Stuckness and movement, Part I: the experience of stuckness

stuckIt is simply a truism in the counselling world that one of the main struggles clients have is with the feeling of being stuck. The image that immediately comes to mind is a vehicle stuck in mud. There is a story to tell about this vehicle, just as their is a story to tell about clients. What I mean by that is that when clients come into the office with the problem of feeling stuck, the stuckness itself is, ironically, a story that stretches over time and contains movement and dynamism. So… in a hopefully interestingly ironic way, the story of stuckness contains movement over time.

Let me start with the story of the vehicle before moving to stories of clients. First, vehicles must travel somewhere to get stuck. I point that out, because it is important to note that every story of stuckness must necessarily begin with movement. It is important to note that because part and parcel of therapeutic problems are the client’s perspective. If you read any judgment in that, it is not my intention. It is my intention simply to note that client difficulties are not only about the content of whatever problem they bring to session but their capacity or willingness to see that problem in a different context. In the story I’m telling about stuckness, that is simply to say that clients arrive at a feeling of being stuck.

vehicle stuck in mud

Back to the story of our vehicle: in this story, a vehicle drives and ultimately gets stuck in mud. To shift our perspective to the here and now of the problem, stuckness is the inability to get out of the mud. But stuckness doesn’t immediately mean being static. There is a substantial amount of early energy expended on trying to get out. Here, we might see the driver trying to rock the vehicle back and forth and then in frustration hit the gas. But the expenditure of energy doesn’t work. Typically, hitting the gas makes the vehicle move forward, but in this instance, the application of force deepens the tires into the mud. More trying results in more stuckness. In this story, there are passengers, and they get out to add their strength to help rescue the vehicle from the mud. Everyone is working in concert, driver and passenger and vehicle… but to no effect. There is a kind of movement: the tires are spinning, and the passengers are desperately exerting themselves. But no matter how much energy is put into the system designed to move the vehicle from the mud, they are not successful. Each time the tires connected to the drive train spin, they cannot gain any purchase on something solid to propel it forward. The movement of system in a continuous loop without forward progress is something I’ve explored in other writing: The shape of things to come.

The amount of time driver and passengers work at getting out of the mud varies on the situation. Some will continue to push at the problem until some part of the system gives out: the car breaks, or the driver screams in frustration, or the passengers give up pushing. But in this story, at least for the moment, the vehicle is not capable of forward movement. Let’s explore the emotions of those involved.

There are any number of ways people might react in such a situation. I am not here to make normative judgments about what counts as good and bad. But I am interested in the ways in which people respond to their stuckness, and this is representative of the ways in which people with the same problem come in to therapy with completely different moods or attitudes or physiological states.

camp fireFor some, the story I’ve told of the vehicle getting stuck wouldn’t be a problem at all, but the context also matters. If, say, the vehicle was en route to a camping site, and it contained camping gear, after some time trying to get it out of the mud, the driver and passengers might get their gear out of the back and set up camp. This group is a hearty group, and though this wasn’t the trip they planned, they have shelter and food and are luckily stuck in a relatively hospitable spot. They easily build a fire, set up camp, eat dinner, and go to sleep knowing that they will be fine. They’re confident that they’ll find their way to help and get their vehicle free. Around the fire that night, they might even laugh about the situation and talk about how they’ll remember the story many years down the road. They project into the future versions of themselves that tell a fun story. But that projection is not actually into the future: it is the way they experience themselves in the present. As I wrote in another blog post, the way we predict the future is the way we experience the present: On self-love.

In this scenario, stuckness isn’t even a problem. It’s a detour. Stuckness doesn’t feel like stuckness with the confidence that it’s temporary. You don’t feel stuck if you’re in your car surrounded by dozens of other cars at a red light. In that moment, you can’t move at all; you’re hemmed in by cars all around. But you have confidence that the light will turn, that the cars around you will move, and that you will soon be in motion. Real stuckness contains the implicit prediction that you will remain stuck without the ability to move… for an unknown amount of time. Stuckness presupposes uncertainty.

But we’re not all that hearty, and we won’t always have the proper gear with us or find ourselves in an environment where setting up is safe or possible. We might be stuck in the vehicle—we experience ourselves as doubly stuck. So, not only is the vehicle stuck, but we are also stuck in the vehicle because our environment is hostile. How do we react? Some react with anger or rage. Why so? There are a variety of explanations. For instance, folks who practice Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT) argue that rage is a way of defending ourselves from a more fundamental emotional state such as fear or sadness. I mentioned above that stuckness must be proceeded by movement, and this means that in the story of our vehicle, the driver drove into the mud pit. So the driver might feel that they are responsible for their stuckness. And to take responsibility for that might be too difficult to face. What does it indicate that they drove into a mud pit? What does it indicate about who they are that they made such a foolish error? And it’s not only that they are themselves stuck, but the passengers too. Outward rage is a way to actively—anger and rage are very active ways of being—disengage from the sadness or shame or disappointment in oneself. Being stuck in anger is a difficult and ultimately exhausting way to be. Any counsellor will tell you it is not uncommon.

defeatThe opposite of anger from the standpoint of noise and fury and the expenditure of energy is a feeling of defeat or resignation. A caveat: I don’t think defeat or resignation are necessarily problematic emotional states—nor do I think so of anger. Anyone who has ever participated in any sort of healthy competition knows defeat. It is not pathological. But the sort of defeat I am thinking about in the context of a stuck vehicle is what I might call anticipatory defeat. It might sound something like the following after the vehicle stuck in the mud: “well… we’re screwed. This is how it always goes. It’ll cost us thousands to get this thing out of the mud. Or, i’ve probably ruined the vehicle slamming on the gas so many times. Etc.” Being stuck in defeatedness, just as being stuck in anger, are difficult ways of living. Constitutive of both is the future projection of more of the same. And this, for me, is the main problem of stuckness in any emotional state: feeling that you will be locked into that state… forever.

Neither anger nor defeat are problems in themselves. The problem here is the felt predictive sense that these states will be the states in which we will forever live. The real problem of stuckness is the feeling that in whatever state we  find ourselves is the state we will always find ourselves. It’s like standing in a funhouse between two mirrors: all you see is the same version of yourself projected statically into an infinite regress. Stuckness is not only the experience of feeling stuck in space. Stuckness is the experience of being stuck in time. And it is terrifying.

In Part I of this two part post, we explored what makes the feelings of stuckness so difficult. Stuckness is associated with terror. In Part II, I will present a story offered to me by a client about their particular experience of stuckness and the way it resolved.