So many times, we feel like we are stuck in a rut with no clear direction forward. This can happen in a range of areas, including relationships, friendships, work, self-development, or education.
Often, when you have been traveling down the same path for months or even years, it starts to feel like there is only one way to do things. Even if that path makes you unhappy, it feels to you like there is no other option. Here are some examples that may seem familiar.
- Michael is unhappy with his primary partner. They fight and don’t have much physical intimacy. Unfortunately, when he thinks about leaving, it feels like a gray cloud descends in his mind, and he feels incapable of taking action one way or the other.
- Elizabeth has stopped exercising even though she knows it has a positive impact on her depression. Every morning, when she used to run, instead she scrolls through her phone thinking that maybe in the summer she will start again.
- Lauren wishes that her kids listened to her more. She can’t imagine that anything would change the dynamic in her home, and doesn’t try to effect any change even after reading parenting books with ideas on how to manage kids’ behavior.
What all of these people have in common is that they don’t truly believe in their capacity to cause change in their lives. They are waiting for an external variable to change, because they feel such minimal agency in their own lives. This is called an external locus of control, and it means that you attribute events to external variables, rather than variables that you can control.
How to Escape Stagnation
To get yourself out of a rut, you need to change your locus of control to an internal one. People with an internal locus of control feel like they have the power to change their environment. They feel like they have agency in their own lives, and are making things happen versus waiting for them to happen. Here is how that would look in each of our examples:
- Michael decides to find a therapist and explore why he feels so powerless and stuck in his relationship. He determines that he is scared of change and hates the idea of breaking up with someone, even if he is unhappy, because it triggers feelings of his parents’ divorce. Working with his therapist, he decides to offer couples counseling to his partner, and to leave if she refuses to work on things.
- Elizabeth confides in a friend about her issues with motivation. They promise to hold one another accountable for exercising at least 5 times a week. Elizabeth also talks to her coworker and they decide to set up a walking group at lunchtime.
- Lauren thinks deeply about why she has never tried any of the behavioral management techniques that she so diligently reads about in her parenting books. She recognizes that since her own mother acted so overwhelmed by parenting her and her brothers, she subconsciously expects parenting to be stressful and out-of-control. She resolves to try to implement a sticker chart to help her 5 year old with better listening.
Notice that in order to feel more in control of your own life, paradoxically, you may need to reach out to others and open yourself up to accepting support and feedback. Also, introspection is necessary to figure out why you feel so paralyzed. Often, when you feel completely stuck and paralyzed in one sphere of your life, it is because childhood issues are being triggered.
Working with a therapist is one excellent way to explore why you feel stuck in a rut, but reading, introspection, and discussion with others can help you move forward and life the live that you want.