13 jul 2017 / Geral

Impasse: The Hidden Opportunity to Break Free From The Past

12 Minutos de Leitura 


"Growth is painful, change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don't belong."


- Mandy Hale


The end of a relationship, a job that no longer excites you, the disease of a loved one, an unclear path… A feeling of being stuck and unable to move forward. A psychological impasse.


An impasse is a feeling of being trapped and emotionally attached to a perspective that doesn’t allow us to step into another stage of life. When we’re stuck on something, we’re often times judging the situation and ourselves, attached to a particular emotion that we just can’t seem to get over. We’ve all had this experience, so we know how disheartening and overwhelming it can be.


But how many of us really stopped and looked deeper at an impasse and the opportunities that come along?


What exactly is an impasse?


In physics, an impasse is a point of unstable balance where any small movement can tip us over. And it perfectly describes the many impasses we all face during life.


We can experience impasse both in our personal or professional life. And any situation can lead to it, it can be a change at work like a new boss that threatens to turn the organization upside down, it can be no change at work and a longing for a new direction, it can be the end of a relationship, a loss of a family member, a disease…


We find ourselves in an impasse when the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world no longer make sense. The situation calls for a new way of being in the world, yet we’re emotionally stuck on a story that keeps us from moving forward.


We all developed rules about life and ourselves, these rules or perspectives influence how we see and respond to the different situations we come across. Often these rules are inaccurate and highly biased. So when a challenge comes along that leaves us in an impasse, it calls for new ways of responding that we seem unable to reach.


These beliefs not only color the way we perceive the situation, they also narrow our field of observation, closing our eyes to any other possibilities for growth and healing.


A blast from the past


“The past is not just something that happened a long time ago.”


- Timothy Butler


An impasse usually comes along with an unresolved issue from the past. And we find ourselves thinking: but I thought I solved this issue.


We all carry forward strengths, weaknesses, and fears from the past. Long time fears can lay dormant, unconsciously running our lives until an impasse brings them to surface and gives us an opportunity to revisit our wounds.


We can only heal the past, however, if we first acknowledge that we carry it. Denying the hold of the past keeps us locked into it.


David grew up competing with his brother for the affection of an unstable mother that couldn’t attend to his needs for security and attention. The impact of this experience might not seem obvious at first, but feelings of inadequacy, of not being worthy of affection distorted David’s perceptions and decisions.He moved into adulthood seeking external validation, believing he had to prove himself, and often times sabotaging opportunities that triggered his feelings of inadequacy.


Distortions like this hinder our ability to pursue fulfilling work and relationships. We all have a part of us that resists the idea that things must change. Old patterns and conditioned habits want to keep us holding on to our familiar ways.


These blasts from the past may not present themselves in a recognizable form. They may manifest as a depressed mood, irritability, inability to focus on daily actions… A feeling of being spaced out.


They may appear in disguise through images and critical voices of significant figures from the past: an over demanding mother that couldn’t find satisfaction or acceptance for any of our achievements, or an abandoning father that didn’t show up to our emotional needs. And so we recede to our fearful child or conflicted adolescent.


The emotions associated with these parts of ourselves raise the stakes of the crisis we now face. Deepening the impasse but also bringing forth an opportunity to recognize the nature of these issues and heal them once and for all.


The critical voice


David became an entrepreneur in his early twenties, he was moderately successful, in part driven by his need to prove himself to others. But whenever an opportunity in business came along that carried along the possibility of failure, a voice in David’s head would loudly tell him he wasn’t good enough, he couldn’t commit to anything and would eventually blow this up too. When the time came to put in the work and prepare a presentation, the voice would grow louder, eventually stopping him from actually putting in the effort required.


We all have an irrational and highly critical voice that speaks against us. That tells us we failed, we’ll never achieve our goals, we made too many bad decisions, we’re unworthy, not thin, strong or smart enough.


The goal of this voice is to punish and stop us from taking action that would lead us to new roads and possibilities, an expanded self-model.


We need to recognize this voice and stop it from stopping us. I once attended a meditation workshop, and one of the participants shared her strategy for dealing with this voice.


She said she imagined in her head a Queen sitting on a magnificent throne, the critical voice came disguised as a defiant intruder saying things like you’re a failure, you’re not capable, what kind of a queen are you? The Queen, in all her serenity, would listen and quietly respond, you’ve said what you had to say, now move along.


If we don’t learn to recognize this voice, we’re likely to identify with it, letting our feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy become who we are, instead of the voice of an unhelpful intruder.


This intruder stands guard at the doors of impasse, and we have to develop skillful strategies to deal with it so that we can move forward.


The opportunity in impasse


“Each impasse is an opportunity to look a little deeper and understand better what works for us.”


- Timothy Butler


In the Greek and Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious figure known as the “Black Sun”, a figure that radiates incredible energy and life force but from a dark and dense center. The idea is that life evolves from darkness as well. And we can only experience growth and a complete life from experiences of darkness.


