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Are you feeling stuck in life, or at work? This article will explore what might cause you to feel stuck, what to do about it.
“I’m stuck in a job I don’t like,” “I want to communicate better with my partner, but I’m stuck about how to do it.” And more recently during periods of intense lockdown: “I’m frustrated because I’m stuck at home.”
Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. It’s a nearly universal human experience to feel stuck at some point in life, whether in a career, love or relationships, family dynamics or even in identifying a next goal or interest to pursue.
Stuckness can look like:
- Really wanting something—a new job, relationship, or improved health, for example—and then losing motivation to do anything about it.
- Identifying something that looks exciting and then talking yourself out of taking a step that would get you closer to it.
- Endlessly thinking about what could be better or different.
- Indecision, worry, and over-thinking robs you of being present and enjoying life as it is.
What might cause you to feel stuck?
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I feel stuck in life?” It’s not always an easy question to answer. “Stuckness” can wear different guises. Below are a few scenarios when you might want to move, but not know how to.
- You’ve outgrown a situation. It’s a reality that people change over time. Your needs, your wants, and your hopes all evolve. Perhaps that perfect job you landed a year ago doesn’t provide enough stimulation now that you’ve mastered it.
- You want to honor your values more. Life can lose its sparkle when your values are not present enough in your life. If your day-to-day life doesn’t contain the conditions for your personal values to thrive, they may start to feel dulled and give you a feeling that you’re not honoring your fullest self.
- You think change might mean losing something. In particular with career changes, you can want a new challenge but cling to your existing job because of its perceived security and stability. You can reduce your thinking to be very binary, seeing options as “either/or.” Allow yourself to open up to the idea of “yes/and” thinking, the possibility that you can have a new challenge and financial security.
- Being stuck can be easy; the result of getting unstuck involves work. There might be plenty of reasons to make a change, and plenty of equally strong reasons not to. Approaching your “stuckness” from a place of acceptance can be useful to understand what might be blocking your forward motion. For example, you may want to change your job, but you may also really value your free time. Looking for a new role may eat into that free time. You can then see that you are currently choosing certain positive aspects of staying as you are. This allows you to make a more conscious decision to find your activation energy and get out of neutral.
- The success of a friend can make you wonder why you’re not further along in your life plans. Keep in mind: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Compare yourself to yourself—your growth, your potential, your future—rather than getting caught up in comparing yourself to others and then feeling like you’re falling short.
- You’re out of your comfort zone. You may know what you need to do to become unstuck, but feel uncomfortable with moving forward. If it’s the first time that you’re testing a skill or behavior, for example, you might not know what to do exactly, fear making a mistake, or fear having a less than perfect result. A growth mindset can be incredibly helpful, to know that everything you do in life can be learned, rather than feeling that you either know how to do something or you don’t.
Feeling stuck can happen at many different stages of life: early in careers, when transition phases end, at mid-life, after a period of relative stability, or during a pandemic. If you have persistent feelings of low mood, worry, or anxiety, or your feeling of stuckness is getting in the way of your ability to cope, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor or healthcare professional.
What to do when you feel stuck
There are plenty of ways that you can help yourself get unstuck. Below are some approaches that you can use, from tackling the issue in bite-size ways to seeing the issue more broadly.
- Identify what you really want. Stuckness can be a vague, ambiguous feeling of something in life not being “right.” When you notice these feelings, allow yourself some time to clarify what you want to be different. Frame these desires and hopes as what you do want to happen: “I want to maintain or increase my salary” rather than “I don’t want to take a pay cut.”
- Change your perspective. Ask yourself how you will feel about this situation in a week, 3 months, in a year, or in 3 years. What would your 8-year-old self offer as advice? What would your 80-year-old self say? Keep in mind that feeling “stuck” can be simply a mindset—albeit a stifling one. A question like, “How else can I see this situation?” can free up a more creative response.
- Move your body. If you’ve ever finished the day at work with a stiff neck and shoulders, you’ll know that tension and stuckness can be held in the body. Exercise can be a great way to get more positive chemicals running through you, and being outside and in nature does wonders for your well-being.
- Set a date and park decisions until then. Give yourself space to clear your head, and set a date to re-evaluate your situation. Mark the date in your calendar, and allow yourself to be focused on present issues until then. This gives you the chance to be fully committed to what you’re doing without the extra weight of questioning yourself and your future.
