ve never met in person, yet we’ve resonated on some topic or experience, and as a result we are still able to encourage each other and speak into each other’s lives.
Either way, however you find your people….again, be ruthless about these new voices and who you allow to speak into your life. This is YOUR life you’re crafting…no one has the RIGHT to offer opinions about how you live without trust, respect, and a genuine concern for your growth and well-being. And likewise, you are not obligated to take in opinions just because they are chunked at you.
6. Question everything you believe.
It seems to my that our beliefs about life tend to steer the ship. Our emotions and feelings often stem out of our beliefs, and our belief systems shape our self-esteem, self-confidence, etc. etc.
Most of us, I think, grow up assuming that our beliefs are true. We usually believe what our parents tell us, because…they’re our parents. This is all good and well when we are youngsters, because we need a solid, safe container to grow up so that we can develop an identity that we feel secure in. However, we aren’t meant to live in those small, child-size containers for the rest of our lives. Doing so will keep us small.
The greatest disservice of my childhood was being taught by numerous adults not to ask the really hard life questions or to dispute pat answers that are given when those questions are asked. It took me until I was 30 to be brave enough to start asking those nagging questions that had lingered in the back of my brain since adolescence. But then, and I can remember it pretty clearly, I finally got the courage to peer over the edge of the belief abyss and just ask ONE of my big questions….and it literally, and rapidly, began a shift in my life when I started looking to new people for answers, instead of allowing in the same, tired old answers I had gotten for years.
I also started doing things that I had been warned against by so many people for most of my life…nothing illicit or really illegal, but things that pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a good, wholesome, Christian girl. As I’ve mentioned in multiple blog posts, I was very unhappy in the entirety of my marriage, but it took me years to be brave enough to do anything about it. Things started changing with one dumb little action on my part. When we were a little over halfway into our marriage, I went and got a nose ring, against the explicit wishes of my ex, and not just a stud, but a gold hoop. Now, this may seem like the most trivial action to you guys, but it was a huge act of rebellion for the “me” that I used to be. I almost expected the ground to swallow me up, at the time. But it didn’t, and that one little action started making me brave, and it made me start questioning the heck out of everything I believed about everything.
7. Don’t wait for the perfect path.
It’s so hard to move forward into the unknown when you can’t see where you’re going. I personally much prefer to have a path laid out before me, and as an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs, I like to have closure on things YESTERDAY. This is, to my consternation, not the way that getting unstuck works. This, I think, is because life is not about being safe. It is about adventure, and living your humanness to the greatest extent that you can – however that may look. (I am not negating here the need for good, conscientious, steady people…but I think everyone has to take some real leaps and get out of their comfort zones to grow).
Every once in a while, the stars will align and you’ll be presented with a very clear, long-term path. But, in my experience, this doesn’t seem to happen very often. Or, you have to take that one big hairy, scary, step first before the alignment and path are revealed to you. Most of the time life seems to give a clear path for two, maybe three steps…which you have to take and then trust that the next two steps will become clear as you approach them.
Getting unstuck is going to take a heck of a long time if you insist on knowing the entire path from the start – life doesn’t play that game. Furthermore, if we knew from the start the exact way our paths would look, we would probably stay stuck because we wouldn’t like all the twists, turns, and pain that await us on our way to growth and joy. Sometimes it’s better to learn to trust that life will take us to the places that we need, and will show us how to endure the hard places we have to travel through.
8. But…wait for the gut shift.
I’ve been struggling for the better part of a year with a situation that I can’t decide is good or bad, helpful or not, long-term or not. I’ve wavered in my mind, going back and forth about whether or not I should walk away and move onto something new, or wait and see if something will come of the situation. People have offered their opinions, many of which I have agreed with, yet I was still completely indecisive. I felt like I needed to wait for that gut feeling…where my intuition released me to make a decision.
