I Shouldn’t Feel Stuck in My Head

Dr. Alison Cook, PhDBy Dr. Alison Cook, PhD10 Minutes

Excerpt taken from I Shouldn’t Feel This Way: Name What’s Hard, Tame Your Guilt, and Transform Self-Sabotage into Brave Action by Dr. Alison Cook

Chapter 5

I Shouldn’t Feel Stuck in My Head

Through all my encounters with the human psyche, there is one thing I know for sure: Our minds can be used brilliantly to solve the challenges we face. And those same minds can be used brilliantly to keep us trapped, stuck, and duped into self-sabotage. Each of us has a mind that is exceptional at playing tricks on us.

I’ve seen it in myself, and I see it in my clients. Sheila was no exception.

Sheila thought she was unlucky. But that would be a misnaming. Let me explain. A single woman in her early thirties, Sheila had come to see me because she was sick of feeling stuck in her head, as if she were spinning in circles and going nowhere in her life. She was struggling to pay her rent, and her student loans were mounting. She hated her job but couldn’t figure out how to find another one. She was also lonely, and her dating life was nonexistent.

Sheila was hardworking and responsible. She was well educated, loved by her tight-knit family, and had a lot of close friends. She seemed to have many things going for her. Yet the moment she entered my office, she would almost immediately dissolve into tears, blurting out a flurry of self-sabotaging statements: “My life is a disaster!” “I work so hard, but things just never go my way.” “I don’t seem to be lucky the way other people are.”

As I listened to Sheila, my mind struggled to make sense of the conflicting truth-pieces spilling out of her. She had done well in school, yet she wasn’t working in her field. She expressed that she wanted a boyfriend, even though she wasn’t interested in dating. She felt stuck and depressed, yet she didn’t want to make any changes.

Her ability to explain away the incongruence in her life as “unlucky” was striking. So striking that it prompted me to name that during one of our early sessions: “I know you’re struggling financially. And I know you long for a romantic partner. Those are very real things. I also sense that there’s a gap inside you we haven’t yet been able to name—a gap between what you really want out of your life and the decisions you are making.”

The incongruence I sensed in Sheila is incredibly common. Most of us are adept at rationalizing decision-making that doesn’t correlate with the life we actually want. I also knew Sheila, like most of us, might not like me putting my finger on it.

Sure enough, as she told me later, Sheila initially didn’t like that naming. In fact, she left that session somewhat angry with me. How
dare she question the decisions I am making? she fumed.

But a part of her was curious.

The truth is that something wasn’t adding up in her life. When I named that incongruence, a longing opened up inside her and she entered into the Crossroads with me. Together we started to frame the decisions she’d been making.

Why had she gone into debt to get all that education? Was she really content never to use it?

Why did she get so defensive when people asked her about what she did for a living?

What was her aversion to dating, even though she longed for a partner?

Sheila had created a story that justified certain decisions. But when she laid out all the truth-pieces honestly, the story didn’t hold up. There was a tiny but crucial missing piece that we would need to uncover before she could move toward a truer, more complete picture of the life she so desperately longed to live.

When Two Things Don’t Add Up

In psychology the term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the discomfort or tension that arises when you hold conflicting beliefs or when what you value or believe doesn’t line up with your actions.1 The term dissonance comes from the world of music, where it refers to a lack of harmony between musical notes. Like the clash of two notes that simply do not go together, dissonance creates an uncomfortable tension inside your mind. If you don’t name and frame that dissonance, you tend to loop between the clashing thoughts without getting anywhere.

In general we don’t like that feeling of dissonance. We don’t like how it feels when what we believe or desire doesn’t line up with how we are behaving. A wealthy rock star might feel dissonance if he constantly flies around in his private jet even as he advocates against the dangers of climate change. Or a pastor might feel it if he preaches regularly about fidelity, yet he’s cheating on his wife in secret. More commonly, we experience dissonance in subtler ways. For example, you might feel uncomfortable if you enjoy time with a friend one day, only to gossip about her behind her back the next. Or maybe you pride yourself on being an ethical person, but then you find yourself lying to your spouse. It can also show up in complicated relational dynamics. You might find yourself in a toxic relationship even though you believe in your heart that you deserve better. We all wrestle with lining up our actions with our better selves. The problem isn’t that we experience dissonance. The problem is when we refuse to wrestle with it.

When you notice dissonance inside you, you have two choices. Your first option is to name it, allowing the discomfort to help you align your desires, beliefs, and behaviors in a more harmonious way. You start by naming the different truth-pieces that are creating dissonance. Remember: naming is the work of being relentlessly honest with yourself without shame. If you notice yourself lying to your spouse, name what’s happening honestly:  Or if you’re struggling in a toxic relationship, you might lay out your conflicting feelings: I don’t like being treated this way. I also have a lot invested in this person. I can’t find it in me to just walk away. As you name the dissonance honestly, you set yourself up to frame the situation and eventually brave a healthier path.

Your second option is refusing to name the inner tension. If you don’t consciously face the discomfort of dissonance, you open the door for your mind to start playing tricks on you. A meaning-making part of you will jump in to reduce the inner tension. You might start to rationalize, defend, or justify the incongruence: If I didn’t lie, he’d get his feelings hurt! Or It’s just gossip! Who does it really hurt? Your mind can also start creating elaborate justifications that keep you trapped in unhealthy situations: The way he treats me isn’t really that bad. I’m tough. I can handle it! You start creating a storyline that justifies the discrepancy between what you know to be true and your behaviors that don’t quite match up to that truth.

Please hear me say this: The discomfort of dissonance is a gift! It’s a cue that something in your life is out of alignment. You can name it and work through it, leading to growth and transformation. But if you ignore it or dismiss it, your mind grows chaotic—it’s the opposite of mental clarity. You’ll wind up stuck in a thinking trap.

Order your copy of I Shouldn’t Feel This Way: Name What’s Hard, Tame Your Guilt, and Transform Self-Sabotage into Brave Action by Dr. Alison Cook