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Breaking a “Rut”

Although easy to get into, ruts are so hard to get out of. Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Liz Hale helps us dig out of our ruts one shovelful at a time.


I have a favorite acronym for ruts. We’re all familiar with the beloved Robert Frost and his famous work, “The Road Not Taken.” When we’re in a RUT it’s usually because we’re on the Road USUALLY Taken! That’s what RUT stands for.

You know you’re in a rut when you even speak about it in frustration, such as, “We’ve been down this road before!” “Do we have to go down this road, again?” With all the texting that’s going on these days, RUT is also an acronym for “R U There?”

What’s funny about that is that we aren’t really “there” when we’re going through the monotonous grind in the ditches and the trenches. We’ve tuned out, we’re on auto-pilot, and we’re bored stiff.

It is so easy to find yourself in a rut in many different situations; not just as a mom staying at home and not just in our jobs. We can find ourselves in ruts across the board: how we spend our summers – doing the same activities year after year after year; preparing the same dinner, night after night after night; walking down the same stretch of roadway, day after day after day; going though the same motions in marriage (in our disagreements or even in our sexual intimacy) time after time after time. The truth of the matter is that change is hard. Many of our attempts fail and we become easily discouraged and often give up and get down.

I had the opportunity to work with a woman who was really desperate to get out of a rut she found herself as a single mother with little to no support. Talk about inspiring! Sally was a woman who knew she could either stay stuck in the spin of panic or she could own her own power to overcome her circumstances. She went from fearful to forceful – here is what she wrote:

“I first had to take my fear and panic captive! I pictured myself stomping on them like bugs under my feet, and grinding them with my high-heels. If they tried to come back, STOMP!”

That’s a powerful visualization, isn’t it? To make a long story shorter, Sally first picked up the pieces of her torn life by going door-to-door offering house-cleaning services and worked hours that allowed her to care for her young daughter before and after school. And today, Sally works in an organization with benefits that allows her to care for her family and she recently even bought a beautiful, albeit modest, home! But it all began with Sally taking ownership of her life and being BOLD by stomping on fear and panic! That’s the first ‘B’ of Break – to be bold.

“BREAK” FROM A RUT BY BEING:

B = BOLD

But sometimes it seems like Sally is the exception.We often fail at adopting new behaviors or breaking old habits. So what’s the main reason for this?

No matter what, we will never have enough self-discipline to conquer habits and create new patterns. Self-discipline alone is insufficient when it comes to fulfilling our commitments – even those we know are good for us. (This is why most New Year’s Resolutions never come to fruition.) However, research shows that rituals can be a powerful force of change.

R = RITUALISTIC

Instead of cultivating self-discipline, create rituals. Building rituals requires defining precise behaviors and performing them at specific times, motivated by deeply held values. Initiating a ritual is harder than maintaining it. If we do not ritualize activities, we do not get to them. Think of an athlete: he or she knows specific hours of the day they’ll be on the field and which hours they’ll be in the gym, etc. Being a top performer is a deeply held value, and therefore they create rituals around training. For most people, hygiene is a deeply held value, and therefore they create rituals around brushing their teeth. If we hold personal happiness as a deeply held value and want to create happiness, then we need to form rituals around that, too.

It’s important to explore the meaning in the moment…that changing our perceptions is the key. Exploration is imperative!

E = EXPLORATIVE

We often fail to recognize the rich sources of pleasure and meaning that are right under our noses at home and work. The potential for happiness may be all around us but if we fail to perceive it we risk losing it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.” The exact same event can be perceived as in different ways by different people. We can write our own story about our circumstances. Let’s go back to Sally’s experience. Her priority was her daughter and so all of her decisions were based on that priority. She said something profound recently:
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“Do not focus on what you can live with; focus on what you can’t live without!” She initially could not lie without a flexible work schedule that allowed her to care for her number 1 priority, for example.

The letter “A” in the acronym BREAK is to be adventurous. I love the advice given to us by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Everyday, do one thing that frightens you.” Be adventurous!

A = ADVENTUROUS

Do things on a whim! Go somewhere you’ve never been and don’t detail every step along the way. Whether it’s an out-of-town trip or an unexplored part of your neighborhood, trust your gut and follow your intuition. At least every week try something new. It can be as simple as tasting a new cuisine or taking up a new hobby or form of exercise. If you normally walk, try jogging. If you normally drink water, try a splash of pure fruit juice to your water bottle to shake things up a bit.

The word that completes the acronym of BREAK is to Be Knowledgeable.

K = KNOWLEDGEABLE

Be a lifelong learner. Learn something new everyday and start to think differently. Expand your knowledge base by meeting new people – relationships are the best way to shape your life and smooth out the groves that we make with our routines. There is no one like a new friend or acquaintance to change my perspective and attitude. Remember, going back to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” what does he write about taking the road less traveled??? That it has made all the difference!

But that road is still just a road. It is still not going to bring us eternal bliss because that’s not where any road can lead us. A happy – or happier – life is rarely shaped by some exponentially, extraordinarily life-changing event. It is shaped incrementally, experience by experience, moment by moment.

We must first accept that this is it! All there is to life is the day-to-day, the ordinary, the routine. We are happiest when we can derive meaning from those moments while spending time with our loved ones, learning something new, engaging in a project at work or home. The more our ordinary days are filled with meaning, the happier we’ll become. That’s all there is to it.


Dr. Liz Hale is a licensed clinical psychologist and a regular Studio 5 Contributor. Your comments and questions are welcomed! Please visit www.drlizhale.com to add your thoughts to today’s discussion or learn more about her private practice.

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