#1 The Prison of Victimhood
Think of a moment in childhood or adolescence when you felt hurt by another’s actions, large or small. Try to think of a specific moment, not a generalized impression of that relationship or time of life. Imagine the moment as though you are reliving it. Pay attention to sensory details—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations. Then picture yourself as you are now. See yourself enter the past moment and take your past self by the hand. Guide yourself out of the place where you were hurt, out of the past. Tell yourself, “Here I am. I’m going to take care of you.”
Harness your freedom to. Make a vision board—a visual representation of what you want to create or embrace in your life. Cut out pictures and words from magazines, old calendars, etc.—there are no rules, just see what attracts you.
#2 The Prison of Avoidance
Everything is temporary. When observing your feelings at neutral times becomes a comfortable habit, next try tuning into your feelings when you are flooded by a strong emotion, positive or negative. If you can, step away from the situation or interaction that is provoking the feeling of joy, sorrow, anger, and so on.
Sit in stillness for a moment and breathe—it might help to close your eyes or lightly rest your hands on your lap or abdomen. Start by naming your feeling. Then, see if you can locate the feeling in your body. Get curious about it. Is it hot or cold? Loose or tight? Does it burn or ache or throb? Finally, observe how the feeling changes or dissipates.
#3 The Prison of Self-Neglect
Anything we practice, we become better at. Spend at least five minutes every day savoring pleasant sensations: the first sip of coffee in the morning, the feel of warm sun on your skin or a hug from someone you love, the sound of laughter or rain on the roof, the smell of baking bread. Take time to notice and experience joy.
Work, love, play. Make a chart that shows your waking hours each day of the week. Label the time you spend every day working, loving, and playing. (Some activities might fit in more than one category; if so, use all the labels that apply.) Then add up the total hours you spend working, loving, and playing in a typical week. Are the three categories roughly in balance? How could you structure your days differently so you do more of whatever is currently receiving the least of your time?
#4 The Prison of Secrets
Honesty starts with learning to tell the truth to yourself. Several times a day, make a conscious effort to check in with your body and take your own emotional temperature. Ask yourself, “Do I feel soft and