25 Apr 2007  Research & Ideas

Feeling Stuck? Getting Past Impasse

Feeling "stuck," as psychologically painful as it is, is the first step to awareness of new opportunities in career and in life, says Harvard Business School's Timothy Butler. In this Q&A and excerpt from his new book, Getting Unstuck, he explains six steps for getting from here to there. Key concepts include:

  • A psychological impasse is developmentally necessary for human beings.
  • Although impasse is usually first expressed as a failure, it is a requirement for individuals to change their way of thinking about themselves and their role in the world.
  • There is a six-phase plan for recognizing and overcoming impasse, starting with feeling stuck and ending with finally taking action.
  • Each phase has its predictable challenges, but some people find one phase more difficult than another.

 

Most people at one time or another feel as if they are just spinning their wheels, unable to gain traction either in career or in life. This feeling of being stuck in one place, while troubling, is part of a necessary crisis leading to personal growth, says Dr. Timothy Butler, Senior Fellow and Director of Career Development Programs at Harvard Business School.

"Without it we cannot grow, change, and—eventually—live more fully in a larger world," Butler writes in his new book, Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths (Harvard Business School Press).

Butler, a psychologist, psychotherapist, and career development counselor for over 25 years, is also a researcher on career decision making generally and the relationship between personality structure and work satisfaction in particular. He met recently with HBS Working Knowledge to discuss how commonly business professionals may be confronted with a sense of psychological impasse and how they can free themselves.

Martha Lagace: What sorts of thoughts, feelings, and images do people experience when they face an impasse?

Timothy Butler: First, let's distinguish between day-to-day frustrations and the experience of being at an impasse. The impasse experience has features that are common to all of us, and in time each of us has a unique experience of impasse. For most people the recognition that we're at an impasse, whether it's a career situation or a broader life situation, creeps up rather than presents itself suddenly. For most people it comes through feelings first: of being frustrated, stuck, maybe even feeling a significant down mood, maybe even shading toward feeling depressed. And along with that, typically, is a self-attribution: feeling that there is something wrong with us and feeling stuck.

Impasse means that we need to change our whole approach to a problem.

Thoughts are always part and parcel of the feeling experience: thoughts of "I'm not doing something correctly, I'm not succeeding, I'm not fulfilling my potential. I'm not doing my job to my utmost. I can't see what the next challenge is going to be and I can't get motivated about it."

Q: Are there particular experiences that lead to an impasse?

A: No. Our lives are unique. We all experience impasse, and we will experience impasse many times in our lives. Why? One of the things I describe in the book is the fact that impasse is developmentally necessary. The meaning of an impasse, although it's usually first expressed as a failure or in an internalized notion of inadequacy, is a request for us to change our way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.

At impasse our model—our cognitive map of life and of the way we're going to fit into it—is no longer working. We all carry a representation of the world, our work, how we do our work, and how we fit in and where we're going; and that map is always inadequate in a number of ways. It always falls short of representing dynamic, ever-changing reality. Just continuing with our usual approaches to problem-solving will not help us break through.

Impasse means that we need to change our whole approach to the problem. We need to change our understanding of the problem. We have to change our repertoire of ways in which we approach life challenges.

As to what sorts of experiences lead to impasse, they could be anything: perhaps a sudden, unanticipated change at work—which happens all the time. The norm is change. There is much talk about change management, but the fact of the matter is, the "steady state" involves change as well. We may learn that someone—our boss, our boss's boss, or a key person—is leaving. He or she won't be here 4 weeks from now. The events that flow from a simple change such as this can be complex. Perhaps this event prompts a reorganization and suddenly we're feeling and thinking about our job in a whole different way.

Or maybe the trigger is an event in our personal life. The break-up of a relationship or the death of a parent. The types of experience that bring on impasse are myriad, and we often don't realize how much particular life events will mean to us. When loss or change brings us to impasse because we feel that we are at a dead end, we have to look at life anew because our old ways aren't working. If we continue to try to use the old ways it will just mean more pain.

Q: Do you think business people in particular find the experience of impasse especially challenging, given their career pressures?

A: Impasse is a familiar experience for them. Business professionals, particularly if they are working in dynamic markets, will be, perhaps at a rate more frequent than most people, exposed to situations where their jobs are redefined. What is being asked of them changes in very significant ways in a relatively short time. I think that every business professional and executive has a model of "what's next." If you asked most executives what's going to happen over the next 12 or even 18 months, what they will be doing, what their major responsibilities will be, they would have the answer in their back pocket: "This is what I need to accomplish, this is where I'll be, I expect things to go in this direction, and these are the goals I'm driving toward."

