Getting Unstuck

Are you stuck?

How many times do therapists hear their clients say in agonized voices:

“Why can’t I stop thinking about him?”; “I keep making the same mistakes, what’s wrong with me?”; “I’ve tried everything, nothing changes.” People get caught in a nightmarish circle of behavior they can’t alter. They keep trying to change, but the result is always the same: if nothing changes, nothing changes.

How can you get different results?

It seems so obvious. Do the opposite of what you usually do! The problem with this pearl of wisdom is that when you’re stuck, you believe you can’t do anything differently. Even if you were to say something different, you would convey the same message because you’re stuck. We get stuck everywhere it matters: family and love relationships, residences and jobs.


Scary. Are these permanent situations? Happily, no. Read on…


Ready to get unstuck?


The doting aunt

Carly feels taken advantage of by her sister in law (SIL). The SIL asks Carly to babysit her 2 year daughter frequently, always on short notice, using guilt to undermine Carly’s desire to decline. Carly thinks there’s no way to say no without causing a rift in their relationship. Taking her friends’ advice, she’s told her SIL she’s unable to babysit in several different ways, but allows herself to give in when she hears how important it is and that no one else is available. Carly is stuck.

Carly’s therapist asks, “Why is your SIL’s time more important than yours?” Carly responds, “It isn’t, but she won’t listen. She just starts telling me a long story of why she needs me to watch the baby. She makes it sound so urgent. Should I screen her calls?” Her therapist replies, “Let’s hold that option for now. If she uses guilt as a weapon, what if you took that weapon away?” Carly asks, “How?” The therapist says, “The last minute requests are what create the guilt. You need to get your message out there ahead of hers.” Carly replies, “But I never know when she’s going to call.”

Carly is stuck. She is reacting when she needs to be proactive. No matter what excuses she gives, as long as she is put on the defensive, she’ll never feel assertive enough to get unstuck. Back to the session:

The therapist says, “How about calling her and asking to meet? She can bring the baby.” Carly laughs. “When you’re face-to-face, set the tone by noticing aloud what a doting mother she is, how she wants her child to be with family as much as possible. Offer to arrange a regular time to watch the baby, no more than once a month, more if you feel up to it. Explain that you are unavailable to sit at short notice as you have responsibilities that don’t allow for schedule changes. Tell her you feel badly about saying no; you value the relationship. That’s why you’re telling her now.

No further explanation is required. If she asks any questions, repeat what you’ve already said. No need to defend yourself. Are you ready for this approach?” Carly was.


How can you get unstuck?

  • If your schedule includes several activities you can’t (and would prefer not to) cancel, be mindful of requests for your time. Be prepared to set boundaries.
  • Guilt is a powerful weapon. Don’t allow it to control you.
  • It’s often fine to just say yes. Giving rewards us richly. If you’re the giver, you earn the right to negotiate. Request terms that work for you.
  • It’s OK to change the game plan. Contracts — both professional and personal — often require amending.

Ready to get unstuck?


A move that needed to happen

Stephanie and Angela met in line at a downtown Chicago Starbucks. Both alone, they placed identical orders: double espressos. As the women shared small talk, they learned they had some things in common. And more to the point, Angela needed a place to live. She just graduated college and started her first job. Stephanie had a job that paid decently and a two bedroom apartment. She was looking for a roommate.

Stephanie and Angela started their living arrangements as best friends. However, it soon became apparent that Stephanie was a shut-in, only leaving the apartment to go to work and Starbucks. Angela frequently felt pressured to stay around the apartment to keep Stephanie company. At first she complied but then realized, she had to get out of there. After 6 months of living passively, Angela felt confused about where to start.

Angela tried her EAP at work. Together, Angela and her therapist broke the move into manageable tasks: Gather boxes and begin packing, Make a budget — would she need a roommate? Where did Chicagoans look for apartment listings? Narrow the search to suit her needs. Most importantly, commit to taking one action every day to inch her closer to her goal.

Soon enough, Angela was picking up “change of address” forms at the Post Office. Are you ready for this approach? Angela was.


How can you get unstuck?

  • Keep a journal. Document your journey from moving in to moving out. Your underlying thoughts and fears will surface. You’ll be surprised and motivated.
  • Separate and prioritize your challenges. If relocating is crucial, focus there and stay on-task. Amazingly, conquering one challenge may eliminate others.
  • Recall difficult tasks you’ve successfully completed. You’ve done it before; you can do it again.

Ready to get unstuck?


Double bind / double trouble

During a particularly harsh Winter in New Jersey, Denise moved to Daytona Beach, a Florida city close to her sister’s home. Her sister had been a Floridian for several years and longed for Denise to join her. Working together, they fortuitously found a suitable apartment online.

Denise sold her mobile home, complete with the furniture, packed what would fit into her Honda Civic and headed South. She left behind Josh, her boyfriend of three years. He promised move as soon as he was able to divest himself of 25 years of accumulated “stuff”, including six vehicles.

During her first Daytona months, Denise found work in her field and looked for a house she and Josh could share. As Spring sauntered into Summer, the tropical climate came along. It was hotter and more humid than Denise anticipated. Alone in her apartment, air conditioning on “frigid”, she missed Josh.

Josh missed her too; but he wasn’t ready to move. Denise suspected he never would be. But he was ready to marry her if only she would come back. His rental home was perfect for newlyweds. They’d go ring-shopping the minute she pulled into his driveway.

How could she? Her sister, her new friends, her excellent job, her tan. If she remained in Daytona, losing Josh seemed inevitable. Up North, she’d have to start over, pale, freezing and broke. For the second time that year, she’d sell her furniture and look for work.

In a double bind, she had a decision to make.


How can you get unstuck?

  • As you weigh the options, beware of narrow framing. Envision the bigger picture. Even better, envision someone you respect faced with the same dilemma.
  • Be aware of confirmation bias: if you’re leaning a particular way, you’ll tend to collect information that supports that choice. Be objective.
  • Short term emotions don’t foster wise choices. Employ the 10/10/10 method: how will you feel about your choice in 10 days? 10 months? 10 years?
  • An informed decision is always wiser than “going with your gut”. Do your research.