Why Am I So Stuck?

How Behaviour Analysis Can Help With Stuck Patterns….  And Get Us Unstuck More Quickly

Many of our career coaching clients are drawn towards ACT because of its focus on values and connecting to what matters. However, some are surprised to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis.  Isn’t that something to do with salivating dogs?  Yes, and it is a simple way of understanding human behaviour, especially the roots of ‘stuck’ patterns of behaviour.

Here’s the 5 minute guide…

The key insight from behaviour analysis:

If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.

This is useful for:

People who are stuck, going round in circles or deep in career paralysis.

Brief Example COMPLETELY Unrelated to Me

Let’s imagine that a certain someone always feels anxious before going to a social event like a party.  This certain someone fears being judged and found wanting by those around them.

Let’s call ‘being asked to go to a party’ the antecedent

Now, this certain someone doesn’t want to be judged and found wanting at a party, so instead decides to watch The Wire on boxset.  This is the behaviour.  The behaviour also sometimes involves ice cream, another behaviour.

This then leads to the consequence. 

In this case the consequence is relief – no more anxiety about being found wanting – and excitement at watching The Wire, the greatest boxset of all-time.  And there’s ice cream.

This then reinforces the behaviour of the certain someone, and the chain is made stronger.

How does behavioural analysis apply to career paralysis?

Duncan had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by getting very drunk. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot all about his job.  So the chain got stronger.

The problem was Duncan was not resolving the problem, only anaesthetising himself.  As the chain continued to strengthen he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.

In the short term this meant he would solider on in his meaningless job whilst ‘living for the weekend’.   In the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and making him ill.

Why do we avoid problems we really need to fix?

By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, people can begin to see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate reinforcement that makes the chain stronger.

Our client Mia had been feeling stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’d seen many coaches in her time but always with the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away.  This she puts down to her being ‘lazy’ (!)

How does this work out under behaviour analysis?


Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves, and when she talks to her friend Katherine who has loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.


Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher to charity worker and in-house lawyer.  This phase feels rich with possibility – highly reinforcing.

However, as she then moves into analysis mode,  she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.

Each option is analysed and rejected….


The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. These feelings then act as another antecedent, whereby she plunges herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.

 If you feel stuck, try this:

If any of this resonates and you find yourself getting stuck in weird behavioural loops that don’t serve you, try teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour and then exploring the consequences of that behaviour (both short and long term).

Does understanding the pattern in behavioural terms help you make sense of seemingly ingrained patterns of behaviour that are keeping you stuck?

What changes could you make to the behaviour to break this pattern?



Career Change, Career Development, Developing Coaches - ACT Training

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