The #1 reason you feel stuck and directionless; and 4 key steps to getting yourself out of it
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself what it would take to do something that you totally would LOVE to do, but feels so utterly and unimaginably terrifying that you can’t bring yourself to actually do it?
We all have that one thing. Or if I’m being honest...we all have THOSE things (come on. you know it is a plural).
And those things don’t have to be something “monumental” like jumping out of an airplane, scuba diving in a cave, or holding a poisonous snake around your neck.
(I totally just shuddered as I typed that last item. GAH! SNAKES!)
No, it could be everyday things that may not BE life-threatening, but may FEEL life threatening…
And I’d be willing to bet that you find yourself in this situation more often than you’d like to admit.
Maybe you’re thinking something...“I should sign up for that art class. I’ve always wanted to learn how to watercolor.”
You may go so far as to look up classes...but then, you talk yourself out of it….which may look something like this...
“I don’t have time to commit to 5 weeks of classes”
“Wow, that’s expensive just for a simple painting class. I will just watch a Youtube video and teach myself.”
“Wait. Who will watch the kids/dog? Forget it, I can’t deal with that.”
“I don’t want to go alone and it’s not like any of my friends would want to go, so it probably wouldn’t be any fun.”
Yes? You’re not alone.
Or maybe it doesn’t resonate because watercolor’s not your thing. But perhaps you’ve encountered something else where you just can’t seem to pull the trigger, like…
Finally quitting your job and committing full time to starting and growing your own business
Scheduling that doctor’s appointment that you’ve been putting off so you can finally start to feel more like yourself again
Having that conversation with your spouse to ask for more support around the house (this time, without fighting over it)
Finally hiring a virtual/personal assistant so you can stop spending time doing stuff that sucks the life out of you
Saying no to the 3 volunteer/work activities you always tend to overcommit to (and then inevitably resent later)
Sounds more familiar now, doesn’t it?
So what gives? What keeps you stuck in the cycle of not pulling the trigger?
Do you really just not have motivation?
Is it really true that maybe you just don’t care enough?
Do you really just not have the discipline to get things done?
Is it really true that you don’t have time?
Spoiler alert: None of those things is actually true.
The truth is that there is a secret reason you’re hanging on and not moving forward.
There is a secret reason you keep finding yourself staying stuck and saying the same thing over and over again without moving needle.
It’s a payoff you get--one you may not even be aware you’re getting-- for staying put.
The human brain LOVES payoffs, and those payoffs come in the form of dopamine, the “feel good, life is groovy” chemical.
And here’s the catch--the brain itself doesn’t know any better when it starts handing out dopamine, so it will give you dopamine for secret payoffs even when the payoff makes no logical sense and goes against your better judgment.
This system is kind of like a candy store owner blindly handing out candy to 4 year olds. The brain’s internal dopamine candy factory doesn’t have the know-how to discern what is a good idea versus a bad idea for serving up dopamine treats. It just does it, indiscriminately. All day, every day.
And don’t worry. Your brain isn’t reckless and it isn’t trying to work against you. In fact, it’s trying to be helpful.
There are lots and lots of reasons why the brain hands out these secret dopamine payoffs, most of which we don’t even know we’re getting (which, duh, is why they’re a secret!)
Well, that is, until now…(because now you know!)
Let me give you a few examples of what the brain thinks it’s trying to do when it’s handing you dopamine and trying to help you.
Payoff #1: Staying safe, secure, and in your comfort zone
You, like everyone else, probably love the idea of having “control” and “certainty.” And if you don’t, your brain certainly does.
In this case, staying put feels more certain, therefore cha-ching! Choosing a path of certainty or the illusion of having control feels super groovy to the brain, which means that the brain hands out a couple rounds of dopamine treats for you!
And here’s the thing--choosing to stay stuck feels certain for sure. Though, it may feel Certainly awful (amIright?)... Chances are you probably hate that you’re stuck there (most of the time).
But moving forward and finally doing THOSE things may feel uncertain.
And that uncertainty in itself may feel more awful than the certain-ness of the awful you currently experience.
And because “current awful” feels better than “potential future awful”, the indiscriminate brain candy giver-outter that doesn’t know any better gives out dopamine for the seemingly better, safer option.
