As we enter month five of “the new normal” of COVID-19, so many people are experiencing practical and emotional hardships, or simply feel frustrated and stuck. At the same time, there are folks who are—or at least appear to be—doing well from the posts on Instagram and Facebook showing off examples of their productivity, creativity and new skills they’re learning during the pandemic.
This vaguely reminded me of when I felt stuck (and annoyed by cheery people) in late 2012 and wrote a blog post about it. Here is that article from my archives. I think the themes of uncertainty and self-acceptance are especially relevant now.
Article originally written December 2012
The Myth of Pulling Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps
Lately I’ve been feeling stuck around my business. All my hard work and effort isn’t eliciting the outcomes I want.
My initial response was to try harder. I listened to marketing teleseminars that laid out roadmaps to success that were straightforward and lucrative. I bristled at these marketing professionals’ easy formulas, uber-positivity and seemingly endless energy. They downplayed the time and effort required, omitted potential challenges and dismissed many things that are beyond one’s control.
Nonetheless, I did my best to implement their suggestions. I beefed up my social media presence, designed new class material, created special offers, etc. Sadly, I didn’t see much change from all my efforts, leaving me even more frustrated than before. Self-doubt crept in: Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to do more? Was my attitude not positive enough?
Underneath the marketing guru’s modern language of “being connected to your purpose” and “serving people from your heart” was the same old narrative: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This adage appeals to our cause-and-effect thinking that if you set your mind to something and put in the hard work, the outcome will be successful achievement.
Intentions, goals and planning are all important, but life is messy. Under its logical surface, the bootstraps saying is rather harsh, often leading to blame and judgement. Just because some people can run a four-minute mile doesn’t mean everyone can. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps doesn’t account for personal history, systemic challenges and extenuating circumstances. Instead of offering understanding or compassion, it writes off an individual’s lack of success as laziness or not trying hard enough.
Why “Trying” to Be Positive Backfires
During the time I was struggling, I stumbled upon an article, Seeking a Cure for Optimism. It quoted research that “insincere positive emotions—telling yourself ‘I feel good’ when you don’t—are toxic and actually more harmful than negative emotions.” This was so refreshing to read!
Here I’d been trying to keep a can-do attitude, glossing over my actual experience instead of accepting it. When I met my feelings of being stuck with acceptance, I felt immediate relief. I began being present with my current, unmediated experience. In doing so, I cultivated the capacity to hang out in a place of not knowing rather than rushing to get away from it.
The Road to Acceptance
Acceptance allows for all of you, not just your analytical mind, to be considered. This is the ground from which movement can arise organically and authentically. Everyone has experiences of feeling stuck. Dr. Timothy Butler, Director of Career Development Programs at Harvard Business School says this is actually necessary for personal growth: “Although it’s usually first expressed as a failure or in an internalized notion of inadequacy, [an impasse] is a request for us to change our way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.”
We all have beliefs about ourselves that are part of our self-image: “I can’t dance,” “Nothing can be done about my bad knees,” “I’m terrible at managing money.” Holding tightly to any idea, positive or negative, closes you off to a full range of experiences. The truth is, you never really know what awaits you. Uncertainly can be uncomfortable, but not knowing isn’t necessarily bad thing—it’s what gives rise to a fresh, new sense of self that just may be a pleasant surprise.
Alternatives to Pulling Up Your Bootstraps
In addition to acceptance, here some other tips when you feel stuck mentally, emotionally or physically.
It’s not always easy to take time to rest, especially when there may be very real, life pressures. But pauses are essential in sustaining your resilience and ability to move through challenges. In fact, it’s often during these breaks that new ideas arise that help us to resolve our problems.
Go at Your Own Pace
It’s the only speed you can maintain, and at which you’ll learn best.
None of us operate in a vacuum—we need connection and support. Just like you get assistance fixing your car, when you’re at an impasse, get help from others.
It’s wonderful when you can find inspiration in other people’s stories and successes. But if your mind goes to comparing yourself to others, let that go. You might even recruit friends or family to help interrupt this pattern.
When you’re stuck, everything can start looking worse than it is. Writing down or simply reflecting on a few things you’re grateful for each day can help incline your mind in a new direction. Studies show a daily gratitude practice improves both mood and physical health.
We all get stuck at times. The issue isn’t always that we’re stuck, but rather our response to it. When we can greet difficult experiences with acceptance and treat ourselves with kindness, we grow the ground from which to begin moving again.
Seeking a Cure for Optimism by Abby Ellin
Positive Thinking is for Suckers by Oliver Burkeman