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?

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