Have you ever found yourself in a rut? And you think you can’t get out of it? What does that phrase even mean?
Well, I learned recently that my personality type (and I apologize if I’ve already said this) excels in the use of metaphors. It’s my love language. So I will start with the concrete and work out toward the symbolic, the way language is meant to work.
As I understand it, a rut is a path created either by a single passing of a wheel through very impressionable ground, which then hardens, or wheels passing over the same, less impressionable, spot numerous times, as with the Guernsey, Wyoming ruts, which I actually visited in 1997 while helping reenact the crossing of the plains by early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They made quite an impression. Ha. Ha.
Have you ever been on ice skates, a runner sled, roller blades, or a baby jogger with a fixed front wheel? Or been going very fast on a bike? Ruts are not your friend. Whether they are made of dirt, stone, pavement, ice, or snow, they rarely take you where you want to go. The higher your speed and the lower your level of awareness and expertise, the more likely you are to get caught in that rut. Whereas you may have liked the path of your choosing only moments before, you now find yourself headed in a direction you probably wouldn’t choose.
I could expand on this metaphor by talking about all of the options you have before you right now, but I am going to stick with the rut itself (and I don’t know why that’s a season among some mammals–maybe because it’s a well-traveled path? I dunno).
I want to point out that a rut has both depth and direction. The deeper the rut, the deeper the initial impression or the more traveled this particular route. The direction of the rut tells you how soon you can get back on track–is it just a little gander off in the brush that soon rejoins the main thoroughfare? Or is it spillway into a giant mud pit?
The rut you get into now and then is in your brain. It is literally in your head, and it is one of the ways that we get off track when we thought we had a pretty great destination in mind. Maybe a cloudy day gave you pause when you had been imagining the wonders of the autumn season.
Or perhaps a small triumph in a personal goal was eclipsed by a much larger setback and now you are beating yourself up for having rewarded yourself in celebration. If only you had kept your eye on the prize, you chide yourself.
Or you’re like me, and you thought you had this part of the path memorized, so you tried to set your controls on autopilot and let the momentum do the work.
In any case, you’re now stuck. Like Bono (real name Paul Hewson if you watch the music video) says, you think you can’t get out of it.
Well, you can.
Without addressing how you would get out of a literal rut, I will just speak to the depth and direction of your rut.
First, why is the rut there?
Because your brain put it there. Simple.
Probably you were too young to remember, but at some point your brain tried to do you a survival solid and created a neural pathway meant to prevent some sort of personal pain from happening again. Whether it was something others would classify as trauma or abuse doesn’t matter. It made an impression in one moment because of how forceful it was, how impressionable you were, or both. It also may have been a pattern of mistreatment or a series of events that wore down an otherwise firm pathway and left it to short out whenever a situation triggers that early response. Having a lower threshold due to increased brain inflammation, at least for me, makes a huge difference in whether a situation will trigger that short-circuited path in my survival brain. She’s definitely a work in progress. I call her Edna.
Your survival brain probably posted the neural version of “Steep Grade Ahead” and told you to just pull over if your brakes weren’t so good. So now you swerve away from the main road whenever you encounter anything that even looks like a steep grade ahead. Just in case. Because who wants to go through humiliation or disappointment or loss again? That sounds a lot like suffering, not survival.
The trouble with this default route is that you don’t even know you’re “pulling over” or that you’re afraid of steep grades. All you know is that as you made your way along life’s journey, you suddenly derailed into nowhere land, and now you’re wandering in strange paths you’ve seen before and would rather not revisit.
Discovering what exactly caused the rut in the first place is an exercise best accomplished from the vantage point of your intended path. And it really is helpful because you can rewrite the narrative or see the situation with your mature self or the grace of our Savior or any number of life-changing methods, but I want to keep this simple and immediately applicable.
In order to get out of this rut, you need to overcome the depth first. Imagine a little ramp that leads from the rut back onto level ground. You need something that meets you where you’re at and uses simple means to elevate you.
For some people, this is some compassion directed inward, such as: “Hey, Edna, it looks like you’re having a rough morning with the kids. I saw you had a lot slated for today. Did you feel pressure to meet expectations that were perhaps unrealistic for the resources you had available? We all do that sometimes. No judgment here. While we’re talking, do you want to look at your calendar and see if you can either recruit more resources or offset some of these demands?” You’re going to be the best version of you when you level with yourself in a kind and thoughtful way. That’s how I get Elissa back when Edna has taken over. She means so well.
For others, seeing a doctor and finding out if you have a diagnosable condition is a starting point. Getting help is one of the most compassionate acts you can engage in. I remember a high school classmate who insisted I was no better than an addict for taking an anti-depressant. I hoped he wouldn’t have to go through the hell I’d been through in order to find out how to have even the beginning of compassion. Developing self-compassion has helped me to no longer feel hurt from those words, and I feel compassion toward him, knowing that it is human nature to create distance between ourselves and whatever scary thing we don’t understand in another. But I think he has learned compassion in other ways, or I at least hope so for his own development as a person.
Whatever your simple ramps are made of, carry them with you and keep them in good working order. Until you become the master of your vessel, you will find your way into pre-blazed ruts regularly. And you may be the means of helping others out of their ruts, so recognizing the signs of being stuck are worth remembering as well. Those times may be hard to look back on, but they were not wasted time, especially if we ask them to teach us.
Now for direction. You’re level again, but you are still off track. You still run the risk of following a path simply because it feels familiar. Even misery can feel safe if you stick with it long enough. Take a step away from misery. Instead of making a new, ambitious goal, just identify the next step. Turn your head in the direction of light or warmth or truth. Turn away from ease and comfort and short-acting dopamine hits on social media that always leave you wanting. U2 sang it so well. You can never get enough of what you don’t really need. But I like what President Dallin H. Oaks of the Church added here when he quoted an unknown source for that line ten years earlier:
Your survival brain will want to keep you safe in stuck-ness. It will tell you to find proof that things are going wrong so that you can assure yourself that staying stuck is truly the best option. It will tell you to keep pain close and dangerous hope distant. It will make being small and miserable feel good because, it will tell you, at least you can know something for certain: you will get hurt if you put yourself out there.
And while there will always be danger and potential pain, that is not what causes us to grow or to discover our purpose for being here.
So as you take a step in the direction you long for, tell your survival brain what you’re doing. “Hey, I know my plans for success often start with me headed in this direction, and you’re going to want to protect me from failure by pointing out all of the dangers and risks and evidence that things are starting to go wrong. But I got this. I appreciate how you want to protect me, but I’m not worried about surviving. I am headed back to the land of the living. Just hang on. This is going to be fun.” [Nod to Jody Moore, whose work as a life coach and her free podcasts have literally put life into my moments again.]
[This song came to mind because my longest running college roommate, bless her heart, either bought this U2 album or went to their concert in Sept/Oct 2001 or this song got played a bunch after 9/11 so that now the seasons changing at the beginning of a school year remind me of this song.]