Millions of people know the feeling of hopelessly trying to wiggle out of a vise. We can feel trapped by our jobs, relationships, and financial circumstances. We can feel trapped in an elevator or an airplane, or in our house, neighborhood, or the state where we live. Some people even feel trapped in their mind or their body.
“Here we are,” novelist Kurt Vonnegut noted bleakly, “trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” Playwright Tennessee Williams was no less grisly: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” Poor literary writers! Is this the sense of desolation that results from doing daily battle with a balky imagination?
It’s true, of course, that people can be trapped somewhat in unpleasant situations or predicaments. We might not have enough money, for instance, to just pick up and leave our job, relationship, or the town where we live. But often we embellish upon the feeling of being trapped, accentuating the misery of it all. At its worst, the feeling produces claustrophobia.
At a conscious level, people prone to feeling trapped want to feel free and unrestricted. But unconsciously, meaning outside their awareness, they have an affinity for (or resonance with) the feeling of being trapped. The feeling stems from lingering emotions and memories having to do with childhood helplessness and passivity.
So while we like to think we want to feel free, we might not quite know how to live without our old familiar sense of isolation, restriction, and boring routine. Hence, instead of confidently navigating our way into better situations, we remain stuck in the old pain of feeling trapped. Right from the start, we’re also quite capable of trapping ourselves in a difficult situation for the unconscious purpose of living our life through that familiar, painful experience.
A daydreamer of adventuresome escapades and uninhibited freedom is apt to be attached emotionally to feeling trapped. Those flights of fancy are defenses against the unconscious willingness to feel isolated, controlled, or trapped. Avid motorcyclists are often people who are trying to flee from their tendency to interpret situations through that trapped feeling.
British researchers recently presented findings that link feelings of being entrapped and defeated to anxiety and depression. Those findings are no surprise. Feeling trapped is a negative emotion that certainly doesn’t invite happiness and joy. The emotion can produce a downward spiral: Feeling trapped produces anxiety and depression, and now people can feel, through the anxiety and depression, even more trapped.
A higher incidence of happiness is experienced by people who are passionate about their work (I’ll exclude workaholics which falls into another category). This means, of course, that they don’t feel trapped. Why does enthusiasm for work tend to make us happier? While there’s an assortment of explanations, one consideration recognizes that we’re more likely when purposefully engaged to be less under the influence of inner passivity.
Inner passivity, an aspect of human nature that hides out in our psyche like an ancient isle shrouded in mist, is a direct cause of feeling trapped. Usually, we can only begin to identify our inner passivity through its many painful and self-defeating symptoms such as self-doubt and feeling trapped.
Here’s the most important thing to understand about inner passivity: We’re determined unconsciously to experience it, no matter how painful. In large measure, we know ourselves through inner passivity as we struggle in our psyche to hold our ground against inner aggression (our inner critic). The clash between our inner critic and our inner passivity constitutes the major conflict in the human psyche.
Feeling trapped is a direct experience and symptom of inner passivity. Take a moment and go into that feeling of being trapped. It’s a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. You’re in a vise and can’t wiggle free. This feeling, while unpleasant if not painful, has an enticing allure at an unconscious level when it’s experienced through inner passivity. It resonates with emotional memories from childhood that are repressed but not resolved. This feeling, fueled by unconscious masochism, wants to be felt. What does that mean? It means that, at least metaphorically, your inner passivity wants you to be trapped in the clutches of the weakness that it represents. Inner passivity is very much interested in its own survival. Even though it’s an emotional weakness, it wants to thrive within you, and it will fight for its life. It can hold on and survive as long as you’re willing to go on experiencing yourself through it, which you do with some masochistic elaboration when you find yourself feeling painfully trapped in some situation. Like the inner critic, it does not want you to come into your own power. Both inner passivity and the inner critic are afraid of your authentic self because they’ll be vanquished and vaporized by it.
Inner passivity, when acute and excruciatingly painful, can lead not only to feeling trapped, but also to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This quote, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Annie Sexton, appeared in a column on suicide in The New York Times. Sexton committed suicide in 1974 at the age of 45. Her words convey feelings of being overwhelmed, isolated, and trapped. The agony behind her words can help us to recognize inner passivity in ourselves, even when we have less intense experiences of it.
Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. . . To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay, that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives . . . locked outside of all that’s real. . . I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying or something, for then I could be brave, but to be not dying and yet . . . and yet to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can’t, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but . . . to do it all wrong. . . I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.
Suicide is an extreme passive-aggressive action that follows upon excruciatingly painful feelings of being paralyzed in helplessness and trapped in despair.
People might hesitate to break out of their sense of entrapment because of fear of the unknown. They fear dire consequences for taking bold action and changing course. But this fear tends to be irrational. For one thing, the future is always a big unknown. The fear can be understood as intensified self-doubt which is a symptom of inner passivity. This fear is a product of the individual’s inability at that moment to believe in his or her own authority, strength, and value. The fearful feeling can serve as a learning experience when we use it to identify our inner passivity. We benefit by exposing our inner passivity and bringing it into focus. We have to bring it into focus in order to overcome it. Without this clarity, we remain emotionally entangled in the experience of it. We can’t separate who we really are from our identity in passivity.
Sometimes people who feel trapped in a relationship or job will claim they have a commitment to others to stay put. This sense of commitment, however, can be self-defeating. It can easily be used as a rationalization or excuse for the unconscious determination to continue feeling trapped and passive. It’s usually the case that we have to produce some plausible explanation to ourselves (which in fact amounts to self-deception) for why we’re continuing to remain passive and why we’re prepared to go on feeling trapped.
Yet walking away from a situation that produces trapped feelings isn’t the answer in itself. People feeling trapped are often advised, even by mental-health experts, to be brave and walk away from the disagreeable situation. However, we can’t just walk away from inner passivity. If we try that, we’re likely to wander into another situation in which we’re again soon feeling trapped (or feeling other symptoms of inner passivity). People often feel trapped in situations in which they would normally be flourishing if not for their inner passivity. So the remedy involves recognizing your inner passivity and overcoming it.