What to Do When You Hit the Wall: 5 Causes and Solutions
Marathon runners talk about hitting the wall, usually about 20+ miles into the race—the feeling that they can’t go on, they’re exhausted, or are looking ahead to the next six miles and wondering, Why am I doing this? But we all can hit the wall at times in our lives—working hard for the job promotion, the next step up our career ladder, but realizing that it may not come; being on a diet for weeks or months and seeing up and down progress but no real change; trying to turn a relationship around, get away from that constant tense climate, the walking on eggshells or endless arguments, and feeling like your best efforts aren’t making a dent. You’re burned out, ready to give up, feeling like your goals or dreams will never happen.
But like most things in life, hitting the wall isn’t the problem; it’s the outcome of another problem driving it. Here are the five common sources and their antidotes:
1: You’ve hit a plateau.
Experienced runners know to expect this—the wall at 20 miles and know they just have to plow through. But it’s also true about diets or exercise—initial success and then some leveling off as your body regulates itself, or about learning curves—making a lot of progress when starting out learning a new skill—for example, a language or musical instrument—but then you seem to make no progress for a few days or weeks; the same thing even happens in therapy.
Antidote: Expect it; know the terrain. This is part of learning and adapting. Keep moving forward.
2: You’re burned out.
While most of the runners are likely physically exhausted, some are even more exhausted because they went too fast at the start. This is about pacing that catches up with you. You’ve been pushing and working overtime on your job, hoping for that promotion, but now, like the runners, you’re worn out and discouraged. You’ve been doing your best in the relationship for months, doing the emotional heavy lifting, and now feel there’s no more to give. You’ve been on an austere diet, eating soup and crackers, or exercising twice a day, but emotionally can’t keep it up.
Antidote: You’ve been pushing too hard. Time to slow down and pace yourself.
3: You’ve run out of skills.
You’ve done the best you can—the job, the diet, the relationship—but nothing is working. You may have exhausted your skillset.
Antidote: Time to get some outside help: A life coach or therapist to help you sort out your true career goals and understand where you get stuck; a dietitian to help you create a meal plan; a therapist for couple or individual therapy to help you communicate better, control your emotions, or negotiate win-win compromises.
4: Others are blocking your path.
You’re doing your best in the relationship, but your partner is not stepping up or even appreciating your efforts. You’ve worked overtime, but your supervisor doesn’t seem to notice. Your couple therapist seems to be taking your partner’s side, and you’re feeling ganged up and discouraged.
Antidote: Time to deal with the relationship: Have a heart-to-heart with your partner about the state of the union; talk to your supervisor or send an email to them to let them know what you’ve been doing and what you need; make it a point at the next session to let the therapist know how you’ve been feeling. You’re treading water because of others. Time to go proactive, assertively let these others know how you feel and what you need. Don’t keep accepting what you’re getting.
5: Your wall is a moving target.
Here you’re feeling stuck, but it comes and goes—good days, bad days, making progress, then feeling like you’re getting nowhere. If problems go up and down, often the real culprit isn’t the problem but your state of mind, your attitude, or a different underlying problem. You felt discouraged about the diet today, but yesterday you thought it was working. You feel good about your career, but the last few days, you’re worried you’ll never get where you ultimately want to go. The relationship has been better the last week, but today you think last week was a fluke and are pessimistic.
Antidote: Why today and not yesterday? That is what you want to be curious about. Everyone has an Achilles Heel—what we are most sensitive to under stress—and this may be yours—your frustration with the relationship, the career, body image. Instead of obsessing about those problems, try and figure out what else might be triggering it—as simple as you haven’t slept well or have a cold, or you’re anxious about the new assignment at work, or your brother got covid, and you’re wondering how he is doing. If there’s something there to fix, fix it—get more sleep or take better care of yourself, talk to your supervisor about the assignment, call your brother.
Learning is never a straight-ahead process; relationships are never entirely in your control. When you hit a wall, it’s time to stop and find the cause.