Feeling Trapped? Learn How to Get Unstuck
Do You Feel Trapped In Life?
If so, you’re not alone. I see it all the time: people who show up for growth-oriented therapy and life coaching often do so because they feel trapped and stuck and they do not know how to move forward.
They say in their first online coaching session, “I feel trapped in my job,” or “I feel trapped in my marriage,” or “I feel trapped by my life.” What they’re saying is, “I’m unhappy, but I do not see a path forward.” Although they desire change very much, it really feels like, in every direction, there is a barrier or an insurmountable obstacle. It’s like they have no good options. They are paralyzed.
So they sit on my couch or on my computer screen, feeling beaten down, helpless, tense, and often certain in the futility of any effort to create change.
Then we talk; we usually talk about their many, many, MANY obstacles.
- A career coaching client talks about how much they hate their job but can’t find a different one for various reasons. “This other job won’t pay as well.” “I don’t want to have to go back to school.” “I’ll be totally starting over!”
- A life coaching client might talk about how they want to create better habits and make positive life changes but haven’t been successful yet, so therefore they can never be. Everything they try to do fails. They have stopped trusting themselves to do what needs to be done to create positive change. They have tried it all. Nothing works. They can’t xyz and have so many reasons why.
- A relationship coaching client needs me to know their relationship feels toxic, not emotionally safe, and not satisfying. Communication is terrible. They want so much to love and be loved but feel helpless because their partner won’t change. But on the other side, getting divorced feels like signing up for a whole new set of terrible problems. And the kids. And the money. And the heartbreak. They feel trapped in a bad relationship that they can’t fix, and they can’t leave.
What to Do When You’re Feeling Trapped
In all of these situations — while the specific circumstances leading these folks to feel trapped are different — the result is the same: it feels like the door to their ideal path has just slammed shut and now they are facing a wall. A high, high wall.
Emotionally, they feel helpless and that their problems feel too big to overcome. Every opportunity quickly becomes a snarl of more problems and negative outcomes, and paralysis takes over.
“Being stuck” becomes a purgatory and, as you can imagine, fertile ground for depression to sink roots that wrap them up in tight black vines of hopelessness. It’s hard to go through, and even as a trained therapist or coach, it’s hard to watch.
Why does this happen? Most importantly, how do you move past feeling trapped and set yourself free?
Why You Feel Trapped: The “Black and White” Trap
The truth is that when I sit with my therapy or coaching clients, I become very, very aware that:
- Their adverse circumstances are very real
- They may not have great options, and they do have to make hard choices
- They have more options than they think they do
If your immediate reaction to that last part was, “NO, I DO NOT!” Please, hear me out.
In my experience as a therapist and life coach, and an empathic observer of humans, I have learned that there is a very specific way of thinking that inevitably intensifies the feeling of being trapped, and will always make you feel helpless and overwhelmed by obstacles: black and white thinking.
If you’re feeling paralyzed, stuck, or helpless there is a good chance that, at the core, and without even realizing it you might be engaging in “all or nothing” / “yes or no” / “this or that” / black and white thinking.
When a black or white thought process is active, everything becomes an “either / or.”
“I need to get into this graduate program, but I can’t afford it so I’m destined to stay in this unhappy career forever.”
“I’m going out on dates but not meeting people I feel a connection with, so I’m going to die alone.”
“I must feel better in order to do something differently.”
“My partner needs to change or I can’t be happy.”
All options are starkly opposed in black and white, and have the power to either save or crush us completely. Words like, “Always,” “Have To,” “Can’t,” swirl inside your head. It’s exhausting.
Whenever someone gets into a stuck, helpless place it’s almost always because they perceive too few options. Things become polarized: black and white, yes and no, good or bad.
They have more options than they think they do. It is actually never black or white. Even if they have to choose between two options, they still have a great deal of opportunity to cultivate differences in the way they think about those options, and the way they feel about those options.
But when people are feeling trapped, they do not see that. They can’t. And we’ve all been there: Stuck, disempowered, and feeling trapped.
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How to Get Unstuck
The black and white mindset that underpins feeling trapped is why people so often need the support of a great, growth oriented therapist or a dynamic life coach to get unstuck. They are not trapped so much by their own circumstances, as they are by their own mental process. However, because we are all limited by our own perceptions, the mental walls we unknowingly create are very real, and very high. It is nearly impossible to scale them alone, without outside perspective.
Great therapy or coaching can sometimes reveal different options and solutions. But what it always does is help you create inner flexibility and a fresh perspective that sets you free from the inside out.
Many decades of research into cognitive-behavioral therapy have shown that the basis for much human suffering can be found in unhelpful ways of thinking. Also, when people can cultivate more helpful ways of thinking and the power of believing in themselves they feel happier, more content, and more empowered, whether or not they change their circumstances (though often, feeling better mentally and emotionally helps people create actual change).
This is important: Psychological health and happiness is found through mental flexibility, creativity, and openness.
There is always a middle path. When you tap into your own inner power and resources, you will find it. Then, you have so many more possibilities.
