I am in the process of reading through a book titled Mastering the Art of Quitting, which digs into why we, especially in America, find it so hard to quit jobs, relationships, locations, etc., even when they are clearly no longer of service to us. I came across an explanation for why people get stuck that rung incredibly true to me, and I wanted to share it with you all because I think it's such a powerful way to look at the condition.
HOW WE GET STUCK - two examples
The book spends a great deal of time talking about goals and how the decisions we make reflect the goals that we have. The trouble is that not all goals are compatible with each other, and when two goals come in conflict, that is when we get stuck.
The example from the book was a couple who lived in different states but were about to retire and move in together. The man spent his money liberally, racking up credit card debt, while the woman saved up her money and tried to create a financially secure future for herself. This difference in how they handled their finances become a major source of stress in their relationship, particularly for her, and so she began to feel stuck. Why? She had two goals that were in conflict. One of her goals was financial safety and security, and that goal meant that she wanted both herself and her partner to be saving money and spending it responsibly. The other goal was to be in a relationship with her partner and to not grow old alone. So the goal to be financially secure tells her to leave as her partner continually refuses to adjust his behavior to align with that goal, while the goal of being in a relationship and not growing old alone tells her to stay. This causes her to go back and forth between wanting to leave and wanting to stay, creating a malaise and feeling of being unable to take action.
Imagine a lawyer, we'll call him Paul, who went to a great law school, got a job at a great law firm, and has been working as a lawyer for a few years. He realizes that the work isn't making him happy, and as he looks ahead to those higher in the firm, he knows that he's not interested in moving up and getting promoted. His father was a lawyer however, and it was always been his father's dream that Paul become one as well. Paul feels stuck. He's unhappy at work because he has a goal of doing work that he considers meaningful and fulfilling for him, and satisfying this goal would mean leaving the law profession. He has another goal which is to do what he believes will make his father happy, which is to be a lawyer, and this goal compels him to keep working hard and advancing in the ranks at his law firm. These two goals are in direct conflict, and until that conflict is resolved, Paul will remain stuck, dreading work, but also feeling that he is unable to do anything about the situation.
THE COST OF BEING STUCK
There is a temptation to try to make the best of things, to soldier on. We might feel like sometimes we're just complaining and that we should feel grateful for the stable job that we have. There is a cost to being stuck however, and when we weigh our decision to take action, we must also factor in the cost of not doing anything.
The book talks about a concept called ego-depletion, which says that you have a finite amount of self-control or willpower, and every decision you have to make, emotion you have to suppress, or control you have to exert in a day, drains you. As you become drained you're less likely to make what you would normally consider to be good decisions.
When we are stuck we spend time and energy suppressing that "stuck" feeling, so that we can carry on with our day and perform at our jobs. The cost of this suppression of emotion is that we are using up some of that willpower to keep ourselves moving forward. This means that we have less energy overall to apply towards other areas of our lives that require decision making and action.
Imagine all of the energy that someone is burning every day dealing with the feeling of being stuck, and each step they take as it weighs on them. Now imagine how much more energy they would have, how much freer and lighter they would feel, if that were removed. They will never be able to perform at their best if they're having to spend energy suppressing the feeling of being stuck, the only solution is to move through it and get clarity.
The book mentions research done into goal conflict and the results were that “when there’s conflict between personal goals, people ruminate more, but do less, about the goals.” Not only was that a source of energy drain, but “conflict appeared to have an immobilizing effect on action and was associated with lowered well-being.” This means that the having conflicting goals actually negatively affecting peoples’ psychological and physical well being.
Simply put, being stuck takes a major toll on your energy and your health, and thus it becomes crucial to make an effort to resolve the conflicting goals if you are to leverage your full health and attention towards productive efforts.
Part II is now available which explores the process of becoming un-stuck.