What’s Keeping You Stuck

I’m a to-do list type of person.

I could make endless to-do lists. When I was a kid, I used to have a list of things I could do when I was bored. “Making more lists” was on that list. I kept the sheet safely tucked away in my trapper keeper. 

Whenever I move to a new city, a tourist to-do list is one of my first to-dos. Living in DC, I made a to-do list of all the different restaurants to try, parks to visit, museums to walk around. Didn’t matter if I had any real interest seeing the things those boxes represented. It was mostly to make sure that I didn’t miss out on anything. Now that I’m in Uganda, I went through one of the popular tour books, starring all the things I wanted to check out. Lists are my happy place.

I make checklists for everything.

Recipes to try – there’s a list for that.

Books to read – there’s a loooooong list for that.

Places to visit – there’s a list for that.

I even made a list of different workout classes to try at a gym I joined and made it through 15 by the end of the month.

New Years eve has a special place in my heart, not because of all the fanfare, but because it’s a GREAT time to plan out another list of goals. September iis a close second since it’s associated with the start of a new school year – more goals!

There was a time period in my life where I used to write out all of my yearly goals, then my quarterly goals, and even my monthly goals. When I’m really on it, I break those further down into weekly and daily goals. I’ve made and remade these lists a half dozen times, if not more. There’s something insanely satisfying about keeping such a list, and of course, even more satisfying when I get to check or cross off an item on said list.

Yet regardless of how amped I am when I make these lists, that energy rarely carries me through to completion. I don’t know how many times I’ve attempted to get myself to do something, only to find that my motivation was not where it needed to be. Sometimes I lament this fact.

I lay around saying “ugh….I don’t feel like it”. 

“I’ll do it tomorrow”.

“I’m not in the mood”

And that, my friends, is the problem with motivation. It’s like a mood. It fluctuates. It shifts. It certainly isn’t consistent nor is it something that you can count on. It reminds me of a ripening avocado. I mean, maybe you can time things perfectly so that your motivation is sky high right at the moment you’re ready to make some life-altering change. But most changes don’t require a one-and-done mindset. They require sustained effort for DAYS. 

You may be thinking – hah. Motivation is not a problem for ME. I have incredible self-discipline. That’s how I got to be so successful. My bullet journal explicitly details how and when I will achieve all of my goals. This is SO basic.



If this were true, then what gets in the way of being successful in every part of your life?

Motivation for Change

Many of us, myself included, have areas of our lives that come easy. Perhaps you excelled in academics. You figured out the system of studying (or just generally being a genius) and were able to get the grades you needed without too much consternation. Other kids around you would complain and stress and suffer through poor study strategies, but you seemed to figure it out.

But just as often, success in one area doesn’t automatically translate into ALL areas of our lives. While you might have figured out one area, for some reason, another completely confounds you. If your career is on fire, you may find that your relationships are lukewarm at best. Or maybe you have an awesome family life, but you’ve let your physical health decline over the past few years.

What is it about these problem areas that you can’t quite figure out? Why is it that you find yourself facing the same problems at work, at home, in relationships, with yourself over and over and over again? You’re not dumb, so what’s going on?

For many of us, dare I say – all of us, as we go about the world, our minds are constantly providing us with the narrative of our lives. It’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary enabled. The mind tells the story of who we are and why things are happening the way they are. Sometimes this works out awesomely. Why did we get that promotion? Because clearly we were the best candidate for the job and because we worked way harder than anyone else did. Is that factually correct? Who knows, but the brain has latched on to that as its version of the story.

Sometimes though, this does not work out in our favor. Why do we have trouble in relationships? Oh, it’s because no guy has ever been good enough and chances are they’ll just leave you and break your heart anyway so what’s the point of really letting yourself be vulnerable anyway? Factually correct? Again, who knows, but the brain has latched on to THAT as its version of the story. 

The brain as your narrator

Right this moment, your brain has a full and comprehensive story about how you became you and what challenges you’ve had to face, and chances are, you accept this story without question. Because really,  how often do you review this story for accuracy? For utility?

Think of a problem that has plagued you. What are the stories your brain tells you about this problem?

