When a challenge shows up in your life that requires your immediate attention, you are forced to make changes to handle it. Once the imminent situation is resolved, the motivating force you had to alter your behavior or methods to handle the issue often eases up as well. Then, it’s back to the same old routine.
While you certainly do not want to wish for problems to show up frequently, the “trouble-free zones” in your life in between the challenges can leave you idling and stuck because you don’t have anything pushing you to forge ahead in new ways. Unknowingly, people often get “unstuck” and regain the motivating tension to make progress by self-sabotaging or “creating a crisis.” For example, people cheat on their spouses because they get bored. They may quit their jobs once their position gets safe and stable. This can lead to a pattern beginning with a self-improvement phase which leads to accomplishment and achievement which is, then, followed by self-destruction. And with the pressure on for change once again, the cycle repeats itself.
Self-improvement, in itself, is not the ultimate end goal. It is the means to achieve other goals — getting over hurdles, achieving your dreams, and building a more fulfilling life — whatever that looks like to you. You may find yourself on the self-improvement merry-go-round making small strides, backsliding, and having to start over again and again — never really making much progress. Or for people who are lucky enough to gain ground and keep it, self-improvement can reach a point of diminishing returns.
When you feel stuck and find yourself not making much meaningful progress in your life, there are concrete action steps you can take to start moving forward again without self-destructing. Here’s how.
Explore why you feel stuck
The first thing you might want to do is ask yourself, “Why do I feel stuck?” Knowing the “why” can help you figure out the “how” to become unstuck and avoid it in the future. Stagnation and “stuckness” have different causes for different people. One of the most common underlying causes is fear. Try asking yourself “What am I afraid of?”
Some common fears that keep you stuck are:
Fear of failure
The fear of failing can outweigh a person’s desire to achieve a goal and the satisfaction that comes with it. According to research, fear of failure can be learned in childhood based on parental reactions and comes from trying to avoid embarrassment, shame, and disappointing others. When this fear is a predominant force, a person is more set on avoiding negative feelings than achieving their goals. People with a fear of failing may choose to play it so safe that they set lower standards, avoid taking risks, and focus on cutting their losses instead of making gains.
Fear of success
Yes, it’s a real thing. People can also fear success because with success comes greater responsibility. And more responsibility means more work, more headaches, more problems to solve, more scrutiny — and, at the same time, less freedom, less downtime, less play. Success makes a person more visible and more vulnerable. The expectations for continued success are higher, which means more effort is required just to maintain the status quo. When you are successful there may also be less room for mistakes. Having less responsibility and stress and living a simpler life can be a conscious choice to slow down and be happier. But, you want to make sure the choice is deliberate and not out of an unacknowledged fear.
Fear of rejection
This is the fear of being turned down when what you seek is to be included, whether that means being included on the admissions list of an academic institution, the payroll of a company, or in the plans of a friend or potential partner. Rejection, research shows, is painful — literally — both emotionally and physically. Your brain instinctually wants to avoid pain. Unknowingly, this innate fear may cause many people to never even request to be included. Instead, they may resort to justification, rationalization, and procrastination, and make safe choices that prohibit growth.
Fear of other people’s opinions
As a species, our brains care a great deal about what other people think. Caring about other people’s opinions maintains the social bonds within a cohesive group. Knowing and respecting social norms is what makes communities stronger, safer, and more stable. But excessively worrying about what other people think of your opinions, choices, and personalities impedes your own personal growth and progress. Fear of what others think has the potential to keep a person stuck in a career they don’t like, in a relationship that they know isn’t right, and in life circumstances that don’t make them happy.
Fear of missing out or commitment
Unlike the other fears, which in most cases prevent us from taking action by playing it safe, the fear of missing out can cause a person to lose focus, overcommit, and deplete their resources — whether that’s money, time, or energy. A person with a fear of missing out is going to have a hard time saying “No.” The flip side of this would be a fear of commitment which may be characterized by indecisiveness or avoidance. Making a commitment might feel like a loss of freedom and autonomy to some people.