- Take action to avoid “analysis paralysis.” Once you’re clear on what you want, ask yourself, “What’s the next smallest step I could take?” It’s so easy to get enmeshed with the stuckness that you forget there are small, easier steps that you could take to make progress. If you procrastinate, one of the best tools for moving through that is the Pomodoro Technique—where you commit to spending a small period of time, such as 25 minutes, working on a task uninterrupted. Since the first step is often the hardest, things feel easier once you get going.
- Tap into your own agency. Stuckness can often make you want to wallow in helplessness. Identify an aspect of your life where you do feel in control and then do something about it. These can be simple things, like deciding what you want for dinner, sending out one job application, or phoning a friend. You cannot be stuck and in motion at the same time, so doing anything with choice reminds you of your ability to get unstuck.
- Rest, recharge, and focus on self care. During a challenging time, keep in mind that you’re responsible for your well-being. Do what you need to look after yourself through a good diet, sleep, healthy movement, and connection.
What not to do when you feel stuck
To reduce any extra stress and worry that can arise when feeling stuck, keep these in mind:
- Try not to over-identify with the situation. Say, “I’m feeling stuck,” rather than “I am stuck.” It’s subtle, but important because it allows you to remember that feelings pass. One moment you might feel stuck, but the next moment you might feel tired, or bored or elated, or any number of emotions.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Most people like to have clarity and control over their lives, so the feeling of being stuck can be frustrating. Rather than beat yourself up over feeling stuck, treat yourself with kindness and self compassion.
- Don’t focus on the stuck area as the only thing in your life. Remember that each situation that makes you feel stuck is just one part of your life. For example, if you feel stuck at work, spend some time appreciating what is good about your health or relationships.
- Try not to blame others and instead remember how you can take responsibility for yourself. We don’t live in a vacuum, and others’ decisions and actions can impact our lives—but dwelling on that isn’t productive. Give other people the benefit of the doubt, and consider that they may be doing the best they can with the tools they have. And remember that you’re ultimately in charge of many aspects of your life and work.
- Don’t doubt your ability to handle the outcomes of your decisions or choices. If you’re really stuck with a choice between two options, they may be equal—or one would be more obvious. When you consider the cost of staying in the limbo of indecision, you may find it’s better to commit to a decision and move forward with the self-belief that you can handle what comes next. Trust yourself.
How to help someone that is stuck?
Everyone feels stuck now and then. Here’s how you can support others when they find themselves in this situation.
- Listen. When someone is feeling stuck with a complex challenge, it is incredibly comforting to have someone who will listen without judgment. In order to preserve your own energy and boundaries as the listener, you might want to be intentional about the conversation and agree on some things upfront. For example, “I have 20 minutes to give you my undivided attention.” Or, “So that I’m most useful, how can I best help you right now?”
- Normalize it. Feeling stuck happens to us all, and can be a sign of growth and evolution. When people are stuck, they often can feel isolated and alone with the situation, so show them care and compassion. You might even want to explicitly say, “Everyone feels stuck sometimes.”
- Resist giving advice. It’s normal to want to offer ideas and advice, but it’s not as helpful as letting people come up with solutions for themselves. Your answer to the problem might not be the right one depending on their needs, values, or levels of risk tolerance.
- Get permission to ask questions and lean into curiosity. You might begin by asking questions like, “What do you want?” and “What’s important about that?” Then help open up new insights by asking “What’s getting in the way?” and “What could you try?” When people feel genuinely heard in a non-judgemental way, they can often come to their own solutions and essentially shine their own light through the fog.
- Check in. Follow up with friends, family members, and colleagues who were feeling stuck to see how they’re doing. Show a genuine interest in the steps they’ve taken and the progress they’ve made, and offer additional support or encouragement as needed. This can encourage accountability in getting themselves unstuck, and help them feel they’re not alone.
Final thoughts on feeling stuck
Unlike a ship that’s run aground, a car stuck in the mud, or a fallen tree blocking a river’s path—the particular stuckness of humans can be one of choice, state of mind, and perspective. Choose to see your situation through a different lens—perhaps as “playing with different options” or “navigating change as an intrepid explorer”—and see what opens up for you. Hopefully by using the tips above you will get unstuck and find your agency, freedom, and flow in the river of life, and help others do the same when called upon.
BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC