On fear, wheelspin, and getting out of that rut
Whether coaching clients are striving to boost their confidence, beat a phobia or find their purpose, they have one thing in common. Each of them talks about feeling stuck in some way, struggling to meet their own expectations (or those of the people close to them) of what life should be like.
And they're in good company. According to a survey by GoDaddy, two thirds of Americans are frustrated with their progress in life and feel stuck in a rut. They claim that money, motivation and not knowing where to start are holding them back from changing their lives for the better. But in my experience, there's another, more powerful force at work here - and that force is fear. It might be fear of failure, fear of rejection, or fear of flying. Whichever it is, it has a paralysing effect on people's lives, entrapping them within their comfort zone and holding them back from pursuing their goals. As Shannon L. Alder puts it so succinctly, “Fear is the glue that keeps you stuck”.
What does it mean to be stuck?
1. Being unable to move or to be moved
2. Being unable to answer or understand something
3. Being in a situation that you do not like but cannot avoid
4. Not knowing what to do in a particular situation
5. Being forced to have, use, or deal with someone or something that you do not want.
Dictionaries describe the scenarios above when defining the word 'stuck'. The common theme here is a total lack of power, movement, and options. A feeling of being trapped in a situation that you would not choose, with no control over it and no prospect of moving forward.
The good news is that if you're feeling stuck in your career, your relationship or in unhealthy habits, this sense of being stuck is just a perception - it's not reality. Sure, there are probably external circumstances that you can't control that are frustrating your progress, but the only thing that is truly stuck is the record you're playing to yourself in your own head. The record that goes round and round on a loop repeating statements like 'You could never be a...', 'You're too old to...', 'No-one will take you seriously if you...' or 'It's just not realistic to...'. This record is the insidious sound of fear disguising itself as fact. It is False Evidence Appearing Real. It is fear of the unknown. It is the glue that keeps you stuck.
The great thing about this scenario is that the DJ in charge of the music at this gig is you. You can change the record. You get to choose the soundtrack to your life, and it pays to be thoughtful about this playlist, because you will be the one out there dancing to those tunes. In the wise words of Lisa M Hayes, 'Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening'.
Common mistakes - what not to do when you're feeling stuck
Firstly, let's take a look at the top three common mistakes people make when they're feeling stuck.
1. Trying harder at the same things. Let's take a practical example to illustrate this point. Picture the scene. Your car is bogged down in the mud in the grassy car park at a festival. The rear wheels keep spinning when you try to drive away. You press your foot harder on the accelerator, but the wheels just dig deeper into the mud. We all know this is only going to end up with the car getting even more stuck. The answer is to try different things that take the struggle out of it, like reducing the load in the vehicle, using branches to gain traction, deflating the tyres a bit and taking your foot off the gas a little. The parallels with feeling stuck in your own life are clear - trying the same thing over and over again is likely to deliver the same results, and may even make things worse as you wear yourself out. Introducing new strategies that lighten the load can change the game, and create the traction, energy, and momentum you need to move forward.
2. Delaying action until you have everything worked out. Waiting for everything to be perfect means you could be waiting for a very long time, forever, maybe. This means you may never get to try out life on the other side of the rut. It certainly helps to have a plan - know what your next move is and the one after that. You need to recognise when your plan is good enough, and it's time to translate it into action. Get comfortable with some uncertainty and some gaps. Then, take the first step, accepting that you will need to work out some of the detail after you've mobilised.
3. Blaming someone else. This is a sure-fire way of getting yourself well and truly entrenched in that rut. It undermines your own power to move forward by suggesting that the solution to your issue lies with someone else. It drains your emotional energy and distracts you from the important job at hand. To truly free yourself, you need to take accountability for your own feeling of 'stuckness', focus on the elements you can control, and take action to address these.
Three steps to get you out of the rut
So if fear is the glue that keeps us stuck, what's the solvent? The short answer is anything that gives you the courage to take the first step forward, whatever step that may be. Here are some practical suggestions:
1. Get out of your own head. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and look at your situation from different viewpoints. Look outwards for inspiration rather than always looking inwards for answers. Getting some perspective will help you think more creatively and clearly about your situation. Talk to people you trust and ask for their views. Read inspirational stories about people who have overcome great obstacles in life, and get imaginative - wear different hats! What words of wisdom would your deceased grandmother have for you right now? What would Richard Branson do in your position? What would a Paralympian say to you? What advice would you give your own child if they were in your situation? What will you have to say about this in 10 years' time?
2. Create options. Being wedded to one particular way of doing things can make you feel more stuck. One of the core principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is that 'the person with the most flexibility controls the system'. This means that people who are flexible in the way they think have the best chance of getting the result they want. They aren't rigid about a particular way of doing things, because they realise that circumstances can change, and that change brings opportunities to do things better and to do better things. There is always more than one way of doing something well. If you create options for changing your situation, you have more than one way of exiting the rut, which not only increases the chances of it happening, but could also make the whole process easier and quicker than you had imagined.
3. Compare and contrast. Draw up a written comparison of staying as you are Vs changing your situation. What are the pros and cons of each? What will you lose if you stay put Vs what you will lose if you change your situation? What will you gain in each scenario? To get the most out of this, you will need to be honest with yourself about what you're afraid of that might be preventing you from moving forward. What are you clinging to about your current situation? What are you afraid of losing, or gaining? Who else has a voice that you're listening to here? How much of this is fact and how much of it is False Evidence Appearing Real? This exercise will help you to weigh up whether the pain of staying stuck outweighs the fear or difficulty of doing something about it.
A final word from someone older and wiser than me
Remember that feeling stuck is all about perception. As soon as you take accountability, get creative and generate options, you empower yourself to change the record, take action, and confront your fear of change. Try some of these simple techniques and see if they help to change your perspective on your situation, get inspired and generate alternative routes forward. I will leave you with a famous quote from Mark Twain, and wish you bon voyage!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails..."
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