I often get stuck. Stuck in between getting up and staying in bed. Between doing the dishes and not. Between taking a break and pushing forward.
For a long time, I’ve gotten myself unstuck by relying on anxiety, shame, and negative self-talk. I have to get up because if I’m late to school, everyone will judge me. I have to do the dishes because if I don’t, I’ll get scolded. I have to take a break, or I’ll burn out. I have to push forward, or I’m a lazy waste of space.
But ever since I was diagnosed with ADHD last year at age 20 – and came to understand why I get so stuck — I’ve been in the process of unlearning all those unhealthy coping mechanisms that have done more harm than good. While the process has been frustrating and disheartening at times, the healthier alternatives I’ve learned have proven to be immensely empowering.
A therapist I worked with last year understood that I process my thoughts and feelings in highly visual ways. Since then, I’ve tried to use those same visuals to get unstuck.
What it Looks Like to Get Stuck — and Unstuck
When I have a choice to make, I imagine all of the possibilities in different colors.
At first, it’s just two colors: “Do I wash the dishes, or do I not wash the dishes?” But then, as I think about my decision, those two choices split off into a million more. If I do wash the dishes, do I do all of it, or just some? Do I ask for help? Which dish do I start with? Or, if I don’t do the dishes, what do I do instead?
Suddenly, there are hundreds of colors, every hue imaginable. They’re like little dollops of paint, floating through the air. The longer I take to make a choice, the closer these colors become, blurring until they mix. The more they mix, the more I lose sight of my options, and the harder it is to select one to move forward with.
Just as these problems come to me in visuals, I’ve learned how to find answers and get unstuck through them. One visualization that sometimes helps is “unmixing” the colors, or choices, that have blurred. I try to name them, to give them more clarity and fight the vagueness that caused them to join. I close my eyes and imagine them separating in reverse. This visual has often provided me with the clarity I need to move forward.
But it doesn’t always work. I sometimes don’t have the energy to see a way through.
The Cloud of Stuck-ness
Getting stuck feels like returning to a familiar place under different circumstances. To leave that place is sometimes quite an exhausting uphill battle. Finding myself stuck in the same place time and time again also brings feelings of intense distress, anxiety, frustration, and boredom. And because I know what’s coming for me when I get stuck, those very emotions hit me almost pre-emptively.
I think of this feeling — not the stuck-ness itself, but the anticipation of it — as a cloud.
This cloud is heavy, and follows me around like a ghost from the past. It’s made up of new feelings, but it also carries the baggage of all the previous times I’ve been stuck. So you can imagine how large this cloud is — it’s been growing ever since I was a kid. The bigger the cloud of stuck-ness gets, the more difficult it is to even think about how to get unstuck.
And even if I manage to dodge the cloud, that familiar place – the state of stuck – won’t go away. It’s there, waiting for me, and I will inevitably spend time there, because that’s part of how my brain works.
Rather than fight the inevitable, my goal is to make the state of stuck and the cloud of stuck-ness more comfortable and less exhausting. So far, I’ve developed these strategies for coping with this cloud when it descends.
How to Get Unstuck from the Cloud
1. Acknowledge it. When I feel that cloud — that bundle of compounded emotions — I acknowledge its presence, rather than ignore or fight it.
2. Mobilize it. The cloud, like me, gets stuck sometimes. It can feel very permanent, very frozen, and very rigid. So I interact with it, however I can, to give it movement. I close my eyes and wave my hands through it. I imagine it moving around in the wind. I shrink it with two fingers, like it’s an image on a touch screen.
3. Size it up. It may sound unusual, but when I find myself particularly anxious, I remember that no matter how intense the feeling, it exists inside of me. It is located in my body, and I am therefore bigger than it. So when it feels like I’m being enveloped by anxiety and worry, I close my eyes and focus on the perimeters of my body, which sometimes helps shrink those feelings. I do the same with the cloud — though I visualize it as something outside of me, I remind myself that it is a part of me and, therefore, I am bigger than it.
4. Let it go. I take an imaginary hand-held vacuum (my favorite strategy by far) and collect as much of the cloud as I can. I like this method because, like a body scan and other grounding techniques, it requires me to look around and inside of me for pieces of the cloud. Once I’ve finished, I dump the vacuum bag into a dark abyss and let it float away. I don’t always get to all bits of the cloud in one round (there’s no shortage of feelings that seem to follow me around, hiding behind every corner) but I pick up the vacuum and repeat as many times as I need. As the cloud shows itself to me, I break it down a little bit at a time to prevent it from growing too much.
5. Be kind to yourself. I could also “step” around the cloud when it’s trying to block me, but I try to avoid that approach — the cloud grows if not addressed, after all. But if I can’t find the energy, I try to be kind and patient with myself. If I don’t want to give the cloud my attention, I allow myself to take a different route, even if it’s not a visual one.
If a visualization strategy isn’t working, I give myself permission to switch strategies, or to try a different tool. It’s all a matter of trial and error — a tool that works really well one day may feel impossible or even make things worse another day. Even though that can be frustrating, I try to embrace the journey as a means of problem-solving and understanding myself better.
I sometimes wonder if I’m only creating more mental gymnastics for myself with these visualization strategies, but they do leave me feeling lighter. I still get stuck in various moments throughout my days, but these tools have empowered me to move through life with a slightly clearer heart and mind.