When You Feel Deeply Stuck And Caught Between Several Difficult Options For Changing An Aspect Of Your Social Life
It's sometimes very tough for people to improve parts of their social life, even though they're not satisfied with where things stand. One way this can happen is when they feel stuck between two or more unappealing options. They may not like their status quo, but the things they'd have to do to move out of it seem just as bad or even worse, so life goes on the same as always. This painful stagnation can last for years.
Here are some examples:
- Someone feels sad, bored, and lonely, but the idea of putting themselves out there to meet new people and try to make friends is too scary. They don't want to feel the uncomfortable anxiety that pops up when they risk awkwardness or rejection.
- They have some acquintances, but hanging out with them feels superficial and leaves them starved for a deeper connection. However, they're reluctant to take things in a more intimate direction because they fear something will go wrong.
- They're not happy with their social circle, but don't want to officially move on from it either. They think it would feel worse to not have any friends at all then hang out with some and have a disappointing time.
- They're tired of living in their dull, stifling, closed-minded small town, but get overwhelmed at the thought of moving away.
- They're not sure whether a friend really likes them anymore, and it makes them feel insecure and uncertain. However, the thought of calling the question and getting a final answer they don't want to hear is too chilling to consider. They don't think they could take the gut punch of knowing they've been cast aside. At least now they can live in hope that their buddy is acting distant because they're busy with school or whatnot.
Here some ways you may feel if you're stuck like this:
- You may know full well you're paralyzed because you're caught between several dreary choices. You don't like where you are, but changing feels too difficult right now.
- You might not consciously realize what the larger issue is. You're just aware you're mired in unhappiness, but can't seem to get out of it.
- You may have a sense of what you need to do in theory to change your situation, but it all strikes you as totally impossible and unrealistic.
- You have moments where you're motivated to do something differently, but they never last. The fear, doubts, and hesitation come back.
- You're constantly going back and forth in your head about what decision to make. Each side has a solid list of pros and cons. Sometimes it seems like you've finally made up your mind, but before you can act you start second guessing yourself and go back for another six rounds of analysis.
- Not only can you endlessly think about what to do, but you can sink hours and hours into questioning what you even want in the first place - "Do I actually want to make friends, or am I just following what society tells me I should want. Maybe I'm happy being on my own. No, who am I kidding? I'm really lonely... but am I truly?..."
It's no fun to be stuck like this. Below are some things you can do. One of them isn't going to be "Just go for it already you wuss!". If all it took was a bit of Tough Love you would have already told something like that to yourself and changed. I know it's not that simple.
Accept you're stuck for now
Know that if it was easy to escape the quagmire you would have done it months or years ago. The reason you're trapped is because Not Changing and Changing are so closely matched. It doesn't mean you're weak or hopeless, just that you've found yourself between two or more choices that have an equal mix of possible benefits and drawbacks. Anyone would feel trapped on the fence in the same circumstances.
Try to let go of the illusion that you can break the tie if you just think about everything for another few days
It's easy to believe that if you just consider all the angles one or two more times you'll come to some fresh insight that will help you move forward. Obviously there are times when it's useful to ponder a problem, but if you've already been analyzing an issue for months, weighing and re-weighing the same old variables, odds are another round isn't going to shift anything. It's more likely you're caught in a cycle of fruitless rumination that feels vaguely productive, but is actually helping keep you in a rut.
Option: Maintain the status quo and hope something shifts on its own
Even if you don't make an active choice, you end up picking this one by default. It doesn't feel very inspirational or dynamic to continue on the same track, but sometimes things end up working out anyway.
There are no guarantees it will happen anytime soon, or even at all, but your mentality may change with more time. For no clear reason, you may suddenly decide you're done with being lonely or in a toxic friendship. Your fear about taking certain steps to change may lessen. If you're younger, your mindset may evolve as your brain physically matures.
Your outer circumstances might also move in a helpful direction. You may finish college and enter the work world, where you'll meet lots of awesome co-workers. Your friend who barely spends any time with you may start asking to hang out more. You may accumulate some savings, and moving away starts looking more realistic.
Of course, if you do nothing things may get even worse, but that can actually be beneficial in the long run...
Option: Do nothing and wait for your life to feel painful enough that it finally motivates you to act
Again, this can be an unthinking default option, but some people choose this route consciously. They realize as it stands they can't break the stalemate, so they tell themselves they'll let their life play out as usual until they become unhappy enough that they become willing to make changes that previously didn't feel worth it. If you're 4/10 bored and lonely, it may feel too difficult and costly to face the 6/10 discomfort of meeting new people. If you're 8/10 isolated and miserable, that same 6/10 can seem like a reasonable price to feel better.
