How to Free Yourself from Life’s Emotional Traps

How to Free Yourself from Life’s Emotional Traps

Have you ever seen a Chinese Finger Puzzle?

They’re those little tubes of interwoven paper that look harmless enough. Usually, the gig goes like this:

Your friend hands you the Chinese Finger Puzzle and instructs you to insert your index fingers into each end.

So you do.

Next, with a mischievous grin, your friend tells you to take your fingers out of the tube.

Puzzled (pun intended) as to why this might be so hard, you try to pull your fingers out.

But you can’t. The tube has tightened around your fingers.

So, naturally, you pull harder.

The tube constricts even further around your fingers and now your friend is not only grinning, but laughing.

Frustration sets in. This little bit of paper is not going to defeat me, you think to yourself. You really exert yourself now to get out of the tube and you even try twisting as you pull.

Now the tube is so tight you feel the ends of your fingers starting to swell.

Finally, your friend comes over, takes your hands and gently pushes your fingers toward each other.

The tube loosens. You’re free.

If only you had given in rather than struggled against it.

How many times have you had the equivalent of the Chinese Finger Puzzle in your life? Struggling against something only to find out that you could have given in and felt a freedom you hadn’t known before?

I have had many moments like that in my life. They range from everyday “aha!” moments to more profound, life-changing events. Here are two of them:

The everyday “aha!” moment

I was sitting in traffic at a stop light and I was late for a meeting at work. I could feel my heart starting to quicken and pound as I waited for the light to change. My knuckles were growing white as I gripped the steering wheel tightly.

My thoughts were taking their usual course as this was not the first time I had been in this situation.

“Why doesn’t that light change? I’m going to be late and look bad in front of my boss. Why didn’t I leave sooner? I’m always late. Such a bad habit. This is awful. Why does this keep happening?”

Then, suddenly, I stopped in the middle of my negative rumination.

For the first time, I really noticed the pounding of my heart, my grip on the steering wheel, and the anxious thoughts going around in my head.

And it occurred to me: I can’t change that stop light from red to green. I have no control over it. Why am I making myself miserable over something I can’t control?

I took a deep breath and released my death grip on the steering wheel. The rush of blood back into my fingers felt good. The deep breath felt good, too.

As I relaxed, other thoughts came to me. “I don’t need to get uptight over things I can’t control. The only thing I can control is my own tendency to be late and, even when I am late, what’s the worst thing that has happened? I’ve been late many times in the past and the world hasn’t suddenly imploded. The way I get so anxious and frustrated, you’d think Armageddon was approaching.”

That day, that moment, I decided to let go of being anxious about the everyday things I can’t control.

Stoplights that won’t change.

Traffic that is jammed.

The lady in front of me at Starbucks who orders twelve drinks and charges them separately because she wants more points on her gold card.

What good does it do to get my insides in a twist? I’d rather feel the peace of my deep breath than get so irritated I can hardly breathe at all.

The life-changing event

The year was 1998 and I was 34 years old. I was at a retreat on Vashon Island, Washington and I didn’t want to be there.

The organizers had promised that it would be a time of spiritual fulfillment and getting to know our own unique gifts. My work at a mental health clinic had paid for me to attend the retreat so I could learn more about how to help our clients find their core gifts and feel more welcomed in the community.

I was okay with the gifts part but didn’t want anything to do with spiritual fulfillment. Yuck. I had left that all behind years ago when a searing betrayal by staff at a college ministry had wounded me beyond repair.

In clinical language, one could call the retreat experiential. In reality, it was one long ritual.

Despite being leery of anything faintly resembling spirituality, I decided to keep an open mind. I allowed myself to participate in the ritual and soon became deeply involved in working toward healing the anger I felt toward those who had wounded me so long ago.

In the last part of the ritual, we were instructed to use a stone as a symbol of those who had hurt us and then toss the stone into water as we spoke aloud our forgiveness of the person or people.

As I prepared to launch my stone, I directed my lips to form the words, “I forgive them all.” But instead, from nowhere, I heard my voice say,

“I forgive myself.”

My hands flew up to cover my mouth and tears rushed to my eyes as the moment sunk in.

It wasn’t “those people” who had been blocking me from my spirit all these years.

It was me.

I had never forgiven myself for my own role in the wounding. For allowing myself to get into the hurtful situation in the first place and for staying even when my heart knew better.

For twelve years I had been struggling against an emotional Chinese Finger Puzzle, trying to escape the trap of anger and hurt only to find myself held tighter by it.

By some miracle of grace, I finally gave in by acknowledging that I was the one that needed forgiveness, not “those people.”

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, only to discover the prisoner was you.” – Lewis Smedes

The freedom was immense.

And essential, as it turned out. Not only did I experience a tremendous healing that day, but I would soon desperately need my newfound openness to spirituality.

Two years after the retreat, my partner was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. The approach that we decided to take to it was a spiritual one, one I would not have been able to tolerate only a few years prior.

