Having recently pulled out of an unexpected rut of my own, and fascinated by how different everything looks from this side of the struggle, I thought I’d take advantage of its still-close proximity to examine the reasons I got stuck in the first place, the ways I dug myself deeper before I even realized what I was doing and what it is about stuckness that I clearly resist to begin with.
When I look at the whole of it; when I examine the experience like I might a recently-woven blanket or sweater I finally finished, I can see a pattern that wasn’t obvious to me during the process:
I spent more time and energy on self criticism than self love.
Here are a few other tendencies I’m able to recognize in retrospect. (I’m jumping straight from “I” to “We” because I think I’m not alone in this one):
We’re hard on ourselves for getting stuck in the first place. As if we weren’t human. As if low spots weren’t a part of everyone’s experience. As if we have full control over life’s unfolding. Criticizing ourselves and beating ourselves up for falling prey to the patterns of human existence is like proclaiming ourselves superhuman! and thereby exempt from the ebb and flow; the mystery. Embracing our lows and recognizing them as not only essential to growth but unique opportunities for transformation shifts their nature from inherently negative to natural and necessary.
We believe everything we think. “I shouldn’t be stuck.” “I can’t afford to be stuck right now.” “What is the matter with me?” “No one else seems to have this problem.” Like so many of our unchecked thoughts, none of these are inherently true (nor useful as digging tools), yet the amount of time we spend entertaining such notions and building stories on top of them can fool us into thinking they were valid to begin with.
We’re burdened and distracted by trivialities. Like a backseat filled with sandbags or cinderblocks, when we’re stuck, all the extra burdens we carry are suddenly that much more noticeable. The temptation is to focus on the cinderblocks as the problem, removing them as the solution or simply distracting ourselves by arranging them ever so neatly in the muck beside us. “I can’t deal with X huge issue right now, I have to decorate the house for holidays,” for example. Difficult as it may be to let go of distractions, unloading a few sandbags may be all the relief we need to gain traction.
We’re unaccustomed to being patient. Consumer culture has trained us to believe that we need not be patient, that we deserve whatever it is we want and that the best solutions are quick, easy and readily available. So when real life hits us, we expect to be able to solve our problems right away, then wonder what’s wrong with us when we can’t. Real change, deep growth and true healing take time. Allowing ourselves this time and honoring it as no less worthy or beautiful than, say, the growth of a young child, is a countercultural act of self love if there ever was one.
We think wherever we’re going is better than where we are. Though easy to believe when times are tough, this notion is purely presumptuous. Truth is, we have no idea what the future holds, and there is just as much beauty and goodness available to us in times of struggle as any other. Though our fear of present-moment pain and vulnerability wants to keep us future-focused, allowing these feelings to pass through and change us may be the only way out that doesn’t lead straight to another rut.
We try to push through it alone. At risk of wearing out the metaphor, if your car is stuck in the mud and your pride/embarrassment/stubbornness (each a form of ego) keep you from asking for help, you may as well make camp and get cozy. We need one another. Seeking counsel, support and the solace of dear friends does not imply weakness, it means that we love ourselves enough to recognize our needs and allow others to help us meet them.
We assume others are judging us. “People expect me to post regularly.” “My readers probably won’t take me seriously anymore since I clearly can’t stick to a regular writing schedule.” It’s truly amazing how self-absorbed and self-conscious we become when we fail to meet our own expectations. Superimposing self doubt on other people and assuming what they must be thinking is not only unfair and inaccurate, but a strategy with which we defer personal responsibility.
We forget to nurture ourselves in the process. When we’re feeling low, we tend to do the opposite of what our bodies, minds and spirits really need, which further weakens us. Whether it’s sticking with a daily yoga practice, slowing down enough to notice beauty in the small things or making sure we’re getting enough sleep, honoring our basic needs is more essential when we’re stuck than ever. (Not to mention how many times I’ve found my way out of a rut in pigeon pose or atop my clunky old single-speed).
We focus on the “problem” instead of the process. Whatever the current struggle, simply thinking of it a process rather than a problem removes an element of negativity from the equation. Consider this: there are no problems, only situations that either require our attention or they don’t.
We think there’s only one way out. When I’m in a funk, my creativity is the first thing to go, which means I become singular in my way of thinking. Opening back up to the world of possibility and shifting my perspective by changing up my daily habits, brainstorming, even exploring an unfamiliar part of town can break up cyclical thoughts long enough to see the situation anew. There’s always another way, though if the path you choose means avoiding the deeper issue at hand, you can be sure the lessons will repeat themselves until you finally face them.
I don’t actually think it matters how stuck we are — whether so deep in a hole we hardly remember breaking ground to begin with or simply reacting in a useless manner out of sheer habit — anytime we’re in a rut, the following steps can help us regain traction:
Examine your thoughts for truth. The uncomfortable ones? The ones that drain and exhaust you? Check them before you decide where to dig. Partial truths and utter lies make for deceptively weak foundation material. Don’t build your stories on top of them.
Practice self love. Affirm yourself when the doubts cast their shadows. Go outside and breathe beauty, let it in. Take a nap, make art, float on water. Count the gifts you give yourself among your treasures and make giving them habitual.
What I find fascinating is that none of the above can be sold to us (which explains why they’re rarely promoted), and all three put the responsibility (and thus the power) back in our hands. So, we need not wait on anyone or anything to begin digging (and there sure could be worse ways to start than by taking a nap).
My own recent rut was both wide and deep, because I chose the slow way out. It was painful, it was humbling and I accomplished little else.
But the rewards? Oh my…the rewards. Let’s just say I’ve only begun to taste them, I’ve craved this spice of life for a long time, and if I had to name the dominant flavor…it’d be Joy.
“The most vulnerable and at the same time the most unconquerable thing is human self-love; indeed, it is through being wounded that its power grows and can, in the end, become tremendous.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche