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Imprisoned by Our Thoughts

The intricate dance between support.

Wendell, my therapist, finally speaks up.

“I’m reminded,” he begins, “of a famous cartoon. It’s of a prisoner, shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out—but to his right and left, it’s open, no bars.”

He pauses, allowing the image to sink in.

“All the prisoner has to do is walk around. But still, he frantically shakes the bars. That’s most of us. We feel completely stuck, trapped in our emotional cells, but there’s a way out—as long as we’re willing to see it.”

He lets that last part linger between us. As long as we’re willing to see it.

He gestures to an imaginary prison cell with his hand, inviting me to see it.

I look away, but I feel Wendell’s eyes on me. I sigh. Okay.

I close my eyes and take a breath. I start by picturing the prison, a tiny cell with drab beige walls. I picture the metal bars, thick and gray and rusty. I picture myself in an orange jumpsuit, furiously shaking those bars, pleading for release. I picture my life in this tiny cell with nothing but the pungent smell of urine and the prospect of a dismal, constrained future. I imagine screaming, “Get me out of here! Save me!” I envision myself frantically looking to my right, then to my left, then doing one hell of a double take. I notice my whole body respond; I feel lighter like a thousand-pound weight has been lifted, as the realization hits me: You are your own jailer.

I open my eyes and glance at Wendell. He raises his right eyebrow as if to say, I know—you see. I saw you see.

“Keep looking,” he whispers.

I close my eyes again. Now I’m walking around the bars and heading toward the exit, moving tentatively at first, but as I get closer to it, I start to run. Outside, I can feel my feet on the ground, the breeze on my skin, the sun’s warmth on my face. I’m free! I run as fast as I can, then after a while, I slow down and check behind me. No prison guards are giving chase. It occurs to me that there were no prison guards to begin with. Of course!

Most of us come to therapy feeling trapped—imprisoned by our thoughts, behaviors, marriages, jobs, fears, or past. Sometimes we imprison ourselves with a narrative of self-punishment. If we have a choice between believing one of two things, both of which we have evidence for—I’m unlovable, I’m lovable—often we choose the one that makes us feel bad. Why do we keep our radios tuned to the same static-ridden stations (the everyone’s-life-is-better-than-mine station, the I-can’t-trust-people station, the nothing-works-out-for-me station) instead of moving the dial up or down? Change the station. Walk around the bars. Who’s stopping us but ourselves?

photo courtesy of the author
Lori Gottlieb
Source: photo courtesy of the author

There is a way out—as long as we’re willing to see it. A cartoon, of all things, has taught me the secret of life.

I open my eyes and smile, and Wendell smiles back. It’s a conspiratorial smile, one that says, "Don’t be fooled. It may seem as though you’ve had an earth-shattering breakthrough, but this is just the beginning. I know full well what challenges lie ahead, and Wendell knows that I know because we both know something else: freedom involves responsibility, and there’s a part of most of us that finds responsibility frightening.

Might it feel safer to stay in jail? I picture the bars and the open sides again. A part of me lobbies to stay, another to go. I choose to go. But walking around the bars in my mind is different from walking around them in real life.

“Insight is the booby prize of therapy” is my favorite maxim of the trade, meaning that you can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t change when you’re out in the world, the insight—and the therapy—is worthless. Insight allows you to ask yourself, "Is this something that’s being done to me or am I doing it to myself? The answer gives you choices, but it’s up to you to make them.

Typically therapists are several steps ahead of our patients, not because we’re smarter or wiser but because we have the vantage point of being outside their lives. I’ll say to a patient who has bought the ring but can’t seem to find the right time to propose to his girlfriend, “I don’t think you’re sure you want to marry her,” and he’ll say, “What? Of course, I am! I’m doing it this weekend!” And then he goes home and doesn’t propose, because the weather was bad and he wanted to do it at the beach. We’ll have the same dialogue for weeks, until one day he’ll come back and say, “Maybe I don’t want to marry her.” Many people who say, “No, that’s not me,” find themselves a week or a month or a year later saying, “Yeah, actually, that’s me.”

I have a feeling that Wendell has been storing up this question, waiting for just the right moment to float it out there. Therapists are always weighing the balance between forming a trusting alliance and getting to the real work so the patient doesn’t have to continue suffering. From the outset, we move both slowly and quickly, slowing the content down, speeding up the relationship, planting seeds strategically along the way. As in nature, if you plant the seeds too early, they won’t sprout. If you plant too late, they might make progress, but you’ve missed the most fertile ground. If you plant at just the right time, though, they’ll soak up the nutrients and grow. Our work is an intricate dance between support and confrontation.

Adapted from the book Maybe You Should Talk To Someone.

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About the Author

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and psychotherapist. She writes the weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column for The Atlantic, and she is the author of many books including the recent Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.

Lori Gottlieb