Are you feeling zugzwang?

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“Zugzwang” is German for “feeling pressure to make a strategic move when you would rather do nothing.”*

Are you feeling zugzwang?  Stuck, paralyzed, or uncertain of what to do, wishing the situation would just go away?  Maybe the cause is a values conflict.  You might be stuck because, consciously or subconsciously, you realize two or more of your values or priorities are at logger-heads and you don’t know how to resolve the conflict.  Or maybe the conflict is between what you actually want and what you think you should want—or what family, friends, or your mate prefer for you.

Maybe you have a promotion opportunity that will require you to work significantly more hours or move far away from your current home.  On the one hand, you’re excited about the opportunity.  On the other hand, it will mean less time with friends and family, moving a mate (children and other family members) from their work and community, or moving away from friends, a partner, or family when you prefer to be close.   Or maybe you’re truly happy where you are and don’t want the promotion/move, but it feels wrong or unacceptable to admit this.

You have two options:

  1. You can keep avoiding and procrastinating until other forces make the decision for you, enduring the ongoing zugzwang and possibly ending up some place you really don’t want to be. (Though maybe you’ll land somewhere much better than you imagined/feared.)
  2. You can face the situation head on, which is probably less awful than you fear and can provide immediate relief.

Choosing Option “2”

If you’re ready to leave the zugzwang behind, here’s how you can figure out what’s going on and what you’ll do about it.  You can work through the steps on your own by journaling, meditating on the questions, drawing or coloring pictures, dancing, or using whatever other processes help you gain clarity and insights.  You can also talk through the situation and questions with a trusted confidante.  (And of course, a coach or other counselor is also a good option.  Working with a professional who is not part of your everyday life and is not personally invested in or affected by your decisions can be more helpful than even the best-meaning family and friends.)

Step 1: Identify and clarify your values and priorities.  What are your values—the principles and beliefs that guide your life and actions?  How do you live those values?  (For example, you value your health, so you eat healthful, homemade meals; exercise 5-6 days a week; sleep 7.5-8.5 hours per night; meditate each morning; and spend at least 30 minutes outside each day—even in the freezing cold and rain).

What are your priorities at this moment in time?  (Career development, personal growth and development, a side-project that you’re passionate about?  Something else?)

Step 2: Identify and clarify the conflicts.  What does each potential option or action mean for your values and priorities?

  • Will you be acting in alignment with your values or will there be some degree of conflict?
  • Will a certain action serve one of your values and simultaneously go against another one? (These are some of the toughest situations, where paralysis and frustration are quite common.)
  • How does each option support or work against your current priorities?

Step 3: Decide what you’ll do, make peace with your decision, and take action.  Sometimes your analysis will reveal that the conflicts are not as severe as you feared and are easily managed, that the conflict is as bad or worse than you feared and that makes the decision easy (and easily defended), or that there is a third way that resolves the conflict.

Many other times, however, resolving the situation is not that easy.  Don’t despair; you can still find a way out of the zugzwang!  Keep journaling, talking, evaluating, and meditating until you find a way forward that fits you—and that way forward may be finding peace with an irreconcilable difference.  Sometimes, the best you can do is accept that there is no way to fully honor all of your values at the same time in a particular situation.  You may have to hold your tongue in order to preserve a relationship or let someone learn to solve their own problems.  Even though you take pride in being a straight-shooter, great problem-solver, and supportive friend, you may decide that in this situation, the values of peace and personal responsibility take precedence.

Clearly, this process is not a panacea.  But honest evaluation of the options and conscious decision-making usually feel better than avoidance.  Choosing rather than allowing-to-happen also means you’ll be taking responsibility for your life; I trust that if you’re still reading, at least some part of you wants that.  And if you’d like my help grabbing the bull by the horns, please schedule an initial consultation.


*Thank you Buzzfeed for introducing me to this new word

Photo courtesy of Noah Silliman via Unsplash 

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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