Paralyzed. Stuck. Blocked. These describe a distressing mental state — made worse by mystery. When you are paralyzed, it seems like you know what you need to do — you need to write, plan, etc. But you feel like you can’t take a single step forward.
Knowing why you’re paralyzed helps. Here is the basic reason: at some level, you feel the task is impossible or self-destructive. To get moving forward, you need to find out why you feel that way and whether your feelings are right.
But finding out what’s behind paralysis is sometimes difficult. After all, if it were obvious to you that the task was impossible or destructive, you wouldn’t choose to do it. In principle, you need to introspect concerns which may be masked or censored.
I use a simple technique to help me with this challenge: “sentence stems.” A sentence stem is the first half of a sentence, a pre-specified start, which you then can complete. Two sentence stems which help paralysis are:
“This task is impossible because…”
“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen…”
To use a stem, literally write it out word for word, then finish off the sentence with whatever occurs to you. Continue on if there’s more to say.
For example, suppose you were trying to dash off a memo in 15 minutes and got writer’s block. You might diagnose it by writing out this:
“This task is impossible because 15 minutes isn’t long enough. I am sending this to the boss and it needs to be right. 15 minutes doesn’t leave enough time to proof — much less edit carefully.”
Or suppose you were paralyzed while planning a demanding project. You might write:
“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen: I will be under extreme pressure for the entire 6-month duration of the project, I’ll have to work nights and weekends, and I’ll miss the deadline anyway and get fired.”
In these cases, the sentence stems help you expose the conflict. By writing out the first half of the thought, you prime your subconscious to express the second half, even if the thought is overly emotional.
The stems are deliberately exaggerated, to give you permission to express inflated doubts and fears lurking in the background. Even if these doubts and fears are illogical, they can kill your motivation. You need to get them out into the open to evaluate them — and separate truth from falsehood.
And that, of course, is the next step. Your feelings say the task is impossible or disastrous, but is it? Often when you face the feelings, you see you are being stopped by a phantom.
Even if you uncover a legitimate, difficult issue, you have made progress. You are no longer beset by a mysterious mental paralysis; you are simply facing a clear challenge. The logical next step is to think realistically about what can be done and what is good to do. That is doable.