What if it’s not safety and security that the brain is craving?
Payoff #2: Being the Martyr
This is one you may see happening often in your friends or colleagues. Oftentimes, we don’t see this one in ourselves. But we unknowingly get a lot of “dopamine candy” for it.
Being the martyr shows up as the attention you may unknowingly or unwillingly receive from others or yourself for saying or thinking something like...
“Oh my life is SO busy or SO crazy or SO stressful. Nothing could possibly be worse than my life right now.”
Many times we may unconsciously seek a trophy for how stressed we may be. And the brain delivers one to you! That trophy comes in the form of more dopamine treats.
“Ahh...that’s better…” the brain says.
And thus, with that oh-so-gratifying payoff, you stay stuck.
I could go on and on and on as there are hundreds and thousands more endless payoffs we get for staying stuck.
And as you’re reading this, you’re probably sitting here thinking “That makes NO sense, Julie! Why would I want to get a payoff for staying stuck?”
Exactly. It doesn’t make sense. But yet, you still get the dopamine payoff, which means the indiscriminate brain candy shop owner also starts to encode this as a “good pattern” (even when it’s not helping you), and therefore, the brain will continue to entice you to practice the pattern over and over again with the allure of more “feel good, life is groovy” dopamine treats.
Ugh, so annoying right? With this wacky system in our heads, it can often totally feel like being stuck on a merry-go-round that never stops, and not knowing how to stop it.
By this point, you may also be thinking that none of this applies to you, and saying, “Nope, that’s not me, it’s not like I WANT to stay stuck. But, for me...see, there are actually all these reasons that I am stuck that I simply can’t change.”
Spoiler alert: I hate to break the truth to you, friend, but you also get a secret payoff for practicing the belief that you don’t have power over changing your life. Cha-ching! More dopamine for you!
The truth is, you can surrender that belief and start choosing to practice a new, more loving and truthful belief anytime you want. And when you do, the truth is that you will get a bigger payoff.
Let’s try it on for size.
Say it with me:
“I could have the power to change my life/job/health, and it’s possible that nothing except me could be in the way.”
….how did that feel? Did it seem untrue? Maybe a little foreign? Perhaps you rolled your eyes and came up with another reason why I’m out of my mind and making up lies?
Excellent. That means you’re in the right place. Those are all the brain’s attempts to keep you safe in your comfort zone, and therefore, getting more dopamine shots.
And if you felt a little resistance come up when you said that or read it out loud--GOOD!
That’s because it’s new, and it’s just a story you haven’t practiced much. So it may feel weird or foreign. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
The cool thing about these dopamine payoffs is that brain gives out more dopamine payoffs when you follow your heart and step into the truth.
Let’s do some Dopamine Math
Think of the cheap, secret payoff you get for staying in your comfort zone as being worth $1.
The bigger payoff that you receive for following your heart, being brave and un-sticking yourself is worth $100.
And let’s say that on an average day, the brain needs to survive on $500 worth of dopamine.
So in order to survive, we have two options.
We could practice those brave beliefs, patterns and actions that give us a HUGE payoff just 5 times a day.
Or we can practice those that give us a cheaper payoff 500 times.
Either way, we’re getting the same outcome. One takes far more effort and energy. Another takes far less.
What’s not to love about a “less is more” option?
By that logic, why would anyone choose the path of “More is less?”
The catch is that the cheaper payoff is a well-worn, familiar path that we’ve practiced so many times we know it like the back of our hands.
And as you may have felt with the sentence we practiced above, it may feel unsafe to practice a new pattern or walk down a new path, even when we know we’ll get a bigger payoff.
So we take the cheap, short, yet frustrating route and repeat it 500 times instead of the more bang-for-your-buck, sometimes longer, yet more empowering route 5 times.
It reminds me of the tortoise and the hare.
Are you the tortoise--taking slow and steady, sustainable brave action that will win you the race?
Or are you the hare--taking quick, cheap action that feels good at the time, but leads you nowhere fast?
Let’s look at it another way...
