• “Is This All There Is?” What to Do When Life Feels Stuck

    woman choosing path

    woman choosing pathI sincerely believe that we talk about the weather more in the American Midwest than any other set of people does in any other part of the world. I first began to suspect this soon after I moved to Minnesota in 2015: it was at this point that I realized my father (who has not lived in this state for slightly longer than I’ve been alive) still kept himself more up to date on the weather here than I did.

    I’ve been ambushed by enough blizzards now that I’m at least in the habit of checking the forecast on Sundays, but I still treat these weather reports with suspicion. As a former pastor of mine once put it: “weather forecasting is the only profession where you can be wrong 70% of the time and still hold on to your job.”

    And so, when Alexa reported to me again last week that the high for the day was ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit, I treated this report as I would treat intelligence from a trusted spy that a rival empire had sent their entire army marching towards my capital. “You are sure about that, Alexa?” I asked. She was, unfortunately. The less fun part of the summer was at our gates.

    These days, I call this upshot in temperatures the “less fun part” of the summer because of the abrupt adjustment we all must make to short sleeves and mosquito bites. But there was a time some years ago when this “less fun part” of the summer went hand-in-hand not with a change in the weather, but with the hardest transition of my adult life.

    I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree in a field that I didn’t really want to be in (not Psychology, don’t worry!) and spent most of the summer trekking around the Twin Cities, interviewing for jobs that I didn’t really want. When I finally did land one of them, I found pretty quickly that it didn’t do much to help: I was doing work that didn’t interest me at all, and was asking myself if this was all that there was to “adult” life.

    All through college I had told my friends that, yeah, the jobs I got probably wouldn’t be very interesting, but I was going to do well enough financially that I would have the freedom to pursue the things I cared about in my spare time. But what I realized before long was that I didn’t even really know what it was that I cared about!

    “Modern life presents us with so many questions to be answered that it can be difficult to even identify which question we want to address first.”

    Modern life presents us with so many questions to be answered that it can be difficult to even identify which question we want to address first. Getting caught between all these questions can make us feel like we’re stuck, and this feeling can affect people in a multitude of different ways. For some people, feeling stuck gets them caught on the idea that there’s nothing more to life than what’s in front of them, and that thought becomes challenging, because what’s in front of them isn’t all that exciting.

    Other people can start to wonder if they got to where they are because they made “wrong” choices, which provokes a more anxious response. For many people, anxiety and depression are symptoms of an internal psychological struggle in the same way that a runny nose or a fever are symptoms of a cold. There can be a lot of different factors that contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, but if you’re asking yourself the question “is this all that there is,” then there’s a good chance that that feeling is a part of what you’re experiencing.

    I was fortunate during my transitional phase to have supporters who helped me figure out what worked for me, and I stand before you today a man who actually understands what he wants and is doing what he does well at. For those of you who are wondering “is this all that there is” right now, here are some steps you can take to navigate through the murky waters.

    1. Be honest about what’s not working for you.

    There can be a tendency in our culture to keep problems to ourselves, and to feel that we can’t even admit to ourselves that we’re not happy with where things are. I am here to tell you that choosing to reject this mindset is going to serve you well in the long run. If you’re feeling like you’re stuck, and that things aren’t working for you the way they are, then more likely than not there’s a need you have that isn’t being met.

    When you honestly consider the ways that you’re dissatisfied, what comes to mind? Is it your job? A relationship? Are you feeling unrecognized for the work that you do? Do your friendships feel one-sided? Are you feeling like there’s a different, better way you could use your skills? Really listen to yourself, and try to be specific in recognizing the things that aren’t working for you. If you’re having trouble with this, a counselor can also be someone who helps you get more in touch with what you’re feeling but might be struggling to put into words.

    1. Try something different!

    I think just about everyone knows Yoda’s famous line from The Empire Strikes Back: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Without wishing to undercut Mr. Yoda’s credentials, I think this is actually terrible advice! Trying things is an essential part of finding out what works for us. I think that our culture today has a big problem with viewing choices as more permanent than they really are. For one thing, I remember not that long ago when I felt like I was stuck forever in the first field I had chosen. To me, the fact that I had sunk the four years into getting my degree meant that I had no choice but to stick with that decision forever.

    As part of the program for my Master’s in Counseling Psychology, I spent a full school year as a practicum (intern) counselor at a university, and one of the trends I noticed throughout my year there was that many current college students seem to feel the same way that I did. I would hear from sophomores and juniors that it was “too late” to change their path, even though they were already concerned that they weren’t going to be satisfied in the fields that they choose.

    To me, trying things should be just that: trying them. It’s alright to try something (a major, a hobby, an instrument, a career, a way of communicating with someone) and find that it doesn’t work for you. Finding that something doesn’t suit you well means nothing more than that; there’s absolutely no shame in finding that something isn’t a good fit for you.

    Thomas Edison’s proclamation that he found 2000 ways not to make a lightbulb until he found the right one comes to mind for me (as I’m sure it does for those of you who have also seen National Treasure). The next time you find yourself feeling that you can’t move on from a decision you made in the past, ask yourself this question: “is this something that I absolutely must hold on to for the rest of my life, or can I take what I’ve learned here and use it to find something that really does suit me?”

    1. Recognize what does work for you (and choose to move towards it)

    You might not hit upon something that works for you right away, but trying new things will eventually help you find what does work for you. Maybe this is as simple as recognizing that a new career field is a better fit for you, or maybe you’ve decided to set new boundaries in your friendships. At this point, there is another question to be asked: “am I willing to let myself truly change the way things are?” This is going to mean disrupting the way that things have been for you.

    You may be thinking to yourself, “hold on there, sir, I was willing to experiment, but really changing the way that things are? That’s just too much right now.” This is a sentiment that I’ve been told as a counselor more than a few times. And the question that I usually respond with is simple: “well, how well is what you’ve been doing working for you right now? Is it good enough to just leave things how they are?”

    If I were to ask you to score how being stuck feels, maybe you would tell me that it’s a 5 out of 10. We can talk ourselves into the status quo very easily: “well, I can’t stand my job, but it pays well enough, so I at least can relax on weekends.” Or the idea of changing things can seem too risky: “well, I don’t really think I’ll ever want to marry this person, but what if we break it off and I don’t find anyone else who likes me?” It’s very common for a person to prefer the tolerable ways things are now to the uncertainty that comes with taking a chance on something new. But if you find yourself facing that question, “is this all that there is,” ask yourself if leaving things the way that they are is ever going to resolve that feeling.

    “But above all else, the thing to do when things feel stuck is to act.”

    Change doesn’t have to be drastic: maybe volunteering on weekends satisfies your desire to do work that helps others, or maybe changing the way that you and your partner communicate is all that you need to make the relationship work again. And I’ll say it again: working with a counselor can be a great way to get in touch with what you’re really feeling about something. But above all else, the thing to do when things feel stuck is to act.

    These steps might feel small or inconsequential, but in time you’ll find that they can be the beginning of something that really does work for you. And when that question comes up—“is this all that there is?”—you can answer very simply: “no, it’s not, because I’m going to create something more for myself.”

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