For example – I self-identify as an introvert and for a long time felt that I was socially awkward and did a poor job of making friends. Now, imagine walking around with a brain banging a drum about how you’re so weird and socially awkward. Would you guess that it would be easier or harder to be socially successful? Answer – HARDER. If your brain is yelling at you that every social interaction is going to end in failure, why on Earth would you ever bother making an attempt? But that’s the crux of it – when you buy into these messages, your behavior changes in response. When I believe that I’m socially awkward, I’m more likely to not interact with others, to turn down social invitations and to perceive every interaction as awkward. Does it matter that my brain might not be right? Nope. Do I stop to question the assumptions my brain makes for me? Nope.

But…what if your brain is RIGHT you ask.

You know, it may be. There are times when I AM socially awkward. There are times when I DO find it challenging to make small talk with others. But my brain would have me believe that BECAUSE I’m socially awkward, I should give up all socialization. My brain wants me to believe that socializing is hard and uncomfortable so I should avoid it. In the short term, that may feel a little better, but in the long term, I’m not able to form the relationships I ultimately want because I’m too busy avoiding the things that feel uncomfortable in the present moment.

So… does my brain hate me you ask.

Your brain doesn’t hate you. If anything, your brain is agnostic about you. It’s in survival mode and unfortunately, survival brains are wired to find threats. They aren’t wired to easily find joy and satisfaction, so we can’t get pissed off at Brain just because its doing its job. Instead, we need to shift focus to change what CAN be changed. That’s where YOU come in. Your job is to question the narrative. If your brain is making assumptions about life, don’t you think you should check in with those assumptions to see if they’re at least on the right track?

It’s not something we often do, and certainly wasn’t something I often did until I immersed myself into the world of psychotherapy, self-help and personal growth. Now I think about my thoughts all the time. I question whether they’re accurate or whether they’re helpful. I question where they came from. Sometimes I tell them to go away. Sometimes I tell them “Right on!”.

With my own social anxiety, I didn’t always feel awkward, so what changed for me? It’s hard to even pin-point a specific something that my brain responded to, but instead several situations occurred over a few developmentally important years that left me questioning whether I was okay. What started as subtle self-doubt morphed into a practically paralyzing fear of social rejection, and here I am 20 years later, still needing to challenge those beliefs that my 10 year old self first latched onto for who knows what reason. I can choose to let those beliefs direct my life, or, I can see them for what they are – beliefs rooted in my personal history that may or may not serve me in my present.

How do you write a new story? By first acknowledging that you want a new story AND that there’s a part of you who is afraid of what it might take to be the hero of that story. When you think about this recurrent problem in your life – what are you afraid might happen if you take the steps necessary to confront it?

I want to be in a relationship with an equal partner who loves and respects me for me, but that might mean I have to show who I really am, which leaves me feeling exposed. 

I want to meet new people and make friends, but that might mean putting myself out there and risking rejection.

I want a promotion, but I fear that I’ll risk failure and humiliation if I go for it.

I want to have a healthy relationship with food and my body, but that might mean I have to give up the previous ways I’ve dealt with feeling lonely, upset, uncertain, or afraid.

I want to have kids, but I fear what doing so will do to my relationship with my partner, not to mention my body.

I want to be closely connected with my family, but I fear that might mean confronting hurts from the past which may create new hurts or tension.

I want to leave my current relationship, but I fear having to let go of the stability I have now.

I want to move somewhere else, but I fear making a bad decision and getting stuck somewhere worse.

I want to start exercising and getting in shape, but it’s going to take so much time, energy and effort, I fear I’ll just give up, so why start.

I want to be able to bond with my kid but she is ALWAYS pushing my buttons and we both just end up mad and frustrated with each other, so maybe it’s better if I just let her be.

The closer you get to actually making a change, the stronger the narratives become about why it’s going to be so hard/a disaster/not worth it. So if you really want to make a change – you need to be able to address and challenge those messages your brain is trying to sell you on.

My goal is to continue writing and speaking on the subject of change, motivation and emotional avoidance. If you have a question related to these topics – I’d love to hear it.

You may find that you get stuck trying to change your narrator. If this is the case for you, seeing a therapist could help. One of the roles I play is as an objective observer to your process, so that we can identify any blindspots in your that may be keeping you stuck in a set of unhelpful beliefs.

The Gold Star: Micro Steps Towards Progress

“Snake!” I yelled. The over-sized green mamba swung its head to look at me. No one else in the 7-11 seemed to care.

