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Feeling Stuck? Three Steps to Get Un-Stuck

Stuckness can feel like being completely incapacitated while the foundations we’re standing on disintegrate and there’s no steady ground to stand on.

It’s like being in quicksand.

At least in the Hollywood version, quicksand comes as a surprise. We don’t see it coming until we’re already in it. And the moment we realise we’re stuck, our innate human response is often to panic and try to get out as quickly as possible: to move, run, or frantically flail about… But this only make the stuckness worse.

Instead, to get out of the quicksand, we are supposed to make ourselves as light as possible; act slowly and deliberately; and reach out for help.

It might take a while to do, but it’s possible. We can all do it. As all-encompassing and stifling as our stuck-ness might feel, there is a way out.

Drawing from the quicksand analogy, here are three steps we can take to get un-stuck when we’re in the thick of it:

First, lighten our load: let go of as many cognitive, physical, emotional and social obligations as we can. Sometimes we don’t even know how much we have on our plate until we start to track the way we spend our time.

Lightening the load requires conducting an inventory of all the activities we’re engaged in, and eliminating as many as possible. Begin with those that are de-energising, off-path, or ‘shoulds’ rather than ‘wants’ or ‘needs’. It’s helpful to reduce the physical clutter around us, clearing our environment so it is conducive to clearer thinking. It means actively saying no to invitations and opportunities so we can make space in our calendars where nothing is planned — and then avoiding the temptation to fill those gaps with ‘productive’ activities. It’s funny how the most mundane tasks suddenly become tempting when confronted with time to simply ‘be’!

When we feel stuck, actively doing less might feel like we’re making the problem worse; when we stop moving it can become more apparent just how stuck we feel. But lightening the load makes it far easier to break free.

Second, give ourselves spaciousness in which to reflect and check in with ourselves. We need to reach an internal consensus before taking any abrupt actions to avoid feelings of regret, or the expense of time, energy and money in a direction that we ultimately don’t want. We might feel pressure to come up with an arbitrary deadline for making a decision: a three month sabbatical (in my case), a twelve month “gap year”, a graduate degree, a summer holiday… But no matter how hard we might try to force ourselves to fit our reflective period within a certain time scale, it’s not how life works. As much as we might try, we can’t control everyone and everything around us (it’s enough to aspire to a degree of self-control, e.g. around our favourite foods!)

As easy as it sounds, many of us are so caught-up in lives fuelled by active doing that we have forgotten how to ‘be’. We must learn to be patient and kind with ourselves, and to listen to our “inner compass” — to get back in touch with what it is that we want, separate from societal expectations and other people’s desires for us. It’s better to take the time to move with purpose, than to act before we feel ready.

And third, ask for help from the people around us — friends, family, colleagues, mentors, coaches. This can be particularly tough for those of us who are used to being fully independent, and perceived as the “responsible”, “stable”, “together” one that other people depend on or turn to for guidance. We might not want to impose on others. We can worry we are asking too much, or fear rejection from those we love. But allowing people to be supportive at a time of need is a gift to others and to ourselves. It reminds us of our interdependence with others, our imperfect humanity, and beautiful vulnerability. And it helps us get un-stuck faster!

All of these steps are easier said than done, of course! Especially when we truly feel like we’re drowning and there’s no escape.

But don’t worry. Nobody actually drowns in quicksand, despite what we see on the cinematic screen.

The process of getting un-stuck requires tremendous courage, dedication and resilience. It involves facing some of our deepest internal fears. But at the end of it, we will make it back on our own two feet and when we’re ready to start moving again, it will be on an even stronger foundation.

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