How To Liberate Yourself Mentally and Emotionally, When You’re Feeling Trapped
I am going to tell you a secret. I will preface this by saying I’m aware that what I’m about to say can feel impossible when you’re trapped in black and white thinking and not sure how to move forward. If you can’t do this on your own, it’s a good call to connect with a therapist or coach who can help you do this. But here it is:
If you don’t like the options you currently have, insist on more.
Whether you believe this to be true, it is: You have more options than you know. Some of your options may be a bad idea. Some options may be fantastical. Some of your options may go against your core values. Some of them may be so ridiculous they are not even worth entertaining.
But under the heap of terrible, dumb, unthinkable options, there may be a few that are worth entertaining. But you can’t get to those options, unless you give yourself permission to be creative, be weird, think about things you don’t usually think about, and insist on more.
This openness to any and all options is the psychological process of liberating your mind from entrapment. Only when you can set yourself free psychologically, are you able to move forward, literally.
Here’s an example:
Did you ever read the story when you were a kid about Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator? (It’s the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I know you’ve heard of.)
Anyway, at the end of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, if you remember, Willie Wonka has made Charlie the heir to his magical candy empire, and is going to take him on a tour of his new dominion.
They get into the Great Glass Elevator, which Charlie assumes, sanely, will carry them up or down to different levels of the factory. (Up or down. Black or white. Sound familiar?)
However, the wall of the elevator is covered with buttons. Strange buttons. Buttons indicating that this elevator will go not just up or down but diagonally, in circles, side to side, and more.
Willie Wonka gleefully pushes the big red “Up and Out” button which sends them crashing through the roof of the factory and into outer space. OUTER SPACE! What kind of elevator goes into outer space??
One of the characters asks this reasonable question:
“And what keeps it up?” said Grandma Josephine.
“Skyhooks,” said Mr Wonka.
Skyhooks. Skyhooks, as far as I know, are not actually a thing. Perhaps they will be (I have not personally rummaged around in Elon Musk’s desk drawers to look for the notepad with the “List of Things to Think About” I’m sure he keeps.)
But the point is that you, too, get to make it all up as you go along. We all get to design our own reality. We all get to choose how to be our best self. Just like Willy Wonka, nothing exists anywhere — certainly not in your life or mine — unless we think about making it happen first. The rules that govern our lives are largely our own construction. You have many, many options — we all do.
Getting Unstuck: Cultivate Creativity And Mental Flexibility Like it Is Your Job
Here’s what getting unstuck from the outside actually looks like when you do it.
The next time you’re feeling trapped, try taking out a piece of paper and writing down as many alternative options as you can think of. Make them as zany and wildly unrealistic as you possibly can, just to loosen up the thin-lipped British governess that has taken up residence in your head— the one holding two alternatives out to you on a silver tray. Slap them out of her hands and get weird. Brainstorm with abandon.
“I could sell all my possessions and move to a little village in Armenia. In three years I will be mayor.”
“I could quit my job and live in a tent in my next-door neighbor’s backyard.”
“I could make [insert goal here] the sole mission of my life and number one priority every day.”
“I could stand up in the middle of my next team meeting and scream cathartically, throw a chair at my boss’s head, and walk out.” (Not advised. But you could.)
“I could apply to a different school, or change my major.”
“I could break up with this person.”
“I could read some books and learn how to do this thing that seems so impossible. Other people can do it and I can too.”
“I could make it a goal to meet four new people every week.”
“I could save x amount of money every month for the next year, and do the thing I really want to do.”
“I could get rid of my television and use all that extra time to pursue [something important that you feel you don’t have time for].”
Operant point: every sentence should start with “I could.”
Of course you will immediately hear the snarky voice of the uptight, uber-rational British governess telling you all the reasons that you can’t.
The correct response to her is, “Shh. Skyhooks.”
Break Free: You Are the Author Of Your Life Story
The truth is that you can actually do pretty much anything you want.
You CAN decide to take out a massive loan and spend every cent riding motorcycles around Australia for the next six months. You could simply stop paying the mortgage on your house and use the proceeds to finance a diet of nothing but the most expensive chocolate money can buy every single day.
You can. No one is stopping you.
Of course, there are consequences to every decision that you’ll have to sort through, obviously, but just getting in contact with the fact that your options are immense is enough to break through the paralysis that is choking your life and creating the stuck-ness that you’ve been feeling lately.
In addition to some foolish ideas that might very well destroy your life if you follow them, your creativity and openness to new ideas will also generate some reasonable, healthy, fresh and exciting new options for you too. Trust me.
What are the skyhooks that could lift you up-and-out of the tiny little cognitive box you’ve been stuffed into?
What could you do?
If this conversation has sparked some new ideas in your mind, or even made you curious to hear more, I hope you check out the podcast I recorded on the same subject about what to do when you’re feeling trapped (below). In it I share even MORE advice for how to get unstuck and break free — either literally, by changing your circumstances, or mentally and emotionally when you can’t.
I know that this article and the podcast are not in any way, shape or form a substitute for working with a therapist or life coach (which is what most people who are profoundly stuck really do need). However, I hope this conversation helps you find your way forward, even if it’s just to take the steps to get in touch with a great therapist or coach who can walk with you, help you break out of black and white thinking, help you brainstorm new possibilities, and cultivate the inner strength to transform your life from the inside out.
That is what you deserve!
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.