Because of it, our journey with her cancer was the most profoundly enriching experience of both of our lives. And I’m able to say that even though she died from her cancer.

So now it’s your turn.

Will you continue to struggle against the Chinese Finger Puzzles in your life?

Or will you decide to make a change and experience the peace and freedom that comes along with giving in?

Bobbi Emel

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who helps you bounce back from life’s significant challenges. Download her FREE ebook Bounce Back! 5 ways to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs. You may also want to join her on a journey toward living a richer, more meaningful life on The Bounce Blog.

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42 Comments

  1. Bobbi thank you for sharing your stories. I especially resonated with the one about being in a workshop/class and feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t be present. Rather than finding a way to enjoy it, I left. I still wonder how much I missed.
    Time to forgive myself!

    Reply
    • Wendy, it’s hard to be open to new ideas when you’re feeling frustrated! But yes, forgiving oneself is never going to hurt you!

      Reply
  2. That really touched me deep inside. I’ve been in the mist of a life changing struggle myself for the past couple of months and I’ve chosen to do things that others think is crazy. But I have a deep faith that this body is temporary and that the real me will never be touched by MS.

    I know that this is only a bump in the road and that my final destination has nothing to do with MS, it has to do with what I do with my life regardless of my situation.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    With love,
    Michelle

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story, Michelle. I wish you well on your journey and hope that non-resistance and peace will light your way.

      Reply
  3. Very touching story Bobbi. Thanks a lot for sharing it! I enjoyed so much reading your work here.

    Reply
  4. oooh i’d never heard about the chinese puzzle until today. sounds really cool!

    thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Bobbi. i never tire of a gentle reminder to be more patient and let go of things that are beyond my control : )

    Reply
    • Thanks,Sangeeta. And your poem is lovely.

      Reply
  5. So true, it is so often ourselves that we have to learn to forgive rather then others. Getting to a place when we can actively accept tough times is in the first place about accepting ourselves. Thanks for your story.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insights and kind words, Peter!

      Reply
  6. Bobbi,

    Beautifully written, I loved every word. I had a similar experience (minus the retreat!) and what you write is so true.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Alan! I’m glad you also had the experience of self-forgiveness because it is an incredible feeling!

      Reply
  7. Bobbi,

    How fortunate that your work sent you on that retreat.
    It was not until midlife, when I began to feel the strain from ‘busyness’ that I realized that it was me that I needed to forgive.
    Not only am I more patient with myself but more patient with others.

    Reply
    • Glad you were able to get to that point where you realized your need for self-forgiveness, Priska!

      Reply
  8. I found this very profoundly true and so applicable to where i was a few months ago in my life. I was diagnosed with Hypopituitarism which in a nutshell led me to become cortisol insufficient. This illness sort of released alot of my deep hurts and anger from my past pertaining to my dad and a few other stuff. I was angry at the world and felt like a victim and could not understand the flood of emotions. The day i accepted the illness as a part of me and starting “taking it on” so that i could be better and accept each new mood swing etc that came with this illness. I understood it better and seeked helped in various places to help me cope instead of denying the reality of what is. I have since discovered what my lifes passion and purpose is because of accepting this illness. It has made me more weary of people and their feelings. I was almost divorced too but fortunately in the nick of the moment through all i have learnt and discovered i learnt how to forgive and accept and yes i had to forgive myself first and break down the barriers i had built to protect me. I have the not so good days but i always bounce back with more vigour and enthusiasm than before. I have learnt to take responsiblity but not blame for where i am and since approaching everything in that way i feel free and unbound and yet the illness is still there and i have managed to reduce my chronic medication by half due to the new approach i had adopted in my life as a whole. I am forever greatful for being diagnosed or it would not have led me on this new found path of self love, acceptance of what is and gratitude. May you all be blessed too and may your struggles turn into raindrops that nourish and feed you to facilitate your growth and humanity.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for sharing your story, Yazzie! I love how your act of accepting your illness has led you to such peace and awakening in your life. I wish you well!

      Reply
  9. Totally bowled me over. Lately I’ve been a bit bothered that I’m not quite able to let one past hurt really go. Your story made me realize that I may have overlooked forgiving myself for my own involvement. Thank you so much for sharing your insight.

    Reply
    • Bina, I’m so glad that my story may have helped you. I was totally bowled over when “I forgive myself” came out of my mouth, let me tell you! It was a great lesson then and one I feel fortunate to have experienced. I hope you can take a look at your own possible need for self-forgiveness, too.

      Reply
  10. great post
    especially that each one of us has been affected by these traps in a way or another
    many thanks for the post

    Reply
  11. Great post, Bobbi! While I was reading your description of only escaping the Chinese finger puzzle by not fighting it, I thought of other examples, like quicksand. The physical world shows us that many things extend far beyond our control. As a child, my grandma told me, “You take what you get and you like it.” When it comes to the unchangeable things, I agree with her completely.