“SNAKE!!” I yelled louder, holding my left foot in the air as if I were the Karate Kid preparing my crane kick. Sure, that would take down a green mamba. Again the patrons ignore my pleas and debated Cool Ranch over Spicy Nacho Doritos.

Why was no one as freaked out about this as I was? Why was the green mamba single-mindedly focusing on me? The mamba U-turned and reared up its head. I darted its head at me, trying to strike while I batted it away with my foot. It dove again, this time connecting with my flesh.

Tap tap tap

Something sharp and cold poked my forehead, but I can’t say it’s what I expected from green mamba fangs.

Groggily, I opened an eye to see my 5 year old standing in front of my fully dressed in a pair of pepto bismol pink shorts and a turquoise blue shirt with sparkly dinosaurs all over it.

“Mmmprg. What time is it? Is your lady bug green?” (Lady bug is actually not a lady bug at all but an OK to Wake alarm clock that looks more like a little green alien than a lady bug).

“I think so. Lizzie is awake too. Can we have breakfast now?” I hear my husband stir and shift out of the bed.

Oh thank goodness. A free pass to roll over. This is unlike me. I’m generally an early bird. I prefer waking up before the sun, before the kids, and having that moment to myself to do whatever I want. It’s like starting the day with a gold star because you know you did something good for yourself.

But instead of that scenario, each night this week I go to bed jittery and alert and every morning I awake feeling as though someone squirted Elmer’s in my eyes.

Jet lag is a bitch.

My family and I flew back to Uganda last weekend from the US. It was relatively direct as far as African travel routes go, but still , there’s nothing easy about 36+ hours of travel with two little kids. Despite my efforts to shift my body to its new schedule, my brain is just not wanting to cooperate. I’ve found myself staying up into the wee hours without a single yawn urging me to bed. I end up working out at 11. Skimming through marriage therapy texts at midnight. Meal planning at 1am.

So back to this morning. My husband lured my daughter away from my bedside with promises of warmed banana bread for breakfast, and while I could have taken that opportunity to attempt to resume my dream, I didn’t.

Instead, in the words of Anna (of Frozen II fame), I did the next right thing. Which in this case was to drag my butt out of bed and jar myself out of my groggy stupor.

But how was I to function in this state? My head slowly scrolls through the information I accumulated over the years about behavioral change.

State. I need to change my state. I need to think opposite thoughts and do opposite actions.

I chugged a bunch of water. Shook my head vigorously a few times. Eighties danced around my room while unpacking one of my still unpacked suitcases. And I frankly pretended that I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I felt.

And you know what? It kind of worked. Go figure. As it turns out, the whole Cognitive-Behavioral paradigm of changing your mental state and your behaviors as a way to change your mood played out. Thanks CBT! Secondary credit goes to Alfred Adler for his ‘Act as if’ mantra.

While I was proud of myself for not caving to the sleep fairies, I won’t pretend that I felt like my toddler the other day after she lapped down her first DumDum lollipop (Flavor: strawberry. A reward for surviving her COVID test), but I was able to get through my day without napping. And that’s what it’s all about for me. Not napping.

Kidding. What I mean to say is that making these small changes in our day may not feel like much. They may not feel like something to celebrate or even something to acknowledge. But often, progress does’t come in big swoops and leaps. More often, progress comes about through those tiny little nudges that shift the needle ever so slightly towards our own unrealized potential. So when you notice yourself challenging your own status quo, make sure to give yourself credit for it. Maybe even a gold star.

Exercise: What small progress have you made in your own life? Did you give yourself credit for it? If you can’t thinking of something, what small step could you take right now?

Not sure about therapy?

I’m a therapist so obviously I’m a pro-therapy individual. I drink the therapy kool-aid so to speak.

But I get it. You may not be into the same kool-aid that I am. Maybe you’ve considered doing therapy, but you’re just not quite ready to commit.

Maybe it’s not the right time. You’re trying to keep to some sort of teleworking schedule. You’re trying to be a homeschool teacher. You’re trying to KEEP. IT. TOGETHER. I get that. Therapy is a time a commitment. You’d need the hour+ (ask me about intensive therapy options!) in addition to some headspace to practice the therapy skills in your real life.

Or maybe you don’t have the finances for it. You or your spouse has lost their job. Or you’re job is still intact but the clients have gone down, meaning your income has gone down. I get that too. I do offer some discounts, (see COVID discounts) but therapy is still an investment and you would need to decide whether you’re ready for it.

