How To Find Your Way Out Of A Paper Bag

Warning: if you are literally stuck in a paper bag and can’t figure out how to get out, please stop reading right now and call for help. If you are stuck in a paper bag as in you “don’t know your ass from your elbow,” are having an “existential crisis” or are “stuck in a rut” and can’t figure out how to get unstuck, you should probably keep reading.

I heard recently the saying “stuck in a rut” originally came from farmers who would drive their tractors down the same route in dirt every day and after a while, the tractor wheels would build up a significant groove, or rut, that would eventually become too high for the tractor wheels to jump. When a tractor got stuck in this rut, it would require many super strong people to hoist the heavy machinery up and move it in a different direction so that it could forge a new path. In this metaphor YOU are the tractor. But I’m sure you knew that.

My point being: we’ve all been that tractor at some point in our lives and longed to be set on a new course, but lacked the bicep strength, it seemed, to make it happen. It’s dark there, in that rut. For me, it literally felt like being stuck in a paper bag: dark, airless and stinking of rotting sandwiches. And the longer I was stuck there, the more I doubted I’d ¬†ever get out. But luckily, I did. Whether it be a job we’ve outgrown, a relationship that’s no longer working for us or way of being that’s not the least bit useful, sometimes we need help to envision our way out. Here’s where to start:

1. When you can’t do, read. When I’m utterly and completely lost in my life, I pick up a book. (Music, film, art or really good TV can have a similar effect as well.) Fiction, nonfiction or self-help — it doesn’t matter. Just pick something that sparks your interest. Because reading about people doing things that they’re passionate about can help you vicariously get back in touch with the things that you’re passionate about. This is why I pretty much spent an entire lost year after I graduated from college reading books. I was in a new city with where I knew no one trying to be an actress. And even though I didn’t know it, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life next. On my reading list at the time: Many Lives, Many Masters, The Only Dance There Is and The Power Of Myth. Surprise! Within months I was applying to grad school to study psychology.

2. When you’re sick of reading, engage. You might hit a point when get stuck in that pile of books. That’s when you’re going to need to get out and live in the world again. Now you’ll do the same thing you did with the books, but in real life. This happened right before I started my writing career. I had always written, but never professionally, so wasn’t sure I could transition into getting paid to do it. To find out, I did a few things: I took a writing class, started attending a monthly writers cocktail hour and went to any free talks for writers I could find. Doing these things proved to me that YES, I could make money writing and YES, I was definitely passionate about it.

3. Make bite-sized goals. I don’t know about you, but making lofty, long-term goals for myself does nothing but make me want to self-sabotage. That’s why I started making little bitty goals in much smaller increments. Instead of thinking in years, think in months or weeks. When I decided I wanted to move back to New York after living on the west coast for seven years, it seemed impossible. But when I started breaking it down into weekly goals — look at five job listings, put $100 in my savings account, email three people about apartments — it started to become a reality so much faster. Give yourself one goal a week that you can definitely achieve — even if it just involves surfing the web for volunteer opportunities, it will make you feel like you’re beginning the long crawl out of that bag.

4. Ask tons of questions. Talk to anyone who will listen. But more than talking, ask questions. Go to people who seem to have what you want — a job they love, a strong relationship, a zest for life — and ask them how they got to where they are. Talk to trusted friends, family members or a therapist if you can to help sort through the underlying causes of your stuckness. A note about therapy: don’t fear it. Going to see a therapist doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it means you’re sane. It means you have the self-awareness to realize you are stuck and the insight to know when to ask for help. Detach yourself from the stigma and think of the possibilities. You won’t regret it when you start to be able to breathe real air again.

5. Remember that you have options. And speaking of possibilities, I think it’s really easy to get locked into this idea of your life and forget that you have options. I went to see the filmmaker and writer Miranda July talk a while back and someone in the audience asks her how she finds the inspiration to keep going when something she gets stuck with a piece she’s working on. Miranda July responded that she writes the word “OPTIONS” on her hand to remind herself that she has them. Do the same for yourself. Make a list of your options just to remind yourself that Plan A isn’t the only plan.

6. Do something, do anything. Ultimately, life is about action, not just about thinking about or talking about action. So take action. It might be as simple as deciding to volunteer or plan a vacation or something more complex like, breaking up or moving to a new city. You can never go wrong with taking action because action leads to more action, which leads to momentum. And momentum is what will eventually lead you out of the paper bag you’ve been stuck in.

[Photo from Shutterstock]