Are you stuck or are you safe?

12 Sep 2023
Written by: Amy Thurstan

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Amy Thurstan
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Exploring why we often stay ‘stuck’ even when we’re not

If I had a £1 for every time a client told me that they felt stuck, and another £1 for every time I told myself I feel stuck, chances are I’d be writing these musings from a yacht in the Caribbean, or from a full off-grid campervan conversion parked in a little spot overlooking a Lake Louise in Alberta (you can tell I daydream about that one a LOT) and not from an IKEA flat-pack desk in my tiny flat in Hertfordshire 😉


But hey ho! an IKEA desk in Herts it is for now, so let’s explore what might be going on beneath that familiar and frustrating feeling of stuck-ness.


People often access coaching support when they’re feeling stuck. Maybe in terms of work, maybe in terms of a relationship, a personal goal or challenge. I was chatting to a colleague recently and we both reflected that coaching for us, feels like a natural next step in the process of un-sticking ourselves. We can talk about our stuff until the cows come home for sure, and its cathartic to be heard, to have someone nod and smile and be empathetic and allow you the space you need to vent, rant, cry etc… but it’s the crucial next bit, once our tears are dry or we’ve ranted ourselves hoarse, it’s the ‘so now what?’ practical element, the art of getting unstuck where coaching can offer a real difference and be super-impactful in this messy, complex journey we’re all on.


I’ve noticed over the years that in the many conversations with clients, where ‘stuck’ has been used to describe how they’re feeling and when we subsequently explore those feelings of being stuck, we almost always discover that stuck = safe, to a varying extent, and that is why, we often think we’re stuck when we’re actually just choosing to be safe.


But why would we keep ourselves stuck? That doesn’t make any logical sense at all, right?


You have a goal, you want to achieve it, you know all the wonderful things that will happen when you get there, you have a plan, you know what your next step needs to be, but for some reason you feel stuck. And it sucks. You don’t want to be stuck, you want to be smashing your goal, moving forwards, doing the thing, achieving your dreams etc… so you can’t possibly be the reason you’re stuck, right?!


Yep, you guessed it… eek! 😉


Think about somewhere in your life where you feel stuck. It could be that you want a change of direction in your career, it could be that you want to improve your relationship with someone that you’re always in conflict with, it could be that you want to run a marathon but so far, you haven’t made it past 10km… now, instead of getting mad with yourself for feeling stuck, and immediately looking for answers and solutions to unstick yourself, instead ask yourself:


How is my stuck-ness also keeping me safe?


Let’s explore a completely hypothetical example… let’s say Tom wants to do something completely different and try a new career path. Tom has already had some coaching sessions and he’s super clear on what he wants to do… Let’s say Tom’s goal is to become a freelance garden designer. He loves being outside amongst nature, and running his own garden design business will allow him to be creative and use his brilliant project management skills whilst also immersing him in fresh air, plants, and physical exercise – all the stuff he loves. Tom knows that the 9-5 desk job he’s been in for many years is damaging his wellbeing, and he’ll feel so much better, physically, and mentally once he’s running his own garden design business. Happy days 😊


But every time Tom decides he’s going to take the next step towards his goal, he can’t do it. He feels stuck. Even though he has a clear plan, his ducks are all in a neat and tidy row, he wants this change more than anything, he just can’t take that next step… WTF Tom?! (not a commonly used or traditional coaching question)


This is where it might be useful and valuable for Tom to explore where stuck = safe for him.

There are potentially loads of ways in which stuck = safe in this made-up scenario (although if you’re reading this, your name is Tom you hate your job, but you love gardening then please… 100% take this as a sign). Let’s explore just some of the things that could be going on for Tom:


  • Fear of failure – staying stuck in a job you know, have been doing for years and are good at is so safe, compared to starting a new business of your own from scratch. Stuck = super safe.


  • What will people think? – if Tom comes from a risk-averse family and his parents never encouraged him to take risks or try new things, how might they react to Tom stepping out into the unknown? They might be angry with him or try to talk him out of it. Tom feels stuck = Tom is also safe from the judgement and responses from others.


