Tired Of Feeling Trapped In Your Life? These Five Strategies Will Help Set You Free
Feeling trapped isn’t fun. Feeling like you can’t bust out of a boring or unfulfilling job, or out of a dead relationship, or out circumstances—financial, familial, existential—that are keeping you boxed-in, can be stressful, anxiety-ridden, and depressing.
That sense of being trapped becomes greater when everything you do to try to break out of your trap, just leads you back to where you started—trapped in the same damn place. It’s like you are stuck on a hamster wheel—no matter how hard you try, you can’t get off.
The reason you are feeling trapped is not because of your circumstances, but because of the way you think about your circumstances. It is your thinking or the meaning you give to the world that limits you. The circumstances that appear to trap you are the symptom, not the cause.
For example, I once had a client trapped in his job at a high-end law firm because his understanding of his relationship to his work was, essentially, that the law firm owned him. He didn’t believe that he had any say in his own life. Partners in the firm assigned him work on evenings and weekends whenever it suited their needs. It never once occurred to my client that he could say no. Busting him out of his trap required that we bust up his belief that he had no say or agency in his life. (When he told his managing partner that he wasn’t going to work weekends anymore, the partner asked in true befuddlement “What are you going to do?” as if there were no life outside of work).
Stop feeling trapped by changing your thinking
But it’s worse. How you think about your circumstances is only a small part of what traps you.
What really traps you is that you most likely created the very circumstances that now trap you. You heard me correctly—you created your own trap. You picked the job or the spouse that you did; you “trained” the people around you how to relate to you; you bought into the rules and social norms that bind you. Whatever the bars of your trap, you had a hand in creating them.
You can see now why it’s so difficult to get out of your trap—you are your own jailor. If you cut and run from your current circumstances—leave your job, leave your spouse, declare bankruptcy—you are likely to recreate them in your new job, marriage, or financial life.
Where ever you go, there you are.
You should understand now that springing your trap is almost entirely an inside job.
How to spring the trap
If you want your freedom, if you’d like to live life on your terms, you will need to change how you think. Here are five strategies to making that happen:
Clarify: separate fact from story
Something happens and we humans immediately attach meaning to it. Someone honks their horn and you immediately think with a jolt of anger “What jerk is telling me what to do”? Someone else hears the same horn and thinks, with a jolt of guilt, “What did I do wrong”?
Same event, different people give it different meanings.
We assign meaning to events so reflexively that we assume that the meaning is the reality. In the first instance, that someone is telling him what to do and in the second instance, that he did something wrong. Those meanings are reality for those two individuals.
The reality is that someone honked—no more, no less. The meanings, “some jerk is telling me what to do” and “I did something wrong,” are made up.
The technical term we use to call the meanings we give to the world is “structural interpretation.” When I said earlier that we need to change our thinking, I meant, more precisely, that we need to change our structural interpretations.
Clarify: first steps
The first step to gaining your freedom is to separate out fact from story, to distinguish our structural interpretations.
- Write out your description of your situation and how it traps you.
- Write your judgment of yourself for being trapped. For example, “I’m lazy,” “I’m shy,” “I get too angry.”
- For each item you wrote down in one and two above ask: Is it a fact or an interpretation? If you had written, for example, that you are lazy. Is “lazy” fact or interpretation? (Hint: It is an interpretation—you may not do things (fact) but assigning the meaning “lazy” to that fact, is an interpretation; it is not reality.)
The goal here is to become 100% related to reality. The more related to reality you are, the less you will twist yourself up in your own thinking, and the less trapped you will be.
Be unstoppable: don’t let anything stop you
Whenever you feel as if you’ve hit a brick wall and can’t go any further—find a way around, over, or through the wall; never let it stop you. The walls that stop us are almost always of our own making. Find the “no” or the “I can’t” or the “I’m afraid” in your thinking and ask yourself if you are going to let it stop you?
If you are committed to being unstoppable, you will find a way to keep moving. It is the meaning, the structural interpretation, you are giving to your circumstances that stops you. Change the meaning, reframe the circumstances, and you will find a way through.
Several years ago, a client was tremendously upset because he wanted to be at his daughter’s swim meet, but, on the same day, he had to be at a conference at the other side of the country. It looked impossible to him. When I suggested he become unstoppable by shifting his thinking, he yelled at me (several times—he was heated), “I can’t violate the laws of physics.”
When he cooled down and became coachable again, we looked at his interpretations. One we noticed was that he saw himself as a Lone Ranger—he had to do everything by himself. I asked if there were other ways of being that were available to him? He started brainstorming, quickly landed on “partnership,” and instantly saw that he could ask one of his colleagues to go to the conference in his place. Feeling trapped is, again, a result of how we think about the world.
(To see unstoppability in action, watch “The Pursuit of Happyness” with Will Smith and his son Jaden.)
What traps you more than anything?
Fear. But not fear of lions and tigers, not fears of dangers that could put you in the E.R—instead what traps you is fear of feeling what you don’t want to feel. The most common fears that you avoid at all costs are the fears of feeling humiliated, ashamed, guilt-ridden, rejected, failing, or being wrong. See this post on How to Beat Fear for an extended discussion on fear.
Evolution has given us fear to keep us safe. But if you put too great a value on safety and too little on risk-taking, you will be trapped, by boredom if nothing else. It is sadly ironic, that even when you are truly miserable, when you hate your life, you prefer to be safe rather than risk feeling uncomfortable.
Think about it for a moment. Are you letting your fear of failure stop you from launching your start-up? Or fear of rejection stop you from having that difficult conversation with your spouse? Or fear of humiliation stop you from reporting sexual abuse? Or the fear of being wrong stop you from speaking up? That is why you feel trapped.
It’s your choice: Staying trapped or risk feeling uncomfortable.
You need to understand this in your bones: you are unquestionably safer staying trapped than you are breaking free of it. To bust out of your trap, you need to take risks; you need to risk failure, humiliation, shame, rejection, or being wrong. Being unstoppable means accepting those risks.
Responsibility is often confused with blame, guilt, or fault. It’s none of those things. Responsibility is the ability to respond. It is power; it is the power to make things happen in your life. When you don’t take responsibility for the results you get in your life, you are giving up power. It is as if you were surrendering.
If you think your boss is responsible for you not being promoted; or that your spouse is responsible for the mess in the house; or that the rain ruined your picnic—you have given your power to other people or events. It’s a tautology, but let me say it anyway: If you give away your power—you are left powerless. If you are powerless, you are at the mercy of other people and other forces. Good luck having your life work out.
If you are feeling trapped, it is likely that you are not taking full responsibility for your life. Listen to your explanation for why you’re trapped: I am trapped by my family, trapped by my finances, trapped by my job or my boss or my nasty co-workers. In each of those complaints, you have made someone else responsible for what is happening to you.
Consider that you have trapped yourself by making others responsible for you; by giving up your power.
Take 100% responsibility for your life. What do you need to do to get that promotion? What do you need to do to clean the house? If it rains, you can shake your fist at the sky—or you can sing.
This is simple—start small and work up. Or, go as far as you can and then take one step further.
Springing the trap
Understand that your trap is self-made and that it’s you who must do the work to break free of it. You must get related to reality, become unstoppable, take risks despite your fear, assume full responsibility for your life, and take it one step at a time.
You know what to do to stop feeling trapped. Act today. Sign up for a free strategy session—here.
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