How to get unstuck
There are plenty of ways you can help yourself get unstuck. Below are some approaches you can use to get out of your rut and continue making forward progress when your self-help needs some help.
Figure out what you really want
Stuckness can be a vague, ambiguous feeling of something in life not being “right” but you don’t really know what. When you notice these feelings, take some time to explore and think about what you want to be different in your life. Frame your hopes and desires as specific actions that you do want to happen. For example, “I want to make more money” rather than “I don’t want to lose my job.”
Take action — even one small step
Once you’re clear on what you want, ask yourself, “What’s the smallest first step I could take towards making this happen?” It’s easy to get overwhelmed and forget there are small steps that you could take to start making progress. Stuckness can often make you feel helpless, but you aren’t, and you don’t have to figure it out all at once. All you have to figure out is the next best step. You cannot be stuck and in motion at the same time. Doing anything – no matter how small – can start positive momentum and motivation in your life and brain to keep moving forward and makes the next step a little easier.
Rest, recharge, and focus on self-care
When you are trying to build positive momentum in your life, it is crucial that you support and encourage yourself, both mentally and physically. This includes doing what you need to look after yourself through a good diet, sleep, healthy movement, connection, and resting. Some suggestions for self-care are:
- Take a break from technology or social media
- Practice gratitude
- Get more sleep than usual
- Take a break or a mental health day when you need to
- Stay in touch with and meet up with supportive friends frequently
- Exercise and move your body
- Listen to music
- Visualize, say affirmations
Get a Coach
A coach is a person who is always in your corner and will provide objective feedback, guidance, and encouragement in your personal and professional life to help you get unstuck and achieve whatever it is you seek to accomplish. You can find a coach to focus specifically on your career or business or personal life — or everything in general. A coach can help you:
- Gain clarity about your purpose, passion, vision, values, and strengths
- Create and act on goals that align with your core values
- Increase productivity and performance, and learn the skills and science behind being a leader
- Feel more fully alive and fulfilled by understanding and tapping into the power of your brain
- Create sustainable and healthy habits that move you toward your dreams
- Design a life consciously of your choice
Join a peer group
There are several different types of peer groups, including social groups, like clubs and sports teams, or ones that are centered around professional qualities, like think tanks, or ones that focus on mental or physical health, like chronic illness or depression support groups, and more.
Professional peer groups are gatherings of professionals in executive roles who have similar experiences and responsibilities in their companies. In a peer group, members can bounce ideas off each other, share strategies to overcome challenges, and help identify new solutions and ways to think. True peer groups are not the same as networking groups or local business groups, such as chambers of commerce. A peer group has members who all have similar professional status but come from unrelated industries, with no competing businesses, and no vendor-client relationships.
Personal peer or support groups provide a space where individuals can come together to share their stories, experiences, and lives in a way that helps reduce isolation and loneliness and encourages growth. Oftentimes, a person may think that they are struggling alone, but support groups help us see that there are others who may be dealing with or have dealt with similar situations. These individuals can share information or just give support which can, in turn, can help us deal with our issues better.
A lot of peer and support groups, discussion boards, and communities are available online.
From free self-improvement online courses offered by Harvard to a million courses brought to you by individuals, you can find a class in just about anything you are interested in online these days. You can master a foreign language, become a whiz at Excel, make everybody gifts in a knitting class, or revisit the classic novels in an English course. Learning something new encourages your brain to make new connections, gets you out of your comfort zone, jumpstarts your creativity, and opens you up to new perspectives. It can be the motivation you need to move forward, and you learn something new too. It’s a win/win!
When you feel like you’re stuck — treading water furiously but not going anywhere, it may be time to break your past patterns and take self-help to the next level. If you want different results, you’ve got to do something different. You can do this in many ways. Take a hard, honest look at yourself, and then take the next small step. That may be finding a coach, joining a peer group, or taking a class. And don’t forget to take good care of yourself along the way too. Progress is possible.