And this last week…I got it. I experienced a subtle but dramatic shift within myself that came with complete peace. The gut shift did not explicitly say “Julie, it’s time to shut this down and head out”, nor did it say, “Julie, you need to stick this one out for a bit longer” Instead, it gave me a clear “You can do whatever you decide to do and it will be fine, and you will be fine.” It has been kind of an amazing feeling actually, where I finally feel, with certainty, that either choice will be OK and good, and it is entirely up to me.
I’ve had this gut feeling at other times, and I’ve learned to rely on it. Because of my “I want closure” tendencies and impulsive nature, I can often jump into or out of things prematurely, even with unrest present in my soul. Sometimes I will do things with that unrest even when logic and people’s opinions all seem to agree with what I plan to do…but I’ve learned that doing the right or good thing at the wrong time is not always the right thing. Sometimes it’s good to stay in a situation a little longer simply because you have lessons to learn. This is where you must learn to trust and listen to your gut, to know if you still have learning to do or if it is time to move forward.
9. Start with the baby steps.
If you’ve been stuck for a while, it can feel really good to launch out and make huge changes all at once. But, if you’ve just started believing in yourself and are just starting to trust life a little, then these huge leaps can feel overwhelming and daunting. When I knew that I wanted to change my life trajectory, I started figuring out small things I could do to practice being brave and to build up my trust capacity in myself. Getting a tattoo and that nose ring were some of the first baby steps. Others were sending queries to those first magazines when I wanted to write and publish articles. I took my oldest son, who was 7 at the time, to West Africa by myself. I desperately wanted a divorce, but was scared that I couldn’t make it by myself, so I took the first small step of talking to a financial planner and meeting with a lawyer just to get information. And so many other baby steps….steps that got bigger and bolder as my courage and confidence grew.
Bravery is sort of like a muscle, in my opinion. The more you do scary things, the more you realize you’re capable of, and then suddenly, the things that used to terrify you are now as innocent as kittens. But when you start out, go easy on yourself. Pick baby steps where you might actually fail, but where the consequences of those failures won’t completely disillusion you from trying another step. A perk of this is that with small things, you’ll start to realize that it’s OK to fail, and that you won’t suddenly die or your world fall apart if you don’t succeed right away at everything you try. This beginning to feel comfortable with failure is a huge part of getting braver and braver.
10. Pick a theme song for your journey.
Music is and always has been a huge part of my life. Music and lyrics can have such a big impact on our emotions and motivation. You’ve probably all had experiences where the radio might play an old song that corresponded to a certain time in your life, and you were instantly transported in your mind back to that time and those memories, with accompanying feelings. There are those trigger songs, that you can’t listen to anymore because you associate them with an old love, or there are those songs that bring up nostalgic feelings about childhood. Then, there are those amazing songs that you incorporate on your exercise playlist because they are upbeat, make you feel like a badass for at least a few minutes, and encourage you to hang in throughout the workout.
About the time that I had that gut shift in my stomach, alerting me that it was time to move forward with a divorce, I discovered Alicia Keys’ song, “Girl on Fire”. It INSTANTLY became my theme song. I didn’t necessarily believe about myself all the things she sang about, but I decided to project them onto myself as a way to “fake it ’til I made it” in regards to bravery. I listened to this song non-stop over the next couple of months, as we prepared our house to sell, as I had difficult talks with my children about what was going to happen, as I worked to figure out where in Indianapolis I was going to move to, as I scoped out nursing schools, as I fretted about money and gulped at how expensive lawyers can be, as I made countless trips to donate stuff at Goodwill…I must have listened to it a hundred times, and sang it at the top of my lungs just as many.
Every time I doubted myself, I turned it on. Every time I felt guilty about blowing apart my family, I turned it on. Every time a friend or family member shamed my decision, I turned it on. And every time I made some badass decision and moved forward, I turned it on. And gradually, I found that I became exactly what Alicia was singing about.
When you’re moving towards unstucked-ness…a theme song is a MUST!
So, there you have it…10 ways that were essential for me getting unstuck. They’re not easy, and they can take time, but I’m pretty convinced they’re all worth it—no matter what kind of situation you’re trying to get unstuck from.