Self-Knowledge • Behaviours
On Feeling Stuck
Many of us spend a large a part of our lives, in one way or another, feeling stuck, that is in a state where a strong desire to move forward on an issue meets with an equally strong compulsion to stay fixed where one is. For example, we might at one level powerfully want to leave a job in finance in order to retrain in architecture – but at the same time, remain blocked by a range of doubts, hesitations, counter-arguments and guilty feelings. Or we might be impelled to leave our marriage – while simultaneously unable to imagine any realistic life outside it. To act feels horrific, but doing nothing is killing us as well. Every avenue appears shut off. And so one ruminates, turns over the question late at night, tries the patience of therapists – and watches life go by with mounting anxiety and self-disgust.
As an outsider, one might be tempted to ask questions to move things on: Why don’t you try to enrol on a course to see if you might like a new area of work? Why don’t you discuss your dissatisfactions with your partner? Why don’t you go to counselling? What about splitting up? But we’re likely to find that our friend can’t make any progress, whatever we say. It seems as if they are subject to a law disbarring them from progressing, not a law you’d find in the statutes of the country they live in, but some sort of personal law – a law that might go like this: Make sure you don’t achieve satisfaction in your career; Make sure your relationship has no life in it but cannot be abandoned; Make sure you aren’t happy in the place you live in.
In order to understand the origin of these laws, we have to look backwards. Difficult childhoods and the complicated families they unfold in are the originators of a lot of these restrictive unspoken laws, whose impact echoes across our lives. Some of these laws might go like this: ‘Make sure you never shine, it would upset your little sister’. ‘You have to be cheerful not to let my depression break through.’ ‘Never be creatively fulfilled because it would remind me of my envy’; ‘Reassure us that we are clever by winning all the prizes at school’; ‘We need you to achieve to make us feel OK about ourselves’. ‘You would disappoint me if you became boisterous and one day sexual’.
Of course, no one ever directly says such things in a family (laws couldn’t operate if they could so easily be seen), but the laws are there nevertheless, holding us into a particular position as we grow up and then, once we have left home, continuing to surreptitiously distort our personalities away from the path of their legitimate growth. It can be hard to draw any connection between adult stuck situations and any childhood laws. We may miss the link between our reluctance to act at work and a situation with dad at home thirty years before. But we can hazard a principle nevertheless: any long-term stuckness is likely to be the result of butting into some sort of law inherited unknowingly from childhood. We are stuck because we are being overly loyal to an idea of something being impossible generated in the distant past, impossible because it was threatening to someone we cared for or depended on.
Therefore one of the main paths to liberation lies in coming to ‘see’ that the law exists and then unpicking its warped and unnecessary logic. We can start by asking whether, beneath our practical dilemma, there may be a childhood law at work, encouraging us to stay where we are. We can dig beneath the surface problem in search of the emotional structure that might be being engaged (in the unconscious, architecture = the creativity dad never enjoyed, sexual fulfilment = what hurt my loveable mum). We may discover that some of the reason we can’t give up on finance and take up a more imaginative role is because throughout childhood, we had to accept a law that we couldn’t be both creatively fulfilled and make money – in order to protect our volatile father from his own envy and inadequacy. Or we can’t leave our marriage because, unconsciously, we’re coming up against a law from childhood that tells us that being a good child means renouncing one’s more bodily and visceral sides.
The specifics will differ but the principle of a hidden law from childhood explains a huge number of adult stucknesses. The way forward is, first and foremost, hence to realise that there might be a law in operation when we get stuck, that we aren’t merely being cowardly or slow in not progressing; and that we feel trapped because we are, in our faulty minds, back in a cage formed in childhood, which we have to be able to see, think about and then patiently dismantle. We can along the way accept that we are now adults, which means that the original family drama no longer has to apply. We don’t have to worry about upsetting parental figures; their taboos were set up to protect them but they are making us ill; we can feel sad for the laws that these damaged figures imposed on us (often with no active malevolence) but can recognise that our imperative is move them aside and act with the emotional freedom that has always been our birthright. We may need to be disloyal to a way of being that protected someone we cared about or depended on – in order to be loyal to a more important someone still: ourselves.