Feeling Stuck Is an Illusion

When we become attached to familiar patterns, we sabotage our own lives

Photo: Thanaporn Sae-Lee/EyeEm/Getty Images

Feeling stuck is an illusion.

There is absolutely nothing easier than change.

We spend most of our lives trying to decrease the amount of change we experience. We do everything possible to stabilize, routinize, and normalize.

We feel stuck not because we are actually being pinned to our lot in life by forces beyond our control. Rather, it’s because we’re subtly and subconsciously influenced to reinforce preexisting behavioral patterns.

The trouble is not that we are incapable of change.

Your brain is plastic. Even after it goes through its final growth spurt in young adulthood, it’s still an adaptive, responsive mechanism. With every thought you have and every behavior you engage in, you are forging new neural pathways and strengthening preexisting ones.

The trouble is not that we are incapable of change. Rather, it’s that our most fundamental human fear is of the unknown — and we are still battling that, even in our highly modernized world.

Think of stories of captive baby elephants, who are sometimes chained to trees when they’re young. As adults, they are freed from their bindings but still spend their lives hovering around their home base. The irony? As they mature, even just a bit, they possess the brute force to rip the tree out from its roots and free themselves. But they don’t. They may have tried this when they were babies and failed, so the optics of the chains convince them they’re still incapable.

The problem is not that we are stuck. It’s that we become obsessed with familiar patterns, and that’s what sabotages our lives.

If the first people who loved us also taught us that to love is to abandon, that becomes ingrained in our concept of a relationship. If we are only ever used to making a certain amount of money, we spend our time justifying why we aren’t capable of making more, or why people who make more than we do are corrupt, or why we are safe and “better off” where we stand. If we spend most of our lives with a low sense of self, we use it as a coping mechanism, a reason to feel small and safe.

The brain is exceptional in that it is both adaptable and self-affirming.

When we finally reach the day when we’re ready to change, we’re up against a mountain of our own making. We have to untangle the deep associations that wreck our relationships. We have to face those fears, then choose otherwise. We have to admit that we haven’t been as successful as we had once hoped before we can do more and become more. We have to reconcile the false beliefs we have about people who are what we secretly want to be, all so that we no longer fear that it would be “bad” to be that way, too.

The brain is exceptional in that it is both adaptable and self-affirming. We spend most of our time unconsciously sorting through experiences and stimuli to focus solely on the information that reinforces what we already believe.

We want to be affirmed. We want to be validated. We want to be right. We want to return to the comfort and control of what we’ve known while still ascending to happiness we’ve not yet experienced.

The cruel trick of life is that as long as we are hovering near the tree we were once chained to (to use the elephant metaphor again), there will always be a gnawing sense that we are missing out and not quite doing all that we are meant to do. Everyone feels this way. Most people suffocate the feeling because listening would mean exiting their comfort zone, and sometimes it is the only one they have ever known.

But know this:

You do not sabotage your life because you are stupid.

You do not sabotage your life because you don’t know what you want.

You do not sabotage your life because you are incapable.

You sabotage your life when you become so used to your own familiar patterns that you fail to find the strength to endure the discomfort of breaking them.

Author of 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think and six other collections. Visit briannawiest.com to shop for books and more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store