Getting Unstuck from in the Uncertain Place

Living in the “place between no longer and not yet” (a phrase coined by Victor Turner, anthropologist, writer) can make us feel stuck. We all find ourselves living with uncertainty, and the unknowns can create a level of anxiety within us that has us freeze and then at times feel stuck. The topic of getting unstuck is well vetted on the Internet, with many how-to videos and articles about how to get unstuck, whether it is finding ways to continue doing work we have been doing or seeking new and healthier ways to do things that we need to do to thrive. Ironically, when you are stuck, sheer abundance like all of those videos and articles can contribute to not knowing what to do next.

One of the healthiest things I listened to while reacquainting myself with this topic was a five-minute video by Joan Borysenko, PhD (therapist, speaker, author) who talked about using the stuck place as the place to be uncertain. It is a place to first process the frustration of not knowing what to do next, letting go of the fact that we need to propel forward, and then accepting the fact that we are just sitting in this space. I believe this gives us freedom to be stuck and a purpose to being stuck. Namely, we need to process the fact that we cannot currently move ourselves in our work or personal projects. In accepting that this is part of the process, we can relax enough to gradually become unstuck. Like many things in life, if we break the process down to attainable steps, we will find ourselves on our way.

Step 1: We can name the place of being stuck as the place of uncertainty. By naming it, it becomes a more neutral place, an acceptable place, or even a helpful place.

Step 2: During times of uncertainly and definitely during this time of the pandemic, we might feel grief for the way life was before and the way we more smoothly and maybe more effectively were able to do our work or projects or self-improvement efforts. We are grieving the times of what was, times when we had more clarity on what will come next. We need time to process and to appreciate that there has been change, and that change not only causes general uncertainty, but it could also change the way we might respond to things, sometimes leaving us without a known road map and that the way we move and do things may look different from before.

Step 3: When we feel stuck, we can use self-compassion to lower expectations of ourselves and redefine success, at least temporarily. Kristen Neff, therapist and author of Self–Compassion, on her website, self-compassion.org, notes that having compassion for ourselves is just like having compassion for others. We first recognize suffering, empathize with it, and then react with care and concern. In a recent New York Times article, life coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders thinks of our states of mind as being helpful or unhelpful. She also notes that for most people, we can be stymied by not knowing all the steps it would take to finish or succeed. Here is an illustration of shifting from an unhelpful mindset to a helpful one:

  • Unhelpful mindset: “If I don’t know the perfect way to accomplish this project or if I’m not sure how it will all work out at the onset, I won’t even start.”
  • Helpful mindset: “Part of starting can be learning. I can make the first step of beginning to read more, talk to an expert, or spend focused time thinking about my approach. I don’t need to know the entire road map to begin learning and taking next steps.”
  • Action: Decide on a first step. That could include spending a certain amount of time reading about the topic, reviewing your old notes, or talking to a colleague.
We can use a helpful mindset and self-talk around consistently making progress, as opposed to thinking that success is only defined by completing a project.
The good news for most of us, in addition to processing and accepting, is that if we employ one or more of these unsticking strategies, we can start become unstuck:
  1. Break any project or goal into small steps and pick one of the steps to start. Any action could encourage you to continue the project and give you feelings of satisfaction and success that you can then build upon.
  2. Start in the middle/start anywhere. See #1. Whatever step you take can lead you to taking more.
  3. Set a timer for 15 minutes and remind yourself that you can do anything for 15 minutes. This not only sets the bar lower to something achievable, but it also provides you a parameter to work in.
  4. Don’t overthink it. Many of us tend to overanalyze. When Nike said, “Just Do It,” they had a good point. Just getting thoughts or a draft on a page will start a work project. Putting on your running shoes and stepping outside will get you on your way to running your first 5k.
  5. Write a few words, take an action step, and then walk away. Sometimes when we are stuck, we need a break to gain clarity.
  6. Visualize the goal to help motivate you to reach it. What will you feel like? What will you have accomplished?
  7. Set small goals with smart rewards as incentive, like work for 15 minutes and then go outside in the sunshine for a break.
Despite the fact that feeling stuck is uncomfortable and often frustrating, it is an experience that most of us can relate to and, as a result, many of us have found solutions too, like I did when I perused the Internet for help.

Take care and if you are stuck, please call the OAAP and we can help.