  • Disconnection from others – Tom has been in his current job for years. He’s got loads of good mates he met through work, and they spend time together regularly. What will happen to those friendships? Will his mates stay in touch? Tom thinks he’s stuck = he’s also keeping himself safe by not risking his connection to his friends.


  • Fear of success – what if the plan works? What if Tom becomes the best darn garden designer in the whole of his area, and people just love his work, and he has to hire some part-time staff to help him, and the phone is ringing off the hook, and he’s earning a ruddy fortune, and the BBC want to consult him about a garden makeover series, and he gets 1m followers on socials and everything is even bigger and brighter and better than he ever dreamed it might be? Tom hasn’t prepared himself for that life, so even when it sounds utterly amazing, there’s still a part of him whispering ‘but what if we die?!’ Again, Tom feels stuck = Tom is actually staying safe by avoiding the unknown.


Prof Steve Peters goes into self-sabotage (amongst other things) in great detail in his much-acclaimed book, ‘The Chimp Paradox’, but it’s worth referencing it as it fits nicely within the context of what I’m wanging on about here…


Our ego (or chimp) has one agenda – survival. Our human agenda is more geared around purpose, self-fulfilment, and the creation of and connection to, a societal agenda which allows us to grow and thrive. So, whilst Tom’s goal abso-flipping-lutely ticks all the boxes of his human agenda, his chimp response might just sound something like this:


“You wanna do WHAT?! Something different? And unknown? And new? And unfamiliar? And possibly hard? But what if it doesn’t work? And what if people judge you and think you’re crazy? What if you lose all your mates and make your parents mad? And WHAT IF WE DIE?! OMG ARE YOU INSANE?! YOU CAN’T DO IT! THIS IS MADNESS!! NO NO NO NO NO NO NOOOOOO!!!”

(you get the idea 😉)


From the perspective of your chimp, those lovely, dreamy goals you have for yourself that make the human in you feel fulfilled and connected and in flow and purposeful and nourished, feel like a big fat threat, and sometimes only simply because they’re new. Fulfilling your goals means navigating unchartered territory, and making potential changes in the behaviours and patterns that have kept you safe and alive since you learned them in childhood, and so your chimp doesn’t want you to take that first step, so it does all it can to keep you on the path of least resistance, safe and sound in your comfort zone, because as far as our chimp is concerned, we won’t die if we just keep doing the same thing, even if that thing doesn’t meet our human agenda.


This is why working out when stuck = safe can be helpful. Once we see all the ways in which stuck = safe for us in a particular situation or challenge, we can stop berating ourselves for being stuck, we can accept that there are fears to acknowledge, work through and overcome and we can do what we need to, to create that safety that our chump craves, in more helpful ways, that don’t get in the way of our human agenda.


In her book, ‘A Return to Love’, Marianne Williamson, wrote:


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.


We ask ourselves

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.


Your playing small

Does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking

So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.


We are all meant to shine,

As children do.

We were born to make manifest

The glory of God that is within us.


It’s not just in some of us;

It’s in everyone.


And as we let our own light shine,

We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we’re liberated from our own fear,

Our presence automatically liberates others.


Now, I like this poem because I’m a sucker for anything that helps to connect me with my inner child, but I think it also feels relevant to what I’ve been musing about today in terms of stuck = safe and what might be behind those feelings. It also addresses some stuff we all feel from time to time around imposter-ism too. I tend to agree, that most of us are as terrified of our success as we are of our failure, and this is something that I’ve had some interesting conversations around, particularly with other women. But that’s another topic for another day… so for now, I’ll invite you to let your mind wander around with these questions:


Where do you feel stuck?

How is your stuck-ness also keeping you safe?

What fears is your chimp responding to, in an attempt to keep you safe?

How can you create some safety for yourself whilst also starting to get unstuck?

How can you respond to yourself differently when you feel stuck?

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