Stuck in a Rut? Understanding Stuck-ness And Strategies For Change

Many of us come to counselling because we feel stuck.

We may have tried a number of things before we got here:

  • Talked to friends or family about our situation
  • Requested or received advice from others
  • Thought things through over and over
  • Did online research
  • Read self help books
  • Followed a guru
  • Made some minor changes to our situation

But still, it may feel like there is nothing that we can do to produce significant life changes.

It’s a common phenomenon to feel stuck and I’d like to take talk about this in this article, including some of the common causes and some strategies to help us get un-stuck.

Stuck-ness: Can You Relate?

Not everyone manifests being stuck in the same way, but some of the more common signs include:

  • You feel trapped in your situation with no actual or perceived viable options
  • You have gone through possible ways to un-stick yourself and nothing seems good enough
  • You shy away from talking to others because you’re embarrassed that your situation hasn’t changed
  • Loved ones tune you out, are getting frustrated/burned out with you or are overly opinionated about your situation or character
  • You feel powerless in your situation and have lost your sense of agency
  • You put yourself down for your lack of action
  • You ruminate about past decisions and struggle to take action in the present
  • Previous therapists have accused you of having a case of the “yes, but…
  • You complain a lot and it never goes anywhere; you may even be tired of hearing yourself talk, or you judge yourself for it
  • You have a strong sense of fairness and you believe that it shouldn’t be you that has to change
  • You fantasize that a miracle will happen that will solve your situation
  • You struggle with your boundaries
  • You lack financial or social resources that would accelerate change
  • Your situation truly is very difficult!

As human beings, we can become stuck about any issue, although some big ones include, but are not limited to:

  • Whether to persist with or end a relationship
  • Initiating dating or starting friendships
  • Career direction or chronic dissatisfaction
  • Family dynamics including roles and duties
  • Life direction
  • Loneliness and/or social isolation
  • Substance use
  • Personal wellbeing
  • Illness
  • Social or cultural expectations
  • Past trauma
  • Loss

Contributing Factors

There can be a myriad of reasons for why we get stuck and sometimes it can be difficult to even name them because of our potential to blame or shame ourselves. The spirit of looking for reasons / contributing factors is to empower change or correct problematic patterns and should be not used as a weapon of self-loathing.

Sometimes causes are extremely circumstantial—ie they’re related very much to the situation we’re in. Situations like fires, floods, war, disease, racism, disability etc. come to mind. And of course, there are many, many other examples.

In other cases, contributing factors may be related to well-intended personal choices gone wrong or long-term patterns of behaviour.

Let’s neutrally and briefly identify some of the contributors which we might have a bigger say in:

