Four months ago, I decided I wasn’t going to try to plan my next move after leaving Baltimore. I wrote in my Goodbye Baltimore post,
“I decided that I’m not going to let myself make plans until after my vacation because I need some space and perspective after the past two years in the Hopkins system. It really affected me and I’m confused about what I want in every way possible.”
I thought maybe if I had some space from Hopkins, I would be able to resent it less and apply for jobs in public health the way I had originally planned to when I started graduate school. Not that I expected to have some sort of “aha” moment while on vacation and suddenly know which direction I wanted to move in next, because I’ve done this transition thing enough times now to know that that’s generally not a thing.
But I figured I would clear my head and then make moves. I definitely didn’t expect to end up feeling as stuck as I did by August…then September…October…
I just really didn’t know what I wanted. I mean professionally, personally, geographically — I was like really, really confused.
(I say it in past tense like it’s all over now, but the truth is, being ‘unstuck’ for me just means being a bit less confused.)
I’m guessing I’m not the only person in the world to ever feel stuck. To not know what you want. So now that I’m feeling slightly less stuck, I’m going to review the steps it took to get here. Bonus: you’ll get to learn about what I’ve been doing the past few months. Warning: it’s not that exciting 😀
How to get unstuck:
1. Revisit your past
After traveling in Europe with Gatien, I returned to Atlanta to live in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house and attempt to make plans for whatever would come next. During that time, I revisited first my high school, with my high school ex-boyfriend who I hadn’t seen in five years, and then my elementary/middle school, with one of my really good friends from that time in my life.
I’ve also hung out with friends from high school who live in Atlanta – and sometimes people I hadn’t seen in years and years. I Skyped and Facebook chatted with friends I had met in Australia and in Thailand.
I know you’re probably thinking “okay, Michelle, so why was this helpful…?”
I didn’t realize it until afterwards, but revisiting my past in this way helped me remember the person I used to be. The things that made me happy then. My hobbies, friends, all of it. I was also re-exposed to different lifestyles and types of people. Open-minded, nonjudgmental people.
Remembering my former accomplishments and the awesome people I connected with who didn’t care whether I was a Successful Career Professional Person made me feel like my life was less stagnant.
2. Keep moving
I’ve bounced back and forth a few times over the past few months between staying at G’s place in Baltimore for weeks at a time and living in that childhood bedroom of mine in Atlanta. Changing up my surroundings has been super helpful because some of that physical change stimulates mental change.
New scenery outside, new scenery inside.
Also huge: I’ve made sure to keep exercising. Same principle here.
3. Get a therapist
If ya don’t see a therapist, and you’re feeling super stuck in life, get one ASAP! Due to anticipating that I wouldn’t be staying in one place (#2 above), I decided to try text-based therapy. You can read my review, but suffice it to say, my therapist has been really instrumental in helping me unstuck myself.
I’ll admit, it took me a while to get used to the text therapy thing and for sure it lacks some major benefits of in-person therapy, but I really appreciate the convenience of it. Plus, I prefer to communicate through writing so it suits me really well.
Another idea is to seek out a career coach, but correct me if I’m wrong: there’s usually more to being stuck than just professional incertitudes (see #5 below).
4. Watch Buzzfeed videos
I’m not embarrassed to say I freakin love Buzzfeed videos.
Why am I recommending something so unsubstantial? I know there are more cultivated means of entertainment and even self-development out there. I mean you could watch TED talks and look for insights in your free time; you could try meditation; you could volunteer. But damn guys it just feels good to laugh sometimes.
When you’re stuck, you spend most of your time thinking about yourself: what do I want to do, but if I do that then I won’t get this, I can’t do that maybe I should do this, but I don’t know if I want to do this…
Put those thoughts on hold and just enjoy something that isn’t all about what’s going on in your head.
5. Figure out if there’s something holding you back
As it turns out, my resentment towards Hopkins was much stronger and went much deeper than I ever imagined. My therapist identified my overall experience as “traumatic”, which was a word I had never associated with what I perceived I went through. But when I reexamine how I felt the past two years, I recognize that I was reacting from a place of learned helplessness.
I knew I was angry at Hopkins but I also had been told a million times that I basically had no right or reason to be. People reading this now may still argue with me about this.
It doesn’t matter though what the facts were about my experiences. I felt helpless, starting from the point when I got accepted to the program and had to decide whether to take out loans or not, up until the point when I had to harass my advisor to sign my master’s essay approval form so I could graduate on time.
I couldn’t let go and move on because I was so deeply angry.
Working on these emotions with my therapist has probably been the most instrumental thing I’ve done to get unstuck.
Ask yourself if you’ve been in a situation in which you’ve felt or been made to feel helpless. Then talk to your therapist about anything that might come up and he or she should share some strategies with you to work through it.
6. Take personality tests
No, not the Buzzfeed ones! Haha
My therapist recommended the Enneagram test to me and after taking both a free online version and the official one, I learned I am decidedly a Type 4. I wrote about how this made me feel a bit in my last newsletter: essentially, I started identifying more with my creativity.
I also took some free Myers & Briggs-esque personality tests online and found I am ENTP. I don’t think I completely fill the role of “The Debater”, as ENTP’s are called, but the following part really resonated with me in thinking about the type of work environment I thrive in:
“Really it all comes down to a sense of personal freedom, for ENTPs to know that they are allowed to apply themselves fully to understanding and solving the problems that interest them, without getting bogged down by social politics and trying to figure out what makes other people ‘tick’. Routine, structure and formal rules all feel like unnecessary hindrances to ENTPs, and they may find that their best careers yet allow them to engage their intellectual pursuits on their own terms, as freelance consultants or software engineers.”
Minus the software engineer thing, that’s pretty spot on. It’s like they’re reading my mind with the rules and social politics thing (and anyone who knows me is nodding in agreement right now).
Overall, both tests told me things about myself that I kinda knew but didn’t know (if you know what I mean). When you’re feeling stuck, a ‘neutral’ outside opinion like this can nudge the needle in some – any! – direction.
7. Give it time, time, and more time
I know, I know, “give it time”: worst advice ever, right?
But know that you won’t be stuck forever. Everything eventually passes. Be patient and don’t give up. Getting frustrated with yourself feeds the stuckness. (I’m definitely still working on this.)
Stuff that made me feel worse/more stuck:
Over the past few months, I’ve also been able to identify the things in my life that really were #NotHelping. I recommend staying away from the following things if you’re trying to be less stuck.
Living with my parents in suburbia was so isolating and at the same time I felt like I had zero privacy. This type of living situation does indeed work for some people – you know who you are. Otherwise, I recommend living with friends or roommates, and in a more densely populated region (not the suburbs!).
Not having a place to work/job hunt/sit at a desk
Getting unstuck goal: don’t sit in bed all day. Best way to achieve this goal: have another place to sit. Again, not super accessible for me back in Atlanta. At home, it’s either my bed or the kitchen table :/
Lack of access to food
If you’re stuck trying to make a life decision, you need to minimize the amount of decisions – big OR small – that you’re making in a day. You might have heard some people (e.g. Steve Jobs and Barack Obama) do this by basically wearing the same thing every day.
For me, making food happen was a huge challenge living in parents’ house in Atlanta. I had to deliberate, plan, or travel just to get a meal. (Let’s just say mealtime is not a teamwork activity in my family’s household.)
Being here in Baltimore has been so much better for my diet: I have an eating partner and a well-stocked kitchen.
Have you ever been stuck? What strategies have worked for you to get past it?