10/30/2010 04:37 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

4 Steps to Get Unstuck

The reason so many of us are drawn to the idea of getting unstuck is because feeling stuck in life is such a common experience. Maybe we continually get distracted at work as projects mount or get hooked into the same arguments in our relationships, or just can't seem to get back on the treadmill.

Feeling stuck is part of the human experience. So how do we get unstuck?

In order to get unstuck, we need to understand that there are perceptions, judgments and opinions that occur so quickly beneath our awareness that we get stuck before we even notice any thoughts arise. Your mind judges exercise as "bad" before the conscious excuse comes up. Your partner was "wrong" milliseconds after he opened his mouth.

So we can follow the stories of our minds about why we can't exercise or why our partner is a jerk or how the projects can wait, but those stories are secondary to the first thing we have the option to notice, which is the actual feeling of being stuck. The physical feeling is a fact that we can bring our attention to in order to interrupt the downward cycle as it's occurring to get unstuck.

Easier said than done.

In her recent book "Taking the Leap," Pema Chodron teaches us about the Tibetan word Shenpa. She says Shenpa can be thought of as getting "hooked" -- what it feels like to be stuck.

She says, "Somebody says a harsh word and something in you tightens: instantly you're hooked. That tightness quickly spirals into blaming the person or denigrating yourself. The chain reaction of speaking and acting or obsessing happens fast."

It happens so fast that at times we're not aware of it until we're deeply stuck. However, here is the critical point. In that moment when we know we're stuck, we're present, and now we are sitting in a space where we can choose a different response.

There's the famous saying: If you can name it, you can tame it.

Here are four steps to get unstuck:

  1. Name the stuckness: In other words, simply say to yourself, this is the feeling of being stuck
  2. Find the physical sensation: Take a brief scan of your body and become aware of where you notice the greatest sensation. Get a sense of how large it is, its shape, and whether it has a color. Get curious about it. Getting curious helps us break outside the box.
  3. See choices: Ask yourself the question, is there another way I can see the situation I'm in? What choices do I have here? See if you can do this without judgment, more as a brainstorm.
  4. Take action: Put one foot in front of the other and begin engaging in one of those choices.

Even if the choice doesn't stick at first, know that this practice in itself is training your mind to get unstuck from the cycles it gets caught in. When you notice yourself wandering into past habitual ways of being, know that that is expected, and gently guide yourself back.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.


This piece is adapted from a post on the blog "Mindfulness and Psychotherapy" at Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is co-author of "A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook." You may also find him at