How to get unstuck
We have to feel our feelings to break out of a rut
Metaphors for life almost always describe a journey. We either take the well-beaten path or the road less travelled, looking out for signposts that might give us a sense of direction along the way.
Of course, sometimes we lose our way or start to wonder if we're even on the right road at all. In simpler terms: we get stuck in a rut.
The trouble with ruts is that they have usually progressed to a certain point before we can admit we're in one. In most cases, boredom has given way to complacency and inertia has become ennui before we decide that something has got to give.
This isn't to be confused with depression, which feels insurmountable, whereas getting out of a rut feels obtainable. In broader stroke terms, people with depression often feel like they have lost control while those in a rut feel like they have temporarily relinquished it.
Of course, getting out of a rut isn't always as simple as taking back control or getting back to the gym.
Often we try to break out of ruts by coming up with short-term solutions to long-term problems. Rather than sitting into the discomfort and asking where it comes from, we opt for the quick-fix of a weekend away, a shopping expedition or a Tinder romance.
Otherwise we hatch outlandish and unlikely knee-jerk plans, like moving country, changing career or volunteering to dig wells in Africa.
It may feel like we're making progress but the truth is that making rash plans in the midst of a rut is akin to slamming on the accelerator when your car gets stuck in a ditch: You'll make a lot of noise but stay in the exact same position.
It's easy to confuse movement with action when we're trying to extricate ourselves from a rut. Yet if we look a little closer, we can see that we are actually creating hurdles that help us avoid making truly transformative changes.
"No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear," writes author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. "The advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away."
Unfortunately the problem never really goes away when we refuse to look at it properly. It can be deflected or sublimated or temporarily obscured, but it will eventually rear its head once again.
Instead of thinking about what will make us feel better when we're in a rut, we ought to think about why we're feeling discontent in the first place. In what area of your life do you not feel fulfilled? What passion are you not pursuing? What is no longer serving you?
Ruts are gateways to transformation, if we let them do their work. M. Scott Peck put it best: "The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled.
"For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."
In other words, instead of trying to avoid the pain, or numb the feeling, we need to think about what it is we want and how it is that we can get there.
Ruts are frustrating but when we think of them as catalysts of change rather than periods of passivity - or the end of a cycle and the start of a new one - we are more receptive to the lessons that we need to learn in order to move forward.
Tina Gilbertson shares an exercise for dealing with uncomfortable feelings in her book, Constructive Wallowing.
It's called the T-R-U-T-H Technique: T = Tell yourself the situation; R = Realise what you're feeling; U = Uncover self-criticism; T = Try to understand yourself; H = Have the feeling. This exercise is especially effective if you're the type of person who thinks 'I have to get out of this rut' the moment you realise that you're operating in auto-pilot.
Spiritual author Iyanla Vanzant believes that people get stuck when they don't know who they are. "When you don't know who you are, you don't know what you're capable of and you get stuck in your limited perceptions of yourself and reality," she says.
She advises radical self-enquiry, and an honest examination of "what you're willing to do and what you're not willing to do".
This exercise will help you differentiate between your authentic self and your false self, and will usually uncover what it is you're trying to achieve for achievement's sake. It will also help you understand the difference between reactionary goal-setting and responsive goal-setting.
Of course, the changes you need to make may not be immediately apparent or instantly feasible. What's important, though, is that you do something different.
Change begets change so try introducing small, easy to actualise, lifestyle changes - even if it's as simple as changing the route you walk towards work or the sandwich you get at lunchtime.
Major lifestyle changes become easier to introduce when we disrupt the minutiae of our daily routine. It also gives us the confidence to set larger goals and define our sense of purpose.
One day can melt into the next when we're in a rut, and it's easy to avoid friends and isolate ourselves when we get into the habit of falling asleep on the couch. Remember that socialising almost always refreshes and renews.
We can also lose our sense of curiosity, so it's important to stay exposed to new music, writing and film. Think of it as planting seeds from which new ideas will emerge.
"The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality," writes Pema Chödrön.
It's worth it, though. To paraphrase an old business axiom, we should never let a good rut go to waste.
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