This Black Sun is a hidden resource, an opportunity in disguise waiting to be recognized and embraced. The wisdom and energy it brings are less obvious, harder to grasp at first, nevertheless, powerful and necessary.


The Black Sun metaphor tells us the importance of accepting the dark and uncomfortable moments we all face in life. That there is value in slowing down, being patient and accepting the unclear periods, for they carry directions for new paths and ways of being.


To go where we have not been, we have to face what we have not faced before. This can be painful because often times the impasse experience is internalized as proof of our inadequacy or personal deficiency, a statement of who we are.


This is the danger it contains. And we might need help to look at impasse not as a failure but as a necessary crisis that precedes growth and our evolution, part of the creative process of life itself.


Writers are familiar with the feeling of being stuck and call it writer's block. Yet, most skilled writers learn to stay with the feeling, knowing it’s part of the process and that momentum and creative insights emerge from the experience of being in the dark.


The problem is that we’re afraid of the dark. The dark represents the unknown, and nothing scares us quite like the unknown.


To face situations just as they are, suspending our model of how we think they should be, staring at life without previous conceptions of things brings us to a new and scary frontier that we must embrace as an opportunity for growth that we wouldn’t experience otherwise.


Breaking free



We all tend to avoid feelings of being stuck and sinking, yet the only way out is through. Allowing ourselves to accept the impasse is the first step forward.


1. Acceptance

Allow whatever thoughts, images and memories to arise, staying present with your experience, as they develop and go wherever they may go.


Usually, we try to resolve the impasse using outdated strategies and ineffective defenses, so to move forward, we actually need to stop doing whatever we’re doing, accepting patiently that not knowing what to do next is a part of the movement. 


2. Turning to images


When we find ourselves at the crossroads of an impasse, we tell a story of how we got there. A story that explains why we’re stuck or lost. And we keep telling it over and over again, knowing this explanation is not working, but somehow hoping to make it work by reviewing it one more time.


But in addition to the story, we carry information that is pre-cognition. This information stems from the core of our being and lets us know that something is missing and we need to figure out what. Psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin called it the implicit.


The idea is that what we know implicitly about our situation and what we need to do next to live more fully comes through our body, through an intuitive hunch, unformed thoughts or through our feelings. Because the implicit is out of the awareness reach, where we can fully recognize it and use it, in order for it to reach the next level awareness it has to become an image. Images can offer a representation of reality that we can’t quite translate to words yet.


This image can be visual (picture, a dream), physical (a bodily sensation), emotional (a feeling or mood) or intuitive (a hunch).


As this image comes forward it might not make sense to our current understanding of the situation and where this might lead us. So we need to access the main themes and the essence of the emerging vision and we do that by amplifying the image.


By magnifying the image we’re looking for the aspects that may contain conflicts, paradoxes, and clues as to what needs to be acted upon.


3. Meaning Making


We arrive at an impasse, consciously or unconsciously looking for more satisfying and fulfilling circumstances, both in our personal and professional lives. We’re longing for meaningful ways to contribute at work, in our families and communities. We’re desperate for meaning, a sense that our life, our work, and our efforts matter, not just to ourselves, but that they serve a wider purpose.


And meaning is what an impasse requires: the ability and patience to stop and reflect on the activities, people, environments and creative expressions we’re most likely to find rewarding. It causes us to ask:


  • What is truly important for me in life? 
  • What energies or parts of myself have I kept in the shadow?
  • Who’s voice do I hear that is holding me back? 
  • What new information do I need to pay attention to now?
  • What is the action required?


Moving through an impasse implies that we let go of familiar patterns and responses and open to new types of information that can move us forward.


Wrapping it up


“An impasse is a hidden opportunity to break free from the past.”

We all face many or a few moments of impasse in our lives. As painful and devastating as they might be, they’re also necessary challenges that serve a purpose in our psychological development.


An impasse represents the end of our thinking as we know it, a sign that we've outgrown the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world, yet the fear of not knowing what’s next keeps us stuck in our habitual responses.


It comes forth to allow us to return to and integrate aspects of ourselves that we’ve neglected because of competing life circumstances. Bringing to light aspects of our lives and ourselves that were in the dark. It reawakens significant figures from the past and wounds that we carry around, unaware of their real impact on our decisions and actions.


Working through the impasse leads to a fuller life, a wider self-model in which paradoxical needs and parts of ourselves have been integrated into a whole.


The way to work through it is by accepting it as a necessary stage in our growth, building meaning and a vision of what it will lead to.


Leaning into the discomfort of the unknown, knowing that there lies our potential for expansion and evolution... for a full life experience.


"If you find yourself stuck in the middle there is only one place to go: forward."

- Richard Branson


Sofia Calheiros / Leadership & Coaching