Would you take a job that pays you only $5 an hour because it is safe and familiar instead of taking the one that pays $100 an hour, but feels uncertain and may require you to learn new skills, step out of your comfort zone, and experience adventure every day?
Both are fine ways to get the payoffs you need. One of them is longer and winding and likely wrought with more pain, fatigue and frustration.
But still, the choice is always yours to choose which path you’d like to take.
Just because you’re stuck on that merry-go-round with no seeming way out, or because you can’t see a way to get unstuck, does not mean that you can’t start practicing a new belief or start looking for ways to get unstuck.
Want to start getting unstuck now but not sure where to start?
I’ve got a few steps for you to follow:
Step 1: You love DIY stuff, and I have a DIY guide that can help you with this
Check out my free Health You Love Checkup to help you identify where you’re getting payoffs you don’t want and design a healthy life you love on your terms.
Step 2: Check your stories at the door
Those payoffs you get are rooted in storytelling.
The truth is, most of our beliefs about our lives--particularly the ones that keep us stuck-- are NOT true.
They are simply a long drawn out series of stories that our brains make up to help explain the unexplainable.
The brain is wired to make up stories in the place of things that feel uncertain, scary, ambiguous, or unfamiliar.
For example, the brain may tell a story of “I didn’t sign up for watercolor class because I don’t have time.”
Yet, you practice actions that reflect the belief that it’s important to make time for 2 hours per day of Netflix, 7 days per week.
And to be clear, I’m not hating on Netflix watching. I love Netflix. What I’m pointing out is that’s 14 hours a week that you practice dedicating your time to something. It could just as easily be yoga or meditation or cooking or running that you spend 14 hours per week doing.
The truth is that you DO have time. And it’s not so simple of a solution to just “make more time.”
So step 2 is to say “Huh, I wonder if it’s really true that I don’t have time, or even that I don’t make time?”
Then rewrite the story to:
“What if I did have time? And what if I surrendered the payoff for telling myself that I don’t have time, and therefore staying stuck?”
That brings us to Step #3...
Step 3: Look deeper at the payoff for telling yourself a “stuck” story
Perhaps signing up for class feels uncertain, or unfamiliar. Or overwhelming. Or perhaps you feel inadequate, even though the class description says “you don’t need to have ANY skills.”
Because of that uncertainty or the feeling of inadequacy, the brain naturally fills in the gaps with storytelling! For example:
“Oh, but they don’t know ME. I’m WAY worse than anyone else. They couldn’t POSSIBLY teach me!”
There’s that martyr payoff, again.
Because of those emotional underpinnings that feel icky and uncertain, the brain immediately jumps to storytelling mode to fill in the gaps and get you some dopamine treats to help you feel better.
It acts like the doting mother who takes the child who feels frightened or afraid, wraps her in her a blanket arms, and begins singing songs or saying nursery rhymes to the child.
The brain does that simply when we feel afraid to help soothe you from uncomfortable emotions.
So as we examine the payoff, it’s not because you don’t have time or that you don’t make time.
It’s because you may not be aware of the payoff, or it doesn’t feel safe yet to surrender the dopamine payoff for trying to protect yourself from something that feels emotionally threatening.
More often than not, inaction happens because of fear of the unfamiliar, not because of some physical reason that is external, like not enough time or money or poor health or not having skills.
EVEN when you know in your heart that the unfamiliar is better for you, and you know unconsciously that you’ll get an even bigger, HUGE dopamine and endorphins payoff (more than you could ever get from the “cheap payoff” of staying stuck) when you finally just do it, it still feels better and safer to stay stuck.
Step 4: Trade in the cheap payoff for the bigger payoff.
In order to move forward, you do have to be willing to exchange the cheap payoff for the bigger payoff of letting go of the familiar and finally following your heart.
The problem is, we often don’t have experience in letting go and getting that bigger payoff.
We are very practiced at staying within our comfort zones and under our security blankets.
And we get rewarded for it by our brains whether we know it or not.
But the thing is, we don’t need a lot of life experience to choose courage over comfort, as author Brene Brown says.
I want to illustrate this with a story of my young friend Grace, who chose to do this every day of her life, up until she took her last breath.