Well, that certainty can change radically on fairly short notice. When it does, the first response is to just muscle through. Keep on pushing and throw more resources at it. But often what a clear impasse signifies is that you need to stop and realize that your model does not capture the reality of your business right now and the reality of your position within your organization.

Q: What are the steps to recognizing and overcoming impasse?

A: In my book I write about 6 phases in the impasse process. The process is not meant to be rigidly linear because obviously there's back and forth between any 2 of these phases or even between more than 2 of them at a time. But generally there's a movement and a pattern that the impasse follows, and it's helpful sometimes to break things down.

The first phase is the arrival of a crisis. Each person's first response is to keep on plugging.

Each impasse is an opportunity to look a little deeper and understand better what works for us.

Phase 2 is a deepening of the crisis. We realize that our old ways are not working. It's not a matter of staying up late, working harder, and getting in earlier. Emotionally there's the feeling of being stuck. And then some predictable things happen in the second phase: There is the return of old issues. We hit an impasse and suddenly old doubts emerge. "You never really were top at that and now it's really showing up." If it's a personal situation it may be old feelings of anger, shame, self-doubt. It's not just a career skills aspect; when I talk about the return of old issues, I mean issues that relate to any aspect of our lives. It's as if the impasse were made to break down our defenses. In particular, the inner critic becomes louder and more powerful during this second phase. The inner critic is that internal naysayer that Freud called the superego; but it wasn't a new concept, it's been around as long as humanity has. In Getting Unstuck I discuss some strategies for dealing with the inner critic.

The third phase is when we finally realize that our old model isn't working. We begin to face the situation with new eyes and new ears, ask what is happening, and attend to our direct, raw experience.

In the fourth phase we begin to listen better and to be open to a new type of information. We are pushed to the edge of our concrete, more purely analytic ways of understanding, and we begin to appreciate complexity and metaphor in underlying themes. We are forced to go deeper.

In Getting Unstuck I have a number of exercises that are designed to enable the reader to shift to this more metaphorical way of apprehending life. One exercise is called the 100 Jobs exercise. It has nothing to do with jobs. It's a way of helping a person identify the core themes, dynamic tensions, and images that are trying to emerge at this particular moment in his or her life. Another exercise called Image Gathering is a guided exercise by me on the Web site associated with the book.

The fifth phase of the impasse process is a deepening of insight into the patterns of the self. This phase is not discreet; it happens over time. There are patterns to the self: patterns to the things we like about the world, the things we value, the types of people we tend to enjoy, the types we tend not to enjoy, the types of activities that tend to be more meaningful, the types of environments that are more pleasant and rewarding. As we grow older we have the possibility of gaining insight into our own patterns. Each impasse is an opportunity to look a little deeper and understand better what works for us. The more we know ourselves, the less we are thrown by the next impasse.

In the book there are a few chapters devoted to models of patterns of the self. I write about deeply embedded life interests and understanding how they get expressed in work, and how we learn which interests are most meaningful for us and what business or organizational roles will allow us to express them. I write about social motivators, power, achievement, and affiliation, borrowing on the work of Henry Murray and David McClelland.

The sixth and final phase requires taking action. The impasse developmental experience does not become realized until we actually do something to seal the deal, if you will. We buy those art supplies and set up the art studio in our home. Or we schedule that meeting that we've been thinking about for 2 years but have never done. We do something that shows the world and ourselves that we've gone through the impasse, it's been a real experience, and now we can act in the world based on what we've learned.

Q: Of these 6 steps, which are particularly difficult to deal with?

A: Each stage has its predictable challenges, but some people find one stage more difficult than another. The arrival of the crisis for some people leads to panic.

For many people, phase 2 is the toughest: this return of the old issues and the inner critic. "I thought I'd worked through this problem; why do I still feel so angry at this person, so inadequate around this issue?" For some, phase 3 is most difficult, admitting, "I don't know, I've got to start from square one." Some people just "get" phase 4, perhaps because it calls for a more intuitive and imaginative way of addressing a problem, but those who are less intuitive have to work harder. For phase 5, some people are more psychologically minded than others and when asked "Tell me about yourself" can express a rich text where others struggle. In phase 6 some people find that actually taking action is what stops them. They can do all the analysis and introspection, but when it comes time to stop and "do it"—ask for the promotion, buy the house or not—that is terribly difficult.

