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Feeling Stuck or Restless? Think How, Not What

To get unstuck in your life, the key is not doing more, but doing different.

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Sara has been feeling a bit bored with her life lately. The job is a job, her weekly routine is routine. She fantasizes about looking for a different job, going on some exotic vacation, changing her looks, maybe moving. Something’s gotta give.

Ben will admit that he’s having a midlife crisis. He feels trapped and restless. He’s got 20 good years left and he is sure he doesn’t want to keep doing for the next 20 what he’s been doing for the last.

We all have times when we have bored or trapped or restless, where the life we are living isn’t the life we want, where we’re going on autopilot, going through the motions but feeling unsatisfied. Our instincts are shake it up – change the job, the look, go on the that vacation, buy a boat, have a child. And often this helps for a while. But more often the underlying problem is not about changing the content of our lives — what we do on our job, how we spend our free time — but on the process, the way we run our lives overall. We’re stuck because we need to approach our lives from a different angle.

Content vs. process

The therapy world divides communication into content and process. Content is…what, facts, nouns: the topics discussed in the staff meeting, the back and forth in last night’s argument over how much we really spend on groceries. Process is how, action, verbs: Not the topics discussed in the meeting but how Jack always dominates it, making it unproductive. Not what we really spend on groceries, but the fact that whenever we talk about money it turns into an argument. A waterfall = content. The water is falling = process.

We’re primed to zero on content, especially when we get emotional. When the money argument cranks up, both partners instinctively start to stack up more content / information, to makes their cases: out come the text messages, the receipts, the checkbooks and credit card statements. Or when we worry about the sudden rash on our arms, we apt to go on the internet for 2 hours to track down the possible diagnosis, the cause, the treatment. Our emotional brains are telling us that if we only get the right content we’ll change the process and feel better: Our partner will finally realize we were right, our worry about the rash will go down.

Dysfunctional process and mental health

What is at the core of many mental health issues is process not content: Sam’s generalized anxiety drifts towards whatever is the biggest worry of the day — his job, his health — but what doesn’t change is the worrying process itself, his conjuring up worst-case scenarios that drive his anxiety; Ellen may feel depressed because she feels trapped in her marriage, but it is not the content of her marriage that is the problem and more her response, her giving up and not doing anything to change anything that keeps her depressed; Carly’s anger is legendary, but while the content of her anger changes, the fact that she can’t regulate her emotions doesn’t; Will impulsiveness causes him to spend money, blurting out the first thing that comes to his mind, but what doesn’t change is the impulsiveness itself.

Paradigm shift

So, maybe it’s time to look at the dysfunctional process that keeps you from solving problems, making good decisions, feeling more empowered. Maybe it’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, doing more of the same, and instead make a paradigm shift in how you run your life.

Here are some of the best places to start:

Focus on wants not shoulds

Often what drives developmental crises is the need to stop building your life on the rules / shoulds you have in your head and have been following for so long, and instead begin to build your life on what you want, those gut reactions.

Learn to manage confrontation

If you are afraid of confrontation or the strong emotions of others, you are constantly biting your tongue, accommodating, walking on eggshells, putting others ahead of you. By learning to tolerate confrontation, you stop all this and being less afraid can start living the life you want.

Learn to regulate your emotions

This is Carly and Will and arguments about money. This is a primary skill that research shows is one of the keys to having a good life. Those who struggle to regulate their emotions — anger, anxiety, impulsiveness — have poor relationships, struggle in the workplace, derail themselves with poor decisions.

Reset priorities

This is about stopping the autopilot and instead proactively stepping back and looking at the larger landscape of your everyday life. Here Ben decides not to just spend more time with family, but also consciously resets his priorities and begins to build into his life personal needs that have been ignored.

Learn to let go of the past

If you are ruminating about the past you are likely endlessly replaying scenes of regret and hurt in your mind, but the letting go is about stopping the replaying itself. The key here is actively taking steps to get closure and move forward — by sending an email to the other person, writing out your thoughts, putting into words what has not been said. It is also about actively building a future in spite of feeling pulled by the past. By shifting your focus the past becomes less powerful.

Resolve underlying issues that make problem-solving difficult

Here we are talking about all of the above — the problem with emotions, confrontation, priorities, shoulds instead of wants. This is also about chronic problems like unresolved trauma that cause you to not only to get triggered in the present, but leave you afraid of relationships and untrusting of others, or afraid to ask for help.

This is also about untreated addictions that skew your life-focus, or about mental health issues like chronic depression or untreated AD/HD that biochemically keep your brain from functioning at its best. Here you look to therapy and / or medication to put the underlying dynamic to rest.

Next steps

When you look back on the last years of running your life, where do you get stuck? Are any of these problems and patterns keeping you from being successful? If one or two are, now is a good time to start taking steps to change your process. Don’t focus on the content — the specific argument, the past regret — but the bigger issue of how you deal with these situations.

And then take baby steps to change them — practicing regulating your emotions, getting closure about the past and moving forward, tackling those underlying issues. Focus on concrete behaviors and get help to provide the support and tools that you need to be successful.

Content is a moving target; process is where life lives.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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