We all get stuck from time to time. Sometimes it can be a very small stuckness, like lingering in the shower even though it will make you late. And sometimes we can get really stuck, like the 10 years I spent smoking pot and not really facing my problems.
But while it’s easy to say we should just bounce ourselves out of stuck, it isn’t that simple. I’ve learned that it’s important to understand how we get stuck. First because it can help us get unstuck, but also because it can keep us from getting stuck again in the future.
The 5 Stages of Stuck
The first thing that happens on the path to stuck is stress. This stress can be acute or it can be chronic. When I was stuck for almost 10 years of my life the stress was a combination of both types.
I felt the acute stress of going to college and not finding the support I needed, but I also felt the chronic stress of feeling alone and isolated because I was different.
This all happened largely because I lived my life with the same openness I do now. But I didn’t have the tools to cope with the pressure that level of vulnerability carried with it.
During my first year of college, I wore my heart on my sleeve and had it stomped on repeatedly. Being vulnerable is wonderful. But it can also be painful until you learn maintain your boundaries and be strong in your openness.
When a form of stress enters our lives, we aren’t prepared or equipped to handle, we find a way to cope. Often this coping mechanism isn’t very healthy and rarely solves our problem. Its only purpose is to keep us functioning until we can process the stress.
When I became stuck in college, I had two main coping strategies. One was smoking copious amounts of marijuana; the other was rebelling by smoking cigarettes, wearing crazy clothes, and deriding my parents and “main stream” society as being full of hypocrites and posers.
In the short term these strategies worked. They hid my vulnerability and numbed me to the deep ache I felt in my heart.
In many cases, we don’t become stuck because the stress ends or we develop better skills to help us process and grow from our experience. But if the stress is continuous or we don’t learn how to process what’s happening, we begin to do something I call cycling.
This is how it looks
- Stress occurs
- We use our coping strategy to deal with it
- The coping strategy doesn’t work
- We feel a sense of failure
- The stress reoccurs and is added to our sense of failure
- We engage in the same or a slightly different coping strategy
- Again, we use our coping strategy
- We get angry with ourselves because we can’t seem to get out of this funk
- Then this becomes another source of stress
- So, we engage our coping strategies again
As you can see this becomes a feedback loop that perpetuates our suffering ad infinitum.
This was my experience for 10 years:
I felt depressed so I would smoke pot, because I smoked pot I would do poorly in class, because I did poorly in class I would feel stupid, so I would smoke pot to avoid feeling that shame, then I would feel bad for smoking so much pot, I would wonder how I could waste my parents money, then I would smoke more pot to cover up those feelings.
It seemed no matter what I did there was no way out of the cycle. And so, I played this cycle repeatedly with subtly different narratives for over 10 years.
At some points in the cycle, you see what’s going on. At first, this may seem great, but the problem is that even though you know what’s happening, you don’t know what to do. Often this awareness makes you feel even more stuck.
At some point, you just stop fighting. You give in to the cycle fully, you may even create your own narrative about how being stuck isn’t your fault.
This itself is a faulty coping strategy called apathy. But at that point, you don’t care, because caring hurts too much. You start to believe that this is just who you are.
I embraced my cycle by calling myself a hippie or a pothead. I created and built a whole personality about how avoiding of life was part of a radical resistance to modern culture. All while playing out the most obvious clichés you can imagine. The only thing radical about my life was how radically predictable I was.
Now I’m not suggesting that this is true of everyone who has ever been a hippie or granola or whatever. I’m only saying that my embrace of this lifestyle was based largely on my surrendering to the cycle I was stuck in.
5. Self Loathing
Once apathy sets in it’s very hard to make a change in your life. Because with apathy comes a feeling of powerlessness.
When this happens you begin to feel a subtle sense of self-loathing. In truth, this sense of self-loathing has existed from the very first moment you encountered a stress you couldn’t handle.
This self-loathing only serves to increase the power of the cycle and the sense of apathy that has gripped your life.
In these moments all the stories that you have told about why you are stuck fall away and you realize how truly responsible you are. But instead of taking action, you use this feeling to beat yourself up.
I can’t even count the number of times I did this too myself. The more I gave into this notion of being a pothead hippie, the more I felt conflicted about what I had become. The worse I felt the more I embraced the persona, because if I couldn’t win it was better to just reject everything.
Apathy seemed like the only escape from the feeling of guilt I felt about wasting my life. And yet, I didn’t know how to do anything else. I was unwilling to face myself enough to change and unable to delude myself enough to avoid feeling distraught about who I had become.
Of course, if the story ended here, it wouldn’t be very helpful. But something changed for me. A series of event’s snapped me out of this cycle. The first big one was losing my job.
Often a traumatic event offers us a chance to look at our life and make a change. The reason is that the pain of staying the same is just as bad as the pain of changing. But it’s important to seize these chances because they don’t come along very often.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how I found my way out of being stuck. But you don’t have to wait until then to get started. If you feel stuck in your life take a few moments to write down what you remember about the last time you felt free of this cycle.
Then write down as much as you can remember about when you first felt stuck. You don’t have to do anything with what you record. In fact, I would discourage you from taking any action. Instead, the purpose of doing this is to give yourself permission to see and feel what was going on back then.
Often we get stuck because we aren’t willing to see some part of ourselves. By taking the time to write down our thoughts and memories, we can open up the space to create change.