It's not pleasant to be reluctantly prodded out of your rut by emotional pain, but in the end it can get you where you need to go. Really, that's what unpleasant emotions are ideally meant to do. The potential downside of going with this option is that things may never get bad enough to light a fire underneath you. As unhappy as it makes you feel, a part of you may be content to languish in low-grade misery for decades, rather than deal with what it sees as the greater evil of trying to change.
Option: Consult outside sources for new solutions you may not have considered yet
I already explained how you probably won't find an answer by going over the same well-worn possibilities in your head for the 38th time. However, if you bring in a fresh perspective you may learn about a new option that seems doable. You could look for advice online, or talk to friends, family, or a mental health professional. For example, you may have assumed there was no easy way to face your anxiety, but a therapist may have some suggestions that make it manageable.
Odds are if you've been stuck for a while you've already searched for alternatives, and none of them seemed that promising. Though sometimes people get so caught up in trying to resolve the two main deadlocked options they forget they can look for other angles on the situation. Even if you've considered many other options and found them lacking, it's also possible a good solution is still out there if you keep digging. If you're bogged down in the muck anyway, you might as well use your time to see if there's some undiscovered route out of your challenges.
Option: Do manageable things that may help you eventually take the action you need to take
You have no friends and know you have to try to meet people, but the thought of that freaks you out. You're not doing it any time soon. That doesn't mean you have to give up though. You can take smaller, doable steps that may get you there. Below are some things you could try. Unlike the last point, these aren't so much about attempting to unearth a totally new, easier option, but to help you actually apply a solution that seems promising, but it's scary. However, if you haven't heard of some of them they may end up being a novel possibility:
- Go through books, podcasts, or videos about things like social skills, anxiety management, or improving your self-confidence. They may give you a mindset or practical tool you can use to finally start taking action, like a strategy for making friends that makes the whole undertaking feel less imposing.
- Do things that could indirectly affect your social success, like learning new things or trying new hobbies - It may feel too scary to straight up practice your conversation skills, but by doing things that give you more to talk about, you may find your interactions going more smoothly with time. That may increase your confidence just a tad, enough to make some other changes.
- Explore the psychological factors that may be keeping you stuck - Are your fears of changing related to unresolved traumas or baggage from your childhood? Are you getting a hidden benefit from maintaining the status quo? Are you trying to make yourself go after something you don't actually want or care about?
- Go to other people for their advice and perspective on how you could take action. They may say something you haven't thought of yet. Again, this could involve talking to friends or family, or working with a counselor.
- Try processing the memories of the upsetting, scarring experiences that play into your fears and hesitation about changing - E.g., you're afraid to try to deepen a friendship because you're haunted by the time friends suddenly kicked you out of their clique in middle school. If you can drain some of the intense frozen emotion from those recalled past experiences, you'll find it easier to face a similar situation in the present.
- Do small things to practice your social skills during the little interactions you naturally have each day. The thought of formally going to a party to work on your conversation skills may feel like too much, but could you ask a cashier how his day is going? It's not that you'll completely overhaul your personality through a bunch of ten-second exchanges, but maybe one day you'll decide, "This isn't so bad. If I take it slow I think I could start working on parties now."
- Start trying out and practicing a variety of mood regulating skills like deep breathing or mindfulness meditation. Experiment with a bunch and see which ones speak to you.
- Start implementing some mood boosting habits or lifestyle changes, like exercising a few times a week or cutting out caffeine.
- Try taking mood enhancing medication or supplements. As I always say, I realize medication isn't for everyone, and it's okay if you don't want to consider it, but sometimes it lifts peoples' blues or jitters just enough that it gets them unstuck.
It's possible one or more of these approaches will pay off, but not for a while. There's also a chance you'll use them as a way to procrastinate, for example by telling yourself you can't change until you've read dozens of self-help books first. There's a fine line here. On one hand, if you're thoroughly stuck and weren't going to change anyway, you don't have anything to lose by going through a bunch of personal development writing. However, if you know you're actively using research or so on to avoid doing other things, then try to drop it and explore another option.
This article is about another way people can feel stuck in their social progress, when they're making an honest effort to turn things around but aren't getting anywhere: