There are certain themes that emerge in the course of the daily practice of psychotherapy and the one I've been hearing most lately is the feeling of being trapped. Patients who come to see me experience entrapment, being cornered in sexless marriages, dead-end and unrewarding jobs, debt, and these days, all too often, unemployment. Others are feeling overwhelmed by the stress of adult children or ageing parents, and according to Allison Bottke, author of the "Setting Boundaries" series of books about adult child and parent relationships, "trapped in their seemingly never-ending cycle of chaos, crisis, or drama."
I find that patients need to have their feelings validated: their guilt is normal even if not merited due to extensive efforts made to change their situation. Despite the energy and persistence people put into striving for freedom from entrapment, they need the reassurance that they are most often not to blame and that their feelings of diminished self-worth, franticness, and ineptitude are situational rather than due to personal failure or inherent flaw. Validation of clients' feelings, I find, encourages hope, reduces depression and reinforces determination and persistence in resolving their particular situation. Reassurance that feelings of exhaustion, being scatter-brained, and hopelessness are all normal when a person feels trapped, and can mobilize the energy to continue to fight for personal liberty. People can then mobilize individual autonomy that allows for more rational decision-making and strategies for the future.
Before the current recession, during the boom years, clients felt more hopeful about improving their lifestyle, seeking more gratifying and rewarding jobs, improving close relationships, and buying the one investment that "could never go down": real estate. Now those of us (including myself) who felt we were so clever investing in our homes and counting on their appreciating value, are feeling trapped in more house than we need, and often more debt than we want.
Victor Frankl was a Viennese psychotherapist who founded a school of therapy called logotherapy, whose meaning derives from the Greek word "logos," to make meaning out of something. Frankl, a young psychiatrist in Vienna before World War II, was, between 1942 and 1945, interred in a Nazi concentration camp. Partly because of this experience, Frankl developed his theories of logotheraphy. The central premise of logotherapy is that while we cannot control what happens to us in our lives, we can choose our attitude toward life's conditions and toward ourselves. The one freedom that cannot "be taken from a man," Frankl writes, is "to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
In this inspiring video of Dr. Frankl before his death, he eloquently talks about the importance of using our freedom to make a choice that will somehow make meaning out of what we believe to be our misfortune. As he states in his book Man's Search for Meaning, "This was the lesson I had to learn in three years spent in Auschwitz and Dachau: those most apt to survive the camps were those oriented toward the future, toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future." The path to recovery, according to logotherapy, is literally to learn to make meaning out of whatever circumstances come our way in life - learn to reflect profitably on our experience so that we can frame it in a way that both mirrors reality and serves our most cherished aims.
While we cannot, by any stretch, compare being trapped in a joyless relationship, dead-end job, unemployment or unmanageable debt to being trapped in a Nazi concentration camp, we can detect some similar themes: dealing with circumstances beyond our control that create perplexing and profound loss in our lives. One of Frankl's central observations during his years at Dachau and Auschwitz was that those who were committed to the quest of making meaning out of their circumstances, and determined to move forward with gratitude and hope instead of bitterness and resentment were those most apt to survive. Ultimately, the same may be said of individuals that survive and conquer the many possible entrapping circumstances of life in the twenty-first century.