What is Stuckness?
Signs and Symptoms of Stuckness
Causes of Stuckness
How Psychoherapy (and Skype therapy) Can Help You Unstick
What is Stuckness?
The term ‘stuckness’ is not listed in clinical psychology books but it is very much a real part of our psychological experience. At some point in our lives, we have all felt like we just can’t make progress. We know that there is something that we can do to change our current situation. It’s just there, beyond the stuckness, but for whatever reason, we feel trapped in sludge.
Signs and Symptoms of Stuckness
1. Stuck in the Meh
Sometimes there is no looming deadline to fire us up and get us moving. Our situation is not intolerable and we’re not miserable enough to change, but we are not happy or fulfilled either. We feel, Meh…
In terms of motivation, the Meh can be the most dangerous place to be. Often our Meh feelings are masking more difficult emotions such as fear or anxiety. We distract ourselves with work, others, and the everyday routine to avoid the unsettling prospect of change.
Health psychologists often use a tidy process map to describe the stages of behaviour toward change. According to this model, we start to think about changing; then we commit to changing, make a start, fall off track, only to dust ourselves off in order to start again (1).
In reality, thought and behavioural change is not tidy; change can be a messy affair that looks and feels more like this:
We may think about change, decide to do it, don’t do it, then try somewhat to do it, think about it some more, go on holiday, see a TED Talk and get inspired, jump straight into it without thinking. And then feel stuck and frustrated that it’s not working the way we thought it would and decide we need time to think about it some more.. later.
3. Procrastination Ever set out to accomplish something only to find yourself engulfed in closet reorganisation or Facebook? Blogger and self-proclaimed procrastinator, Tim Urban, introduces us to two characters we all have in our brains. Each plays a role in our procrastination. The Rational Decision-Maker tries to Get Things Done while the Instant Gratification Monkey is only interested in what is fun and (more importantly) easy (2). Sometimes we’ll do anything but the thing that will make a difference to our lives. We may blame our lack of self-control, laziness, poor time management, lack of motivation, or a need for instant gratification. However, persistent procrastination is actually a form of avoidance. Change can make us feel anxious so we do something more pleasurable or less scary to make us feel better. 4. Lethargy, numbness, irritability, helplessness, or frustration. Often we become stuck while we aren’t paying attention. Our work, finances, and our relationships take up our mental energy and we land in a funk before we even realise it. We may be aware that something is not right, fun is not as fun anymore, or we may just feel numb. We may be sleeping in separate rooms from our spouse, or may be miserable at work, or we may have crippling debt hanging over us. But we try to convince ourselves that It’s Fine (3).Or we may think about the situation in which we are stuck way too often. We think about it in the same unproductive ways and come to the same conclusions. Over time, we create a groove, a habitual way of thinking that actually demotivates us and becomes progressively harder to change.
Life gets in the way of our plans and we are not always logical and linear thinkers. Feeling ambivalent is normal when we want to change but when ambivalence lingers, it can feel as if we are stuck on a merry-go-round, we are moving but we aren’t actually going anywhere.
If we stay too long in the Meh, we can end up feeling irritable, defensive, or withdrawn, with an increasing feeling that dealing with everything and everyone seems too difficult. We may feel recurring impulses toward fight or flight, wanting to hide away or blame others for our frustration. Our work and relationships might suffer as a result. If unaddressed, these feelings can escalate to anger, depression, guilt, shame, or anxiety.If we don’t want to wait for intolerable misery to motivate us to change, we need address what is causing our stuckness.
Causes of StucknessIn the simplest terms, all stuckness, hesitation, resistance, or inability to change can be traced back to the emotion of fear. Sometimes this fear is well founded and easy to name, but sometimes it is outside of our awareness. A good question to ask yourself is.. Is your stuckness psychological, situational, or both? 1. Situational No matter how motivated we are to change, sometimes practicalities make moving forward difficult. You may have a fear that you won’t be able to afford to go back to university and that may be founded on a very real lack of funds.
