At some point in our lives (or maybe many points in our lives), we find ourselves stuck. The way in which we are stuck can be different. For some people, the stuck is related to drugs. People are trapped in a cycle of no longer wanting to use, no longer wanting to continue living the way they must because of the drugs, but feeling unable to make a change.

Other times, we feel stuck because of a relationship we are in. There is not necessarily a crisis, but things are not good. Accommodations and compromises have bred resentments and unspoken animosities, which have accumulated. We find ourselves at a point that no longer brings us happiness– but the effort to change things feels like too much. Trying to move in a different direction feels frightening.

Maybe, the feeling of being stuck revolves around work. We realize we hate our jobs, or our job no longer brings us joy, but we feel that we have progressed too far in life for a career change. Perhaps the reason we went into the field no longer resonates, or we feel we do not have other marketable skills. While continuing down the current path fills us with dread and a feeling of defeat, there just does not seem to be an alternative.

Perhaps we have lived through trauma, and have no peace in our head or our heart. We are daily, reminded and bothered by where we’ve been, what we have done, or who we have been, and are experiencing the negative repercussions of these experiences. We desperately long for less commotion in our head, but are terrified that if we look inwards, we do not know what we will find or where it will actually lead.

Crises inspire change, and that is often what leads us down a different path– but that is not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking about a place that is comfortable enough– a place to which we’ve habituated, and come to tolerate. Call it a space of toleration, a place where we can continue on like this, at least for now, but it does not bring us joy or peace, does not align with our values. We know we need to make changes, but things are not so bad that we must make changes. We can wait another day, another week, but then the weeks turn into months, and the months turn into years.

We become stuck.

How do we find the courage to make these changes? How do we summon the strength to face chronic difficulties, and to start down a different road? I would be lying if I could tell you I have the perfect answer, but it’s a situation I see people struggling with a lot. So, here are some thoughts.

First, we have to actually identify the issue. Sometimes, when we’ve been living this way, we forget that there’s even an issue, or that alternatives even exist. We become so habituated to our daily reality that we have trouble imagining alternatives. But, once we recognize that alternatives exist, we often shy away from them, usually because of fear.

There’s no shortage of possibilities that could be driving the fear; if we can understand the fear, we might be able to find a way forward.

We might fear the unknown– change often involves stepping into unfamiliar terrain, which can trigger apprehension and anxiety. We have a natural tendency to prefer the familiar, as we perceive it as safer (only maybe true). This is a known cognitive bias, the status quo bias, which leads us to prefer things to stay the same. This bias can make change feel inherently undesirable.

Perhaps we are scared of loss. Change usually involves letting go of something familiar, and things that do not serve us well have a comfort to them, a certainty. If we derive a large part of our identity from what we need to change (say, a job for example), losing this can leave us feeling unmoored and unanchored, adrift in a way that is frightening.

These types of problems involve inherent uncertainty (otherwise, we would have made changesthem long ago), and this uncertainty brings with it a risk of failure. What if I try to stop using drugs and I can’t? What if I decide to find a different job and come up empty? Suppose I talk to my partner about making changes in our relationship and am rebuffed? We fear that the change will lead to negative outcomes or that we won’t be able to cope with the new situation.

If we have experienced negative results from change in the past, they may be more hesitant to embrace change in the future. We learn from our past, and if our past has taught us that change is bad, we apply that lesson to our present and our future.

For all kinds of reasons, we fear making changes. What to do? There is not one antidote to fear.

  • My favorite mental shift is to try to be more curious than afraid. We can transform our feelings of fright into curiosity. Take that fear, notice it, and then try to replace it with a sense of curiosity.
  • Understanding and naming the fear will often go a long way towards dispelling it. If we can name something, it is no longer unknown. Simply being able to say, to ourselves and to others, that this is my fear, I am afraid that this will happen, can dramatically lessen the fear.
  • Sometimes, we need additional help. Therapy can be a helpful strategy here. These feelings that we struggle with might exceed our ability to manage, to process, to understand, and to address. Enlisting help might be the right next step.
  • It might be useful to let go of the outcome– to recognize that we do not, in fact, know where this leads. That’s ok! We can acknowledge that the way forward is uncertain, and trust in ourselves that we’ll be ok when we get there, even if we do not yet know where there is.

The most important thing is simply taking the first step. Swallow hard, summon courage, and move in the direction that scares you. The outcome is not assured– that is true. But the status quo is known. Sometimes, the entire path is illuminated ahead of us, but usually, the second step is only clear after we’ve taken the first. We do not need to have a plan to resolve every potential issue that may come our way; we need to have the courage to move forward, and the confidence and faith that the next step will appear before us.

Lastly, if you find yourself in the enviable position of finishing this post and feeling gratitude because this does not apply to you, because you have done the hard work of addressing these issues, that’s great. But, perhaps there is someone in your life who is stuck. Maybe forward this to them, and start a conversation.


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