Stuck In a Rut? Here's How to Get Out of It

They got fed up with each other and divorced, confident that they would each find better partners. They found new partners but in the end, no real improvement.

She was raised devout Catholic and broke free into new age spirituality which she practiced as dogmatically as a Catholic.

They were sick of the government swamp and voted for a conman who said he would drain it, only to end up with a worse swamp.

He rebelled against convention’s straitjacket, committing himself to anarchy which he now practices with the same orthodoxy he rebelled against.

He was a heroic rebel leader who overthrew the dictator, then becoming the next dictator.

They say you can never run away from your problems - you’ll take them with you wherever you go. That’s an exaggeration. Sometimes a change of scene is all it takes to end a problem.

Still, there’s something to it. Often we think we’re making a clean break when we’re not. What we turn toward is just a repackaging of what didn’t work before.

It’s easy to see why our clean breaks don’t break clean. The emotional energy of activation required to break free is often so distracting that we don’t get around to diagnosing what exactly we need to change. We know our rut sucked but not why. We launch our heroic self-emancipation, spurred only by intense but general dissatisfaction. We scapegoat, lashing out at whatever is easiest and most motivating, a symptom of the problem, not its underlying source.

We end up wrong about what was wrong.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want a clean break, really.

Cliché Guevara: We crave something new but safe, revolutionary but comforting. We therefore secretly love a repackaging of the same old, same old. It gives us the impression of movement without having to move. If you want real change you’re going to have to curb the Cliché Guevara appetite or you’ll end up like the New age nun or the anarchist authoritarian, confident that you made a clean break when you haven’t.

Pacman syndrome: In Pacman, if you go off the edge of the screen on one side, you pop up again on the other side. We often do this in everyday life. Your last partner was too something so you end up requiring your next partner to be the exact opposite, only to find that you ended up where you started. We do it in politics too, becoming so extremely left or right that we end up on the opposite side. Leftists are notorious for this, liberators like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Venezuela’s Chavez, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Nicaragua’s Ortega all became oppressive dictators. Hence, on the right, a resolute hatred of leftist dictators, but in their extremist right-wing campaigns to rid the world of such leftists, we end up with movements that become equally oppressive.

The tonic: An alcoholic set out to figure out why he got hangovers. He got them after gin and tonic, vodka and tonic, whiskey and tonic, and decided it was the tonic, convenient for him since he so loved the other ingredients. Extreme, political movements do something similar. They fight communists or capitalists without noticing that the real problem is that there’s something about all governments that tends toward fascism. Likewise in partnership: You can change partner after partner without noticing that there’s something about the whole romantic package that makes it difficult for you to sustain.

Stuck in expired high resolve: Years ago you had a breakthrough insight that you pledged never to forget. It is so sacred to you that you can’t afford to consider anything that threatens to dilute it. You’re frustrated with your situation and insist on getting real, facing absolutely any truth just so long as it doesn’t jostle your delicate antique outmoded epiphany.

Breakthrough baggage: Love is blind. That’s how you got into the last mess. And how are you going to get out of it? Through another round of blind love. Cults play on this tendency. They expose to you the ways that you’ve been living a lie. That softens you up enough that you fall in love with whatever snake-oil they’re selling. If it emancipates you from the old rut, you don’t get around to wondering what exactly emancipated you. You were born again but does that mean you have to spend the rest of your life lugging around all the baggage that came with your emancipation? The same can occur in therapy. You went into it with a problem. Your therapist trained you on some epic account of what went wrong in your life, a definitive story you think you need to sustain the new you when really it was just a useful crowbar to get you out of that rut, not the one and only true interpretation of your life.

Startup hill: The energy of activation required to get out of a rut focuses on how bad things are and how good things will be if you make a change. We tend to exaggerate the benefits of liberation. That helps us liberate but leads to disappointment with what comes next. Many partners fall in love on their way out of a relationship. Some stay with their new partner but many don’t. Many are surprised to discover that, after the bloom fades they are as disappointed as they had been with their last partners. The dream of a panacea motivates a change that often isn’t a real change.

Outside the box? Some gold, much garbage: “I want out,” we cry as though anything must be better than what we’re in. We forget that most of what’s outside our box is not an improvement. That’s why it’s outside the box. It’s not enough to escape. If you don’t want to settle for just another bad box, you’ve got to search carefully outside yours to find a good one.

Through blame, no pain and no gain: What we’re leaving is never us. It’s always them. Your divorce? You did everything right, except falling for your ex who was a narcissistic disaster. Your job? You left it because your boss and co-workers were idiots. Maybe, but even so, their failings make it too easy for you to walk away without having learned what you can do differently. When you’re leaving there's calm reassessment to be done. Don’t skip it, even if you’re leaving jerks.

Goldilocks blindness: We overcorrect, taking oversteps in the right direction. He who’s burnt by hot milk blows on ice cream. You know the last porridge was too hot so you assume no porridge could be too cold. You know your last partner was too yang so you assume no partner could be too yin. You forget that there are always two toos, opposites you need to balance, not just one extreme you need to avoid.

The Kicker – Paradoxical irony: Escaping humanities bad habits takes much more than the impulse to do so. It takes owning our inescapable paradoxes. So many revolutionaries become the next dictators. So many "love-is-the-answer" crusaders become the next haters. So many freedom-lovers become the next tyrants. They try to escape the universe and get bent back in at the edges. That's what happens when you don't hear the paradoxical irony in such platitudes as, "be intolerant of intolerance, shame on you for being judgmental, being negative is a no no, commit yourself to flexibility."

Deaf to irony, our absolutist assertions can’t be sustained without blind or willful hypocrisy, which gets easier with time, doubled down when challenged until admitting to it is a cost too steep to pay.

The alternative? Owning the paradoxes of life as all yours, all everyone’s. We’re all managing polar opposites, like tolerance vs. intolerance. That’s a box we cannot escape. We, so we better try to comfortable with the uncomfortable life-long task of deciding when to be tolerant, judgmental, loving, and negative.

And then we can laugh at our paradoxical human condition, laughing at it with it since it's ours too. That’s irony, a whole-hearted, hearty, self-effacing, self-respecting laugh at ours and everyone's predicament. It's the alternative to hypocrisy the effort to stay blind to, or claim exemption from the paradoxes.

To make real change, meditate on the perennial paradoxes, everyday and everyman koans.

Better that than to swap one extreme for its opposite only to end up in the same old box, repackaged.

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