Feeling Stuck? Getting Past Impasse – HBS Working Knowledge

Posted by | 10/24/2011 | Education, Employment Tips, General

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.

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.


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