Why does it feel like nothing is working, and what do I do about it?

Dear Bear,

I’m just stuck. None of the ways I usually manage things are working, some because the new government is awful and some because of other people and some probably because of me. But it just feels like everything is covered in molasses and occasionally some shit blows up but I don’t know WHY or what to do. I can’t figure out how to learn new ways of doing things without just making a whole lot of mistakes and probably costing myself and other people time and money and hard feelings. So I just kind of wait and hope but that is also definitely really not helping anything. What do people do? What should I do?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Whew. That is indeed a difficult place, that stuck spot. The worst thing about it, for me, has historically been that I just lose my confidence, globally, in myself. Did I really even make my point clear? Did I really actually fix that thing? Are these dishes really even washed?

So let’s maybe take two big steps back, and start looking at some of the larger questions in this conundrum, the first of which is How Did We Get Here? I have some thoughts about patterns, and stewardship of relationships (of various kinds) that I have been kicking around in my own right and would like to share. Because I too have had experiences where I have felt blindsided by change, just totally underwater with it and getting worked besides, and the feeling of “surprise!” made me angry and defensive. It allowed me to free myself from really looking at my own behavior and blame my troubles on other people – this person was irrational, that person was unreasonable.

However. When a little time had passed, and I was able to look back on my experiences with more wisdom and less nonsense, I was able to see where I had – in some of the cases, at least – dropped the ball. Where I was relying on goodwill and inertia to get me through. Not in big ways, but in a lot of little ways that added up over time: I wasn’t paying attention to small changes in another person or in a political environment or in best practices. I wasn’t being participatory; I had mostly set my behavior on auto-reply and wasn’t actually engaging unless there was a bump and I had to. I allowed myself not to notice the minor disconnects and missteps, because I was still on autopilot and things were mostly okay-is or at least there were’t major fights or abruptions. I wasn’t engaged. Then – when I eventually tuned in –  I felt out of sync with what was happening, or like I didn’t really understand why the bumps were coming, and that increased my sense of alienation and confusion. So of course I put my energy elsewhere, where I felt confident and connected, because avoidance is SO HELPFUL. And of course, the issues multiplied.

So when the Big Bump came it felt sudden and out of nowhere and WTF and all the rest of it, but that was only my part of the experience. I got dumped because I wasn’t putting any work into tending the relationship in an active, present way. I got fired because the goals of my organization changed and I failed to adjust accordingly. I felt surprised and upset, but if we are being honest here, Brave Correspondent, there had been opportunities for me to re-engage and improve things and I hadn’t taken them. There had been more proportional course-corrections that I’d ignored. Some of them because I didn’t notice but some because I didn’t know what to do and so, scared and upset, I chose to do nothing and just wait and see. Because doing nothing seemed to me, at the time, like a neutral position.

Brave Correspondent, let me tell you this: doing nothing is NEVER neutral. There are stirring political defenses of this concept and pithy Instagram poems about it too, but I am going to prove it to you today with math. Imagine your grade in a class. Let’s say you have your first major paper due, and you’ve been okay on the quizzes and such but you’re panicked about the paper. If you turn a paper in, anything at all that’s even a relative of an idea about the assignment in the neighborhood of the correct length, the worst that happens is you get an F on your paper. An F is numerically a 55 in most grading systems. That’s not a great grade, but if you just do nothing and wait until you understand things better and don’t turn in a paper, what do you get? A zero.

Feel free to math out exactly how many B-pluses it takes to recover your average from a 55 vs. from a zero. Hint: the latter is a lot more. Sometimes more opportunities than you have in an average semester.

So. Is any of this sounding familiar? If you look back, without too much blame or anger at yourself or anyone else, can you see some places where relationships have gotten a little strained or sometimes unpredictable and you’re chalking it up to a “rough patch” and kind of…waiting it out? Hoping for more information as things unfold? Feeling tired about how out-of-control it feels and putting your energy someplace where you’re feeling more appreciated or getting quick, satisfying results? That is 100% understandable and honestly so common, and you may need to press pause on it for a moment.

It may be the right time for a little inventory. Have a look at what you’re doing in the world, what places feel stuck or possibly incendiary. As yourself, kindly and with a tender spirit: have I been engaged here? And if I’m not, why not? Maybe some of the things you feel done with, or they don’t excite you anymore, but you’re pushing on out of inertia or because nothing is “so bad.” Those things may just continue to deteriorate, any anything will if not maintained. Is there a reason to hang on and see how long it takes to get really bad? Or should you maybe just call it before there are a lot of hard feelings and general misery?

And also, pay attention to which of the things you just can’t change. The new government (and I am not sure which you mean, though I have a guess that it rhymes with Rump) being a total disaster is a place where you can do some work, but you can’t make it different by sheer force of will or cleverness of tactics. Some of the bullshit you just may need to protect yourself from to whatever degree that’s available and hope for the best. Seek the comfort of your compatriots in this; people who are similarly affected by the regime and its various moral and ethical failings will at least provide validation and good memes about your feelings.

The good news is that pruning off some of those connections you’ve lost your give-a-damn about may give you more time and energy for the places you’d like to be doing a better job. These I think you can approach in a spirit of transparency and enthusiasm, like a puppy: “Hello!” you might say, “This has been feeling hard and I would like to talk about what I can do to make it better! I feel stuck but I am ready to flow!” I also find that if you let someone or someplace know that you’re feeling stuck and hoping to try some new things to see if you can get un-stuck, they will sometimes extend you some flexibility in the figuring-out. So if you try something, and it’s just a disaster, you may have more space to spring back up and say “Okay! We tried that, and we can now conclude that it doesn’t work! What else can we try?”

I want you to have space to try some things and fail without being penalized, Brave Correspondent, but I really want you to try some things even if there are unpleasant consequences. The more stuck we get, the harder it is to feel flexible or bold. The bad news is that you don’t gain any skills or make any progress from waiting and feeling thwarted. The good news is that there’s so, so much room to grow and make progress here. To whatever degree it feels safe I think you should tell everyone that you’re about to try some things, enlist your team to bring their biggest enthusiasm to every success (and baked goods when things are less successful), get in there and see what you can do.


love and courage,

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