Getting Unstuck When Progress Stands Still 

 March 15, 2021

By  Marianne Gernetzke

Sometimes clients notice that they talk a lot about change, but feel unable to make change.   They express feelings of shame and helplessness and often ask, “Why am I so lazy?”.

I’ve been there.  Have you?

This “stuck” experience is a very frustrating place to be!  Rest assured, we’ve all felt this at one time or another, regardless of what type of change we were working towards. 

In the evidence-based Transtheoretical Model of Change, this state is common in the stage of contemplation.

Contemplation is the stage of change where we can find ourselves excited about change, convinced of the reasons to change, but not yet ready to create or sustain change.  Usually, when in contemplation, we’d like to make a change happen within the next 6 months.  

But sometimes this stage continues for years.

What can we do if we find we are still spinning our wheels weeks, months or years after the decision to change?  How do we get unstuck?

Researchers Prochaska and Prochaska, authors of Changing to Thrive (2016), describe common challenges that may lead to a state of chronic contemplation:

  • Doubt overwhelms us.  We ask whether the change is truly worth it.  We wait for a guarantee that we won’t regret our decision to change.
  • We desire a greater sense of safety.  In order to avoid possible failure, we only think or talk about the problem.  We subconsciously choose to stay where we are because our fear of failing is greater than our fear of not trying at all.
  • We avoid anxiety.  We find that the moment we begin to take action and increase our risk of failure, our anxiety rises.  So we retreat to the safety of contemplation. 
  • We seek full certainty. We decide we need full understanding, full confidence, and/or a perfect solution, and ONLY THEN will we be ready to go on.  Unfortunately, this level of certainty is rare.
  • We subconsciously choose falsehood.  For example, we would rather believe we are lazy or incapable than experience the anxiety of uncertainty.  It feels safe to know we are right about something, even if it is untrue or harms us. 

 So, what can we do about these challenges?

  1. Reconsider your judgment towards yourself about failure, brokenness, and/or laziness!  The Transtheoretical Model of Change tells us that it is in human nature to fail as we learn new skills, but we can always try againA setback does not have to equal failure.
  • Consider a toddler learning to walk.  If he or she falls as they take their first steps, have they failed?  Absolutely not!  There is no rule about how many falls they can have during the process of learning.  And if they stop and rest, or revert to crawling for a short time, they are not “lazy”.  We would not judge a small human in this way, so why do we judge ourselves in this manner?
  • What happens if you give yourself permission to occasionally fall down on the way to meeting your goals?  Does your definition of “failure” change?  What happens to your anxiety?
  1. Be open to adjusting your deadlines.  Often when we set out to meet a goal, like weight loss, or quitting smoking, or learning a new skill, we set deadlines for ourselves.  We want our change to occur quickly and be permanent.  But change is a process, not an event.
  • Learning/change does not always occur in a linear fashion.  And once we make change, it takes practice to sustain change over time.  We take a few steps forward, and then a few steps back.  Change is a spiral process.
  • In recognizing the non-linear process of change, we may not always arrive at our end-goal within our original timeline.  Adjusting our deadline may be a necessary part of the process.
  • If you recognize your setbacks as part of a process of moving forward, rather than failure, do you still feel the same shame about those setbacks?  Or are you just taking a side-step?  What happens if you give yourself permission to adjust your deadline?
  1. Give yourself permission to start over again.  Sometimes, in the process of change, we choose to stop trying, with the attitude “why even bother?”  But is it true that you and/or your efforts don’t matter? 
  • You only truly fail when you stop trying.
  • Consider the example of bathing or showering.  If an event sidetracks you from taking a shower on a given day, do you respond by throwing up your hands and deciding you are done with bathing yourself forever?  Probably not. This would be silly, wouldn’t it?  Most individuals easily return to bathing/showering as soon as they can, without shame.
  • We can apply the same attitude to each and every task on our journey.  When we view every day as a new day or new opportunity to learn, we discover endless opportunities to start over.
  • Each new start is an opportunity to succeed.
  1. Be aware of all-or-nothing thinking.  We can sometimes fall into a trap of deciding that we must be 100% certain that we will become 100% successful, or we have failed completely.  All-or-nothing thinking can truly disempower us, because it means we will “fail” at our goal 99% of the time.  What happens, if instead of setting ourselves up for certain “failure”, we redefine success as existing in a range of increments? 
  • We can aim for 100% success, but this may be an unrealistic expectation.  Success may instead lie within a gray area:  for example, someplace between 60 and 100%. 
  • Today, 50% success may be your goal, and next week, 55% may be your goal.  What if you were always getting closer to 100%?  How would that feel compared to not trying at all? 
  • Would you expect a child to become a perfect student on their first day of school?  Of course not!  How does that inform you about your expectations of yourself?
  • If you redefine success as a range of targets, what happens to your confidence that you will succeed?  How much more control do you have over your final outcome?
  1.  If doubts still remain, do your research, and practice comebacks to your arguments!  Usually when we are in a state of contemplation, we are aware of the many benefits of the change we desire.  But what if we remain unconvinced that the benefits outweigh the cons?  We might find we are still making excuses.
  • Prochaska and Prochaska (2016) find that you can increase your likelihood of moving out of contemplation if you actively work to decrease the cons.  In other words, if you can remove your arguments against the change, you will find more freedom to move forward.
  • Identify the objections you may still be holding on to.  For example, “this change takes too much time”, or “it is easier” to continue my negative habit, or “by remaining so stressed/anxious about this situation, I am making myself more productive”.  Ask yourself if each of these objections is truthful.
  • Next, create comeback arguments to each of your objections.  It may help to write them down.  Each time you find yourself making an excuse, stop your thought, offer yourself kindness and compassion, and state your comeback instead.
  • After you remove your arguments against change, what happens to your motivation to move forward?
  1.  Finally, consider how your change will affect others in your social environment.  Prochaska and Prochaska’s research informs us that “self-changers” tend to move out of a state of contemplation more easily if they take time to notice how their negative habits are affecting others around them.
  • Notice, for example: Do your behaviors cause others to worry about you? Are your choices negatively affecting the emotional or physical health of others?  Will your change positively inspire change in others? 
  • How will your change positively affect friends, family, and/or coworkers?  How does this understanding motivate you to move forward?

When we fear failure, desire safety and certainty, or hold onto doubts, we are being utterly human.  But this “stuck” feeling isn’t a dead end!  By giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, working to adapt our thought processes, being more honest with ourselves about our expectations, adjusting our timelines, and increasing awareness of ourselves and others, we may be able to free ourselves and move forward.

Have these strategies been helpful to you?  Please share!

Marianne Gernetzke

Marianne Gernetzke, MS, PCC, NBC-HWC, A-CFHC, is a Health and Wellbeing Coach who helps drained and distressed adults to ease inner tension and create greater happiness and harmony in living. Marianne has re-awakened her own health and happiness after years of self-induced stress and perfectionism led to auto-immune symptoms and mental burnout. She offers individualized coaching services, utilizing over 20 years previous experience as a trauma-informed health professional and an intense curiosity about the connection between lifestyle habits and mental wellbeing. Marianne lives in rural Wisconsin where she enjoys family-time with her spouse and older children, growing organic vegetables, and artistic adventures with mixed media/crafts.

Marianne Gernetzke

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