    Reply
    • Yes, quicksand is another good metaphor, UpbeatBrain. Accepting that some things are just out of our control is such a great lesson!

      Reply
  12. I’ve always known the device you talk about as the “Chinese Finger Trap.” It brings a whole new perspective when you think of it like a trap rather than a puzzle (and lessens the surprise to a friend when you give them one).

    I gotta tell you though Bobbi, I can really sympathize with the frustrations over time. Most days I wish that Western culture could import the relationship with time that most cultures in Africa or other parts of the world have. The concept of “being on time” doesn’t really exist for them and everything isn’t scheduled in 15 minute increments. I just know that I could enjoy myself more if I didn’t have 33 years of socialization that has made juggling time the central part of just about every single day.

    Reply
    • Wow, Joel, interesting take on time for a productivity guy! But I hear what you’re saying: our culture IS pretty wound up about time, isn’t it? (Pun intended.)

      Reply
  13. Loved this post Bobbi. All of it.

    But the forgiving yourself part especially resonated with me. I know how hard that can be. As always you’ve delivered another smart, well-written and helpful post. Nice job!

    Reply
  14. Trying to control what is not controllable is the definition of futility … and endless frustration. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences here with the Chinese Finger Trap (that’s what we called it as kids — or Chinese handcuffs). Very inspiring, Bobbi.

    Forgiving ourselves is another difficult thing to do for some. We can sometimes think we don’t deserve the forgiveness, that it shouldn’t be that easy to get of the hook. But until we forgive ourselves, we stay stuck in the mire of the past.

    Again, thanks so much for sharing this with us.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ken! I appreciate your insights.

      Reply
  15. Hi Bobbi,
    That’s a wonderful post! Your example of Chinese Finger Puzzle shows that the rigidity in our approach is what makes a situation more difficult.
    Often, instead of trying out different ways of resolving a situation, we stick to the one we think is right,even when it does not yield the required result.
    If we have greater flexibility in our approach, we can deal with the various challenges life throws at us better.

    Reply
    • Great summary, Gaori! I agree completely!

      Reply
  16. I Loved this post! I think you offer a great inside I never wanted to see. There are many things you can’t control, but you. I struggled with a difficult childhood and I always blamed others for the rough edges of my personality, but in all reality it is only me tying my self to that behavior and I’ve been using my past as a crutch to excuse it!

    Thank you so much!!!

    Reply
    • I’m glad it was helpful for you, GCMB!

      Reply
  17. Prime example from my own life – psychosomatic distress. The more you focus on and struggle with the physical symptoms, the worse they get. When you take a moment to chill out and focus on the underlying emotions, the physical symptoms improve.

    Reply
    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Amit. I’m glad you’ve figured that out early in your life rather than later!

      Reply
  18. That was a really touching story, Bobbi, and I like your reference to the Chinese Finger Puzzle. I know someone who can’t seem to just let things be when met with frustrating situations. Getting frustrated over things that you can’t control can be a waste of energy and I wish this friend of mine can see that too.

    Reply
  19. I recently went through that ‘A-ha’ moment learning that it was not necessary to worry about those things in life that we have no control over. Its a pretty liberating feeling and I really feel its part of the beginning of a new chapter in my life…

    Reply
  20. That was a really touching story,Its a pretty liberating feeling and I really feel its part of the beginning of a new chapter in my life…

    Reply
  21. Wow, I love the comparison to the finger puzzle! I like it because it’s not only the “giving in” that solves the puzzle, as you said, but also because once you learn it you never forget it. And even though we like to pretend we don’t remember to “give in” when we’re getting frustrated, we do. We just choose not to. It really can be that simple, if we let it be.

    Reply
  22. wow … such a nice post :)

    Reply
  23. Wonderful post Bobbi. Though we may have an equivalent of this puzzle in all countries, the observation that not many people follow the learning from this puzzle is painful. At the same time, what makes it more challenging is the fact that even though we try to come out of the trap by “giving in”, there will always be people around you who stop you from doing so. If these people are also stuck in the same trap along with you, no matter what you do to come out by giving in, you will not succeed.

    Reply
  24. Hi
    Thank you for sharing this story. What resonated with me was your story about the traffic signal. The same thing has happened to me! The only difference was that the 90 seconds at that traffic signal wondering why all of us are in so much of a hurry and so afraid of deadlines, wives shouting at them, reaching home etc. led to a long chain of thoughts that ended thus – if each one of us let go of fear from our hearts there would be no need for traffic signals!

    In essence, the epiphany that I had was if we let go of fear from our minds; there would be no need for boundaries at all. The catalyst for this thought process were two things – A documentary of Hawking (The story of everything) and a movie (Cloud Atlas). These two things happened in quick succession and the traffic signal incident was the following day.

    I’m actually writing about this and shall keep you posted.

    Reply

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