2. Psychological We may think that we are stuck because we are lazy, busy, or just prone to procrastination. However, if we really want to change but can’t, then emotional roadblocks may be to blame. Stuckness may be caused by a bullying inner critic, negative self-beliefs, or self-defeating behaviour patterns.Anxiety or low mood makes us far more prone to procrastinate. Sometimes stuckness is an indicator of more severe psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, or overactive guilt or shame.3. BothSome situational stuckness has strong emotional underpinnings. Lack of time may be a time management issue that is underpinned by a fear that we won’t be able to cope. Or the loss of a job, home, or someone we love may be making us feel so heavy that we just can’t move forward.
Consider what internal forces are working against you.
Fear may be stopping us from moving forward but what is triggering the fear? Is it our ability to reach the goal? Or the uncertainty of change? Or the inevitable stress that change will cause? Or is it the goal itself?
Read how our brain’s fear response causes us to stagnate: The Science Behind Stuckness. If you don’t know why you feel stuck or if you know why but just can’t unstick, read: Steps You Can Take Now to Unstick.
Most importantly, you don’t have to figure it out alone.
Many people think that they don’t feel bad enough to warrant therapy. But the intensity of psychotherapy depends on the client’s needs.
How Psychotherapy (and Monkey therapy) Helps You Unstick
The following are primarily based on my practice, which combines elements of Cognitive Behavioural, Solution-Focused and Compassion-Focused therapies. I practise these via Skype, which gives you the added bonus of accessing treatment without travel time, traffic, or waiting rooms from wherever you feel comfortable and safe.
Psychotherapy works by helping you:
Discover what’s really stopping you. Psychotherapy helps you uncover the long-held (sometimes hidden) negative beliefs, emotions, and behaviour patterns that drive your resistance.
Understand your ambivalence. You want to find a partner but refuse to takes steps to meet new people. Or you want to change jobs but avoid looking for new opportunities. Psychotherapy helps you decipher the mixed messages that your mind may be sending you.
Change negative beliefs and thought patterns. Once they are uncovered, psychotherapy helps you challenge the beliefs that are hindering you. And then guides you in replacing them with healthier, more realistic alternatives.
Confront your fears. Often we avoid the things that make us anxious. The downside to avoidance is that we don’t get the chance to overcome our fears. These fears don’t go away; instead they drain the energy that we need to change. They underpin our anxiety, low mood, lethargy, frustrations, and self-defeating behaviours. Psychotherapy helps you identify and work through emotional roadblocks.
Change self-defeating behaviours. Sometimes our actions and reactions are what’s keeping us in the same situation. We might think that there is no other way for us to be or we might not realise that our default behaviours are stopping us. Psychotherapy can help you identify and break these habits.
Create a change plan and put it into action. When we are stuck, we feel like we have no control over our situation. Psychotherapy provides an effective process for problem solving, which includes actionable plans. Then psychotherapy provides support while you take action.
Build confidence and resilience. Psychotherapy strengthens your self-compassion, self-worth, and ability to bounce back after setbacks, changing your feelings of overwhelm to ones of capability.
References and Contributors
JO Prochaska, JC Norcross & CC DiClemente. (1994). Changing for Good.
Tim Urban. (2016). Wait But Why Blog: Why Procrastinators Procrastinate. http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html
References and Contributors Mel Robbins. (2011). Stop Saying You’re Fine: Discover a More Powerful You.
Kelly McGonigal. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
Wendy Dryden. (2014). Shame and the Motivation to Change the Self. Emotion.
Paul Gilbert. (2010). The Compassionate Mind.
Todd Kashdan. (2015). The Power of Negative Emotion: How Anger, Guilt, and Self Doubt are Essential to Success and Fulfillment.
Joseph LeDoux. (2015). Feelings: What are they and how does the brain make them? Daedalus.
Karla McLaren. (2010). The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.
Gershen Kaufman. (1993). Shame: The Power of Caring.