Helping friends and clients who are ‘stuck’

Being ‘stuck’ is a natural part of life. We can be good friends, or counsellors, by building trust, and giving space and time for new directions to be found. Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

A common problem with which people present to counsellors, is ‘feeling stuck’.  A client has, in some sense, driven into a cul-de-sac, driven down a road from which there is no easy new journey.

A bereaved person may be feeling stuck because they have lost their motivation.  A lover may be feeling stuck because they are in love with someone who isn’t available to them.  Whatever the case, things cannot move on unless and until the client finds a way of releasing themselves from an apparent impasse.

Being stuck often demotivates, which, in turn, can make us even more stuck.  We can start to feel despair, and despair can give rise to even further disengagement.  Procrastination, passivity and inaction become the order of the day, and things grind to a halt.

When we encounter others in this ‘stuck’ state, we feel helpless.  We want to help, but it is hard to help someone who seems to resist the very idea that they can be helped.  It is like holding the hand of a person standing in the middle of a puddle.  The whole thing would be a lot easier if they stepped out – but that it precisely what they feel unable to do.

There are a few things we can do.


Firstly, we can spend time with the person, and show them that we care.  We can be willing to absorb the uncertainty of their state without recoiling.  They will be watching us carefully for signs that we are repelled – they have experienced enough of that in their past life.  Once they are relatively sure that we are listening, that we are there, and are able to engage on non-painful terms, then a problem might be shared.


Many ‘stuck’ situations feel un-shareable because they feel socially unacceptable.  In addition, they may feel unacceptable to the person themselves.  They may, for instance, be experiencing a deep anger or resentment against someone they are supposed to love.  Bottled up, these feelings can cause great tension, unless they can be expressed without feeling disloyal.  If we care, we can ‘welcome the problem’ – we can provide a fertile ground in which the issue can be examined without fear or judgement.


Counselling is a privileged place.  It needs to be safe enough to explore problems in a way that a person cannot do alone.  Ideally, in that safe place, emotions, and related thought patterns, can be shared freely.  Given space and time, those thoughts and feelings can evolve into new stories, new insights, and new personal narratives.

If we are lucky, a new narrative may emerge which, in some deep sense, ‘explains’ the problem.  A newer language can be developed around this narrative, an interpretation of events, which can be used to point to possible ways out.

New behaviours can be tried, results reported back, lessons learned.  A joint perspective on the problem can be developed between therapist and client, or friend and friend.  it can be constantly revised, frequently double-checked for the feel of truth, authenticity and helpfulness.


Eventually, there may be movement, a little change.  Perhaps less of a feeling of stuck-ness.  The client begins to feel more agential, more in charge of their own life.

Like a plane taking off, the client begins to benefit from movement and ‘air flow’.  The firm ‘ground’ of the therapy is less and less needed.  At such times, a person can begin to regain their independence from helpers.  Counselling sessions can become less frequent, or less intense.  The client may ‘lean in’ less, and ‘stand up’ more.  A helper must be ready for this time, and gently confirm that it is OK for the client to achieve some distance if they wish.

A helper or therapist needs to have enough independence themselves.  Otherwise they may have difficulty letting go of those they are helping.  Letting go, however, is the whole point.  We return agency to those we help, let them be masters in their own life.  They can come back for more help, but we don’t need them to.


If we choose to help another human who is ‘stuck’, then we need to meet them in their own world, and demonstrate that we can listen without judging.  If we can offer an accepting attitude, then the relationship can provide a space in which a new narrative can be found which explains the past, and signposts a future.  Eventually, the stuck person may feel free to regain some independence.  We then have a new job: to let them go.