Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: How can I get out of a rut?

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Dear Virginia, I seem to have got into a rut. I bought a flat 10 years ago, got a great job, and thought the world was my oyster. Then I got involved with a man who dropped me, and left my job for another one. There I met another bloke, but got fed up with him, so I'm back on my own – and have accepted a job at the place where I worked 10 years ago! I feel trapped in a cycle like a mouse in a wheel. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Aisling

The feeling of being in a rut is one of the most depressing in the world. What is the point of living, if life is going to be one long Groundhog Day, repeating itself again and again in one form or another? And yet remember what happened in the film of Groundhog Day. The hero's life did repeat itself again and again, but each time he experienced the same old thing he managed to put one tiny new twist on it until, eventually, he got out of it.

Most of us can look back on our lives and see repetitions running like strong patterns throughout our lives. We usually marry or fall in love with the same sort of people and make the same sorts of mistakes over and over again in relationships. Our general sense of what's right and wrong remains much the same. As for our visual sense and taste in books – surely only small shifts occur over the years. Most of us even live if not in the same area as the place we were born, at least in the same part of the country. We retain the same tastes in music, food, climate...

I wonder if you, Aisling, have a rather distorted view of how other people actually live their lives. We're not all springing from country to country, racing up career ladders, moving into bigger and bigger houses, speaking an ever-increasing number of languages. And even if some of us do, the jaded ones could easily say: "My life's always the same. Every year I move into a bigger house, get a better job, learn a new language, move to another country, invent a new invention... I'm in a rut."

Looking back the other day I realised that fundamentally all the books I've written share, broadly, exactly the same theme. Each time I embark on something totally new, more often than not after a few months it unpeels its face and says: "Surprise surprise! It's little old me here, after all!"

It's no good trying to snap out of it by making radical changes, either. Pack your suitcase, and go and teach English to the Chinese and when you open your suitcase in Beijing, out pops the old you, and sits in your bed grinning smugly at you. "Yup, it's me again. You thought you forgot to pack me, but oh no...here I am..."

My advice to you is not to resist. See your situation not as a life of a hamster on a wheel but, rather, as a spiral, slowly, minutely unfurling itself. When you go into the old office, you won't be treading old ground. You'll be treading new ground, if only because the last time you walked through the doors it was the first time you entered. This time is the second time – and everything will have changed. And not just the doorway, but the ethos in the office, the people you're working with... and, most importantly, your experience of it.

Nothing stays the same from one moment to the next, even the very furniture you're looking at in your flat, or the chair you're sitting in. Every second it changes itself, sheds a bit of fluff, perhaps, creaks a little more on its legs.

If you want life to change, work not on changing your job, your friends or your surroundings but, rather, yourself. If you manage to change, during your life, just by a millimetre, you will have made good progress.

Readers say:

Do things for yourself

It sounds like you need external factors – men and work – to make you happy. Except, as you've discovered, they are transitory. You always have yourself, so learn to be happy in your own company. Start doing things that you want to do for yourself – travel, learn, keep-fit, whatever. When you start to appreciate yourself for who you are rather than in relation to others, your life will appear in less of a rut than you thought.

Karen McMullan, Ballyclare

Start taking control

You're only in a rut because you imagine that you're in a rut. It has nothing to do with where you are physically, but where you are in your head. The job that you had 10 years ago will be different to the one you go to now. As long as this is a job that you think you will enjoy, that's the main thing. Then, stop letting life just happen to you. Take control and make the life that you want, make plans, follow interests, take up hobbies. Life is too precious to waste.

Penny Joseph, Shoreham-by-sea, West Sussex

Develop a new interest

Aisling has found that relationships with men have not worked out for her. I suggest she looks at committing herself in some completely different direction for the next 12 months. She will feel rewarded for all the effort she puts in and she will know what appeals to her.

My 35-year-old son has just announced that he wants to take up choral singing and I am delighted. Other suggestions are to learn a foreign language, take up oil painting, get an allotment or take up a sport. If she wants to work with people, Aisling could consider voluntary work.

Vaughan Clarke, Colchester, Essex

Make some plans

Plan where you want to be in five years' time – and each day do one small thing to move you towards that target. There is nothing wrong with returning to a previous employer – provided you are going back to a higher position, or with the intention of moving up. You must keep job and personal life separate.

Do not go looking for a man but rather join clubs where you will meet people of both sexes and get to know men as friends before moving on to a relationship. Take up a challenging new hobby to expand your horizons. Decide what you want and go after it.

Hazel Rea, Colchester, Essex

Audit your life

It is easy to start feeling the lack of purpose that Aisling describes. Focusing on the good things going on – relationships and jobs are not the only important things in life – can perk you up a bit, but Aisling needs to feel as if she is taking some action.

She should carry out a full audit of her life and write down all the things that bring her satisfaction, and for each, why they are satisfying. Then she should imagine that she has won the lottery. What would she do? And why? She might be able to find ways to bring those things into her life without the win. There are a lot of places she can go to try new things and meet new friends, but it would be helpful to get a sense of direction first.

Robin Hall, Havant, Hampshire

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