Diagnosed with Stage 4 osteosarcoma at age 11, Grace spent over 3.5 years in the grips of cancer, yet chose to “live her life from the front row” at all times, as her mother eloquently described in Grace’s eulogy.
This looked like taking up a new sport, swimming, because she could no longer competitively run thanks to bone cancer taking part of her leg.
She could have chosen the cheap payoff behind the belief of “oh well, this leg can’t run anymore, so I will just sit here and not be active anymore.” Instead, she chose the bigger payoff associated with the adventure of learning a new sport, one that got her all the way to the level of the Paralympics.
It looked like swimming a 1 mile open water race even when she’d just finished radiation therapy.
She could have chosen the cheap seemingly safer payoff of “I’m tired, and don’t have energy to do that. It would be hard and I might feel sicker.” Instead, she went for the bigger payoff and totally nailed it...swimming faster than most people who hadn’t just been going through treatment.
It looked like telling everyone who would listen that she’d definitely be back the next year to swim the 3 mile race, even though most everyone (including herself) knew that her earthly life was likely to end before then.
She could have chosen the cheap, safer payoff of just saying “oh, we’ll see…” Instead, she tookt he bigger, braver payoff of fully committing to being there, knowing that a power greater than her would decide whether she was physically there or not and that miracles were possible. So why sell herself out?
It looked like insisting that she go to school and continue to do her math homework, even after she was placed on hospice.
She could have taken the cheaper, safer payoff of sitting at home and not doing homework (I mean, what teen wouldn’t love that from time to time?). Instead, she chose the bigger, more loving payoff of being around her friends and living life to the fullest, even if that meant doing algebra with oxygen in her nose.
Grace could have understandably received lots of payoffs for staying stuck and for giving up.
But she knew that living from the front row was a better payoff than staying stuck in her comfort zone.
And as her body got sicker and weaker, she continued to practice this belief, and her willingness to live life with that fiery spirit got stronger. Because of that, she made being brave look easy and that courage was contagious to everyone whose life she touched.
Here’s the thing. You can do that too. Anytime you want.
And you don’t have to hit rock bottom or realize you are dying from cancer to finally decide to get out of your comfort zone.
In fact, having been there myself, I don’t recommend you wait.
You can start by practicing re-writing your stories to ones that reflect courage, love and truth for yourself anytime.
You can change your mind and change your beliefs anytime you want.
It just means you have to let go of the cheap payoff, and go for the bigger, more loving one.
I understand that it may be hard to know where to start, or how to take small steps and, most importantly, keep taking them.
Chances are, you fall into one of two camps:
1) You may be the “I just want to fix all of this RIGHT NOW” type.
You get all fired up by reading something like this, and you go sign up for that class, or say no to those 3 things, or have that conversation with your spouse.
WOOHOO! GREAT JOB! Good for you!
And...I ask how will you keep yourself accountable to continue stepping into courage and surrendering the payoff of the “staying stuck” stories?
2) You may be the “Oh no...no way. I can’t let go. I just can’t. It feels too scary and I need a guide” type.
That’s ok! GREAT AWARENESS! You don’t have to do it alone!
For both types of people, I recommend that to either get started and/or to keep going that you don’t go at it alone.
As women, we are designed hormonally to be supported by others and to not live a DIY, isolating lifestyle. Studies actually show that a woman’s stress levels lower when she opens up and asks for help.
I recommend that you get a coach, get an accountability buddy, set up a plan that lets you take digestible baby steps, and start dipping your toe in the water.
You can do that!
And if you want extra support, that’s what I’m here for.
Wherever you’re stuck--please know that I see you, and it is ok that you’re stuck.
It is ok that you’ve tried a million things to get yourself unstuck, yet you keep finding yourself repeating the same patterns over and over again.
It is ok that you feel so far from “living from the front row” that you can’t even see the front row.
It is ok that you may secretly want to punch me in the face because you think none of this applies to you (but deep down, you have a feeling that it actually does…and that feels terrifying).
It is ok that you’ve asked for help before and it didn’t seem to help at all.
The truth is, you know something needs to change, otherwise you wouldn’t still be reading this.
I invite you to have a conversation with me about it in a judgment free, “I totally get you, sister” zone.