  • Perfectionism – This is one of those larger than life topics, but when it comes to being stuck, perfectionism often collides with stuck-ness when we do not allow ourselves to move forward unless we can guarantee that the result will be exactly the way we want it to be. Many of us get stuck in our minds, imagining different possible outcomes, and then putting on the brakes when we imagine an outcome that we don’t like or that seems too risky.
  • People-Pleasing Tendencies – One of the most common reasons for people-pleasing is the avoidance of conflict, and when we change our circumstances or make choices that we haven’t exercised before, conflict with others may ensue, or we may worry that others in our life will stop liking us. These are consequences that we may not be ready to deal with yet.
  • Guilt – Right up there as one of the more difficult-to-tolerate human emotions, many of us want to avoid feeling guilty and will take steps to avoid experiencing it, including not taking any steps at all: playing it ’safe’ and not making a move.
  • Fear of Loss of Control – We may use control techniques or routines to manage our anxiety and when we can’t predict what will happen if we were to make changes, we choose to not alter our situation, particularly if the fears become overwhelming.
  • External ‘Locus of Control’ – While this might sound like a term out of a science fiction novel, or perhaps you’re having flashbacks to Psych 101, “locus of control” refers to the beliefs we have around how much influence we think we have about events in our life. If our locus of control is external, we are inclined to think that outcomes are related to factors outside of our control, including fate, as opposed to an internal locus, where we believe that we have a direct hand in most things that happen to us in life. For example, a low mark on a test could be perceived as being because of insufficient studying (internal locus) or that the test was unfair (external locus). All this is to say that if we’re externally motivated, we may truly believe that there is nothing we can do to change our situation.
  • Challenges With Boundaries – Still one of the most popular topics in modern-day psychology, we may struggle to value our needs and limitations enough to act on them, in the form of making changes. Or, whenever we try to set a boundary we are overwhelmed by guilt, which makes the thought of change too distressing.
  • The Fortune Teller Error – A cognitive distortion (thinking trap), frequently cited in cognitive therapy and common with folks experiencing anxiety and/or depression; this relates to feeling like we can predict that future and that it’s going to be BAD. So, we decide not to make changes because when there is a negative expected outcome, why bother?
  • Not Ready for Change – There can be a number of parts to this including straight out fear of change, as above, to the increased responsibility that typically comes from change. And when we, or others pressure us to change, it usually doesn’t work.
  • Lack of Faith in Ourselves to Navigate Change – this can be related to low self-esteem or lack of experience or knowledge as to how to do it.
  • Waiting for Others to Take Responsibility – While this may be related to an external locus of control, as described above, this can also be related to fears of injustice, particularly if other players involved in the situation have created harm. Waiting for others may also speak to a coping style that is very passive, or could also be related to self-pity. This small list of possibilities isn’t exhaustive!

What To Do About It?

  • Recognize mental patterns which may be obstructing you, especially perfectionism and fortune-telling, and try a little cognitive therapy with yourself. I’ve referred to this handout many times over the years. I encourage you to try some of the suggestions.
  • Recognize that sometimes the perfect solution isn’t available and you may be choosing between options that are “bad” and “less bad.” And choosing less bad, may still be more favourable in the end.
  • Manage overwhelm – Meaningful change is likely the last think on your mind when you are emotionally flooded and your brain has gone offline. I’ve written about some of my favourite coping strategies here.
  • When possible, seek others in similar circumstances whom you can mutually relate to without judgement. This may look like an online or in-person support group, reading a memoir, reading self-help books, watching a documentary or reaching out one on one, if you know of someone who is struggling similarly.
  • Check in with your friends if you’re worried about burning them out. Sometimes the temptation is not to reach out at all, out of concern that you’re burdening them, but friends may not realize that this is why you’ve stopped, and may worry about you instead. If you suspect that a friend is feeling burned out, it can be helpful to ask them about their limits and what would work better for them.
  • Talk to a therapist. I can think of times in my life where I have waited too long to talk to a therapist, particularly when I was younger. I thought I could figure it all out alone and sometimes I could, but other times I was struggling unnecessarily for far too long. If you have the resources to see a therapist or if you need a free or low-cost one, start with a consultation to see what kind of counselling support may be available and whether you are the right fit with the therapist you researched.
  • Challenge yourself to do something new in an area where you don’t feel stuck. A little bit of challenge in an area that feels just a little challenging, but not scary or threatening, can help build confidence.
  • Remember that even a small step in an area you’re stuck is a step and can generate momentum. We don’t always know what will happen next as a result and it might be better than you think!

A Caveat

Sometimes it’s not possible to become immediately unstuck, as we may have little to no control in the situation we’re in. War, domestic violence, lack of resources, systemic oppression and more, are just a few examples. This article is not intended to shame, blame or judge anyone in difficult circumstances who are struggling to survive in them. Please consider connecting with a crisis service if you need it, even if you aren’t yet ready for action. Connecting with another caring person is still a step.

Further Reading

The book links on this page are Amazon Associate links; if you choose to make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission which I use to fund my low-cost counselling resource lists. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt (2006)

Children’s book with excellent adult appeal. The story about how a squirrel inadvertently faces his fears, with positive results.