Or maybe you don’t know if you really need it. Maybe you question whether things are that bad? You compare yourself to other people and see that their life circumstances seem way worse, so who are you to complain? I get that, too. There will always be a reason to not start therapy, and very many people wait until their absolute breaking point before scheduling an appointment. Then again, there’s also the chance that what you’re going through will get better on it’s own, and you can handle it without going to therapy.

So, for those of you who are considering therapy – but aren’t ready to jump in just yet, I give you a list of exercises you can try on your own to start the process. And – bonus – should you decide to start therapy, some of your work is already start.

1. Start monitoring. 

There’s a quote by business strategist Peter Drucker that says “what gets measured, gets managed.” If you’re currently dealing with a low mood,a dn you’re hoping to change that, one of the first things you can do is to start measuring it. What do I mean? I mean just jotting down on a 1-10 scale where you mood is on a daily basis. You can be more specific by rating your depression, anxiety, stress, anger, etc separately, or do your mood as one big lumped feeling. If you struggle with relationship challenges, rate that. Question whether you have disordered eating? Rate your urges to use those behaviors and whether you use them. Is there a pattern to your mood? Are certain environments, situations, or people tied to your lower/higher mood days?

2. Describe your day

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one technique is to describe how you spend your time on a given day. Starting with when you wake up, write out your daily schedule and then rate each activity based on how much enjoyment it gives you, how important it is and how accomplished it makes you feel.  

7-8amBreakfast w/kids263
12-3pmWork Meetings475
3-6pmHelp kids w/school work255
7-8pmBedtime for kids273
Example Activity Chart

When creating your daily activities list, it can be helpful to give perspective to your rating scale. What is your maximum, minimum and middle for each rating scale? Ie, for me, dancing to 80s music is a 10, grabbing a coffee with a friend is about a 5, and managing my toddler’s tantrum is a 0. Sometimes we may describe an activity as awful, but when compared to something we really don’t like, it’s not that bad. I don’t like filing taxes, but I would happily work on my taxes over dealing with a toddler tantrum.

3. Identify mini-goals

Much of therapy involves goal setting. “What do you want to get out of counseling?”, “How do you want life to be different?”, or “If you could wake up tomorrow and the problem you’ve mentioned has resolved, what would your life look like?”, etc. Because of these big-picture questions, client identify big-picture goals: “I want to feel good again”. “I don’t want to hate myself anymore”. “I wouldn’t be stressing over every little thing”.

And these are great starting points to give the therapy some direction. A therapist would then help you break those down into small, more concrete goals, so if nothing else, you’d know when you reached them.

Fortunately, you don’t need a therapist to set goals. But, as a suggestion, the smaller and more objective you make your goals, the easier it is to identify correlating action steps, so that you can, you know – actually achieve them. So for example, maybe you’re very much aware that you’re not getting enough sleep and you would like to get more. How much more sleep would you like to get? What time would that mean you need to get in bed by? What historically has prevented you from adhering to some sort of bed-time routine? What would be all the little steps you would need to take in order to increase your sleep quantity/quality? Now, pick one of those steps to start with, and try it out this week. Life is not a sprint. It’s not even a race. It’s a journey and every step you take, regardless of how small, is still forward movement. What movement can YOU take tomorrow, or even right now, towards your goals. 

4. Read your goal list daily

How many times have you decided you were going to either start a new habit or stop an old one? You start off gung-ho and super motivated: This is going to change your life! You’ll be so awesome after this! And within a few days, you’re cutting corners, forgetting what you set out to do, or, gasp – blatantly refusing to follow you’re own guidance. We’ve all been there. Establishing habits to reach our goals is hard work. What makes it slightly easier is having ever-present reminders that we want this change, AND then making ourselves acknowledge those ever-present reminders by rereading our goals. If you have a post-it note with your “drink more water” goal stuck to your coffee pot, to your computer monitor, to your steering wheel, etc. You’re more likely to 1) remember you made the goal in the first place and 2) take action to work towards that goal. Of course, if you’re at all like me, this won’t do anything for those rebellious streaks that see such reminders and shouts “Screw you! I don’t want to drink water right now! Now give me my coffee!”

5. Increase your exposure to positive messages

Look, our brains are already really good at identifying all the crap in our worlds. The news and social media echo apocalyptic visions of our socially-isolated futures, resulting in a situation in which there’s basically no way to avoid the negative spew unless you’re trying really hard. If you’re already feeling emotionally on-edge, you may be one comment away from camel back-snapping territory (as in, the back of a camel snapping under burdensome weight of life – not a broken camelbak (R)). You may not be able to control all messages you’re brain receives, but you do have some ability to combat the negative that you’re receiving. This could mean:

  • Limiting your exposure to people who are excessively pessimistic
  • Following people on social media who offer uplifting messages
  • Balancing your news consumption with some positive stories
  • Spending more time talking with friends and family who encourage and support you
  • Leaving yourself affirmations around your house/workplace (“This sucks, but you can do it”, “you’re freaking awesome at your job”, “this too, will pass”, etc.)
  • Offering those around you words of support and encouragement. We could all use a boost.

Doing the exercises above won’t replace the feedback and guidance you would get from a licensed mental health professional, but they will give you an idea of where you could use additional help. If you find these exercises challenging, or maybe life is too overwhelming right now to even attempt them, I would encourage you to reach out for help. If you’re at all curious, remember that I (and most other therapists) offer free consultations. That means you can test the waters with no commitment required.

If you’re considering therapy, what is holding you back from saying yes?

Where to Begin When You’re At a Loss

“I don’t know what to do anymore”

“I’m desperate to stop this”.

“I’m miserable. I can’t stand this.”

“I can’t handle this anymore. It’s getting worse. I’m getting worse.”

“I don’t want to be like this anymore. But what can I do?”

“I hate this. I hate myself. I’m never going to get better.”

As a therapist, I typically interact with people when they’re in a low place. Unsurprisingly, folks don’t typically seek out therapy when things are going great and just want a mental health check-up (though I do wish this was more often the case). Instead, I’m usually a last resort. Something in life is not going well and despite your efforts to ignore or change things, you’re still just stuck.

That helpless and hopeless feeling is one that I am intimately familiar with, both from witnessing it in the life of my clients and experiencing it in my own personal life. You feel as if you’ve tried everything. Nothing has worked. If you don’t do anything, you’ll be stuck this way forever. But imagining having to live this way for any longer is enough to drive you into panic. You don’t WANT to live this way forever.

But what are you supposed to do?

This is one of the most common scenarios I see in my office. Life has become awful. Change needs to happen. But the how is often a big grey fuzzy space. My clients come to me hoping that I can show them the how.

But therein lies the trap.

The most common mistake I see in people attempting to address their own issues is that they focus on the wrong questions.

For example, someone who is struggling with binge-eating will ask themselves repeatedly – “How can I stop bingeing?” or “What am I doing wrong?” The brain, handy little organ that it is, perks up and starts searching for answers: You could fast. You could cut out all sugar/carbs. You could drink water when you feel the urge. You could binge on carrots instead of cookies. You could distract yourself. You could go for a walk. You could clean out your kitchen of binge foods. You could just use sheer willpower. Just say NO.

You could do all of these things and more. Maybe you’d find some success. But chances are, the binges will still happen. Why?

Because before you do anything else, you need to understand your WHY

Why do you want to give up bingeing?

The ‘why’ represents your overall motivation for a change, and no intentional change will happen without it.

You may be thinking, “Are you kidding me? Of COURSE I want to change!! I’m miserable right now!” That may be true, and yet, despite the misery you’re in, something has kept you where you are now and prevented you from taking the necessary steps forward. Often times, there is a part of us, sometimes a small part, sometimes a large part, who is resistant to the very idea of change. Things may be miserable right now, but at least they’re familiar, and familiar means comfortable. In motivational interviewing language (a common therapy modality), this would be called a Double Approach/Avoidance conflict. The more you try to change, the more enticing it is to stay the same. But the more you stay the same, the more you realize you need to change.

This does not mean that you’re destined to stay stuck forever. This means that ambivalence towards change, any change, is normal. It also can give you a way forward. Give yourself a chance to explore what you’re really wanting from a change, and maybe also what reluctance you have.

If you, like me, tend towards skepticism, you may scoffing at the idea that any part of you wants to keep things how they are. So I challenge you – the next time you go to use one of these problematic behaviors you wish you could change, what prevents you from doing so?

What in-the-moment reasons do you give yourself for why you can’t change?