Untangling the Secret to Getting Unstuck

Wherever we go, wherever we are, we are always in some sort of feeling state. Our feeling state is a continuous, subjective, nonverbal evaluation of how things are going.

Our feeling state answers the basic questions, am I okay? Or am I not okay? And thus, every feeling state has a valence, either positive or negative, that acts as a compass arrow informing our actions.

Along with a positive or negative valence, feeling states can obviously vary in intensity as well.

Amusement has a mildly positive valence. Elation is intensely positive. Boredom is mildly negative, although a teenager experiencing an extended absence of cellular service might describe it as something akin to agony, a very intensely negative state.

What Do People Really Want?

This gets interesting when we start to think about what it is we really want in life.

(Notice that the feeling of “want” itself has a negative valence. “Want” is our subjective experience of the not-okay-ness of the status quo, but I digress...)

Do you really want to be rich? Or do you want a feeling of freedom and security? Is it really lots of money you want, or is it the ability to satisfy all your other wants?

Is it the promotion itself you desire? Or is it the feeling of accomplishment, of being recognized, and of higher social status?

What we really want is always a feeling state.

Down at the bottom of it all, we want to move toward positive feeling states, and away from negative feeling states. We want to feel less afraid and more safe, less anxious and more calm, less sad and more joyful, less lonely and more connected. The list goes on.

More S-Words

Now let’s add two more S-words to this idea of state: Story and Strategy. State, Story, and Strategy form a sort of neurological three-body problem, complexly interdependent, perpetually influencing one another, and impossible to disentangle.


State is the subjective mental and emotional condition we find ourselves in at any given moment, good or bad, positive or negative (whether a neutral feeling state makes sense is debated).


Story refers to the internal narratives and beliefs we have about our circumstances.

I’m feeling anxious because my boss has set an unreasonable deadline and doesn’t seem to care about the stress it has induced.

Or maybe your looming deadline has triggered some negative self-talk:

I should be able to handle this better. I should have started sooner. I should know how to do this.

That’s your story.


Strategy is what you intend to do. It is how you plan to get your project done. Your strategy consists of the ideas you come up with for achieving your goal, which might be simply to get yourself into a better feeling state.

The Big Mistake

When we find ourselves in a negative feeling state–anxious, stuck, depressed, angry, overwhelmed, bored, frustrated, sad, and so on–we tend to focus on the wrong S’s.

Wrong "S" Number One 

We fixate on our story.

We cogitate, ruminate, and elaborate. We marinate, procrastinate, and vegetate. We double down on how awful and unfair the boss is, or maybe we let our inner critic dominate and continue to self-castigate.

Not helpful.

Wrong "S" Number Two

And/or, we look for different strategies.

We try to figure out how to get ourselves out of this situation.

Maybe if I read this book or tried that process? Or maybe I could just try harder, work longer, or be different. Surely there is an approach that will fix this, if I could only think of it…

We investigate, often until it’s too late.

Neither approach works very well, because we cannot tell a better story or come up with an effective strategy from our current negative feeling state.

To get what we really want–a better feeling state–requires a direct approach.

Start With State

Although it can seem counterintuitive, a better tactic is to start with state. From a better feeling state, you will tell yourself a better story, and that better story will allow you to see more effective strategies. It’s almost too obvious, right?

What Stops Us?

Typically, starting with your feeling state means doing something that appears totally unrelated to the problem you are trying to solve.

What?! You have this pressing deadline and you’re going to go for a walk in the park?! Do you not understand how important this is?!

We are reluctant to give ourselves permission to start with state because we have been trained that we should not reward “bad” behavior.

You can take a break and relax when the work is done. Not before.

(A perfect example of the kind of garbage story we tell ourselves when we are in a negative state, by the way).

Also, if we are really honest, sometimes we kind of like our negative stories. Sometimes we get a little attached to our narratives, especially when they involve blaming external circumstances, or better yet, an evil villain like that unreasonable boss of yours.

And finally, starting with state still requires us to start. Starting with state requires action, and when we are in a bad place, taking action can be hard.

This is the curse of depression: even if you know something would help you feel a little better, it can be impossible to find the will to do it. Yet we must try.

Starting with state can feel awkward or just plain wrong. But it works.

State Changers

The good news is that state changers are abundant and uncomplicated. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Yes, you have probably heard this advice before. But did you take it?

  • Go for a walk, preferably in nature
  • Listen to music
  • Watch or listen to something funny
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise
  • Practice gratitude
  • Make something, use your hands
  • Box breathing or other intentional breathing exercises
  • Aromatherapy (or, more generally, engage your senses beyond the eyes staring a screen)
  • Use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, noting five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste
  • Sleep (As author and certified smart guy, Kevin Kelly, writes, “If you can't tell what you desperately need, it's probably sleep.”)

Find what works for you. It could be anything. What matters is that it changes your feeling state for the better. If you find yourself still stuck, lather, rinse, and repeat. Try something else to slowly ratchet yourself up the ladder to a better place.

I know, I know. When you are feeling tired, tense, down, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or afraid, it can feel difficult to do any of these things.

Don’t think. Don’t revise your story. Don’t look for new strategies. Over-thinking is the enemy. Just pick something and do it. If the first effort is too much, start smaller, but start with state.

Thank you, as always, for reading. If you found this helpful, you might be interested in The Loom, our curated repository of wisdom. It's always growing, and you can sign up for free!

Until next time,

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