Q: What awaits us on the other side of an impasse?

A: The unknown. That's the difficulty of impasse: You don't know. The whole basis of an impasse is that you thought you knew what was going to happen next, but you didn't. What awaits us is how our life is going to open up next. It's pretty scary and also pretty exciting. The big message from an impasse is that you don't know what awaits you. But not knowing is not the bad thing that you think it is.

Excerpt from Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths, by Timothy Butler.

New Territory

"How can I tell when I am at an impasse?" I am often asked. At other times, people tell me a story about being stuck and say, "Yes, that happened to me once." In their attempts to locate impasse at a particular moment, these people miss an important point. When we describe impasse, we tell a story about when we "hit the wall" and what we had to do to get beyond it. Each story, including the stories in this book, seems to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this is mostly an illusion.

An impasse experience can unfold over a year or within twenty-four hours. Impasse is a psychological process, outside of time and space. It is another word for a border that is always there, beckoning. Our work at impasse helps us cross that border and live in a new territory. In this sense, impasse is the frontier of what needs to happen next for us if we are to live life as openly as possible. If we lived completely openly, we would probably not experience impasse, because we would face each moment without any evasions, excuses, or attachments to old habits.

Few of us are capable of living continually in such a fashion, however, so we experience "impasse crises" like the ones described in this book. An impasse crisis happens when we have been, for some time, avoiding the work of living fully at our border. We are missing something essential in our lives, and it is as if the impasse crisis is saying, "Enough! No more evasion! You can no longer avoid this, you must deal with it now or these symptoms will persist and grow more intense." If we could live all the time at the border, there would be no need for this message.

Living at the border

What would it be like to live at the border? What would it be like to be open fully to the energies and possibilities that are emerging, regardless of their threat to habit, comfort, and stereotyped expectations? The lives of artists give us a glimpse of the answer to this question. In one sense, their very work is to make their experience at impasse visible, or audible, to others. Their lives often become metaphors for what experience at the edge of impasse would be like.

Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home focuses on just five years in the life of Bob Dylan, 1961 to 1966. For Dylan, these were years of volcanic creativity. Song after startling song emerged as he changed musical genres and produced music of astounding variety and compelling originality. His growing audience grew confused, even angry, at his shifting identity. But no amount of audience hostility, media criticism, or fatigue from concerts stops him. He is in the flow. This is the image of a person living continually at the edge, with no fear of the consequences.

Similarly, D.H. Lawrence lived a life of intense devotion to beauty, art, and the world of relationship throughout his thirties and early forties (he died at forty-four). He believed that a person's greatest art was his life and held that the manner in which he crafted his life was far more important than the craft, or outcome, of his writing. Lawrence had some public recognition in his last years, but for the most part he devoted those years to what he called a "savage pilgrimage" in search of beauty in a "sense of place" and of deeper companionship with the men and women around him. His love of song, the earth, and the sensual world was his great "accomplishment." He seemed to live continually at the border.

Although they are able to tell us about it, life at the border is not reserved for artists. It is, for each of us, the only way forward. All the world religions offer some variation on Lawrence's notion of life as pilgrimage. In Judaism, the exodus from the captivity of the spirit to new life is a central theme. In Christianity, the Gospel tells us that the Son of Man "has no place to rest His head." In Islam, the hajj is a constant pilgrimage toward the Divine, as much as it is a journey to Mecca. The message of the major faiths is not, at its heart, a measure of dogmatic certainties, but of a journey forward that breaks through times of trial along the way.

This book has concerned itself with the way we might begin the journey anew when we accept the way we are stuck and do the work of disciplined observation and imagination. The experience at impasse is both tough and exciting. It is like a cold autumn wind that carries the thrill of color and change. Impasse invites us to shed our fears and move to the border of what is actually presenting itself to us, right now. This returning offers us a bargain, an opportunity to exchange certainty for vulnerability, sentimentality for depth of feeling, and the comfort of the familiar for the energy of a world that, as hard and exciting as it may be, is always beckoning.

About the author

Martha Lagace is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business School Press from Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths, by Timothy Butler. Copyright 2007 Timothy Butler; all rights reserved. To order, please call (800) 988-0886 or purchase online: http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu/b01/en/common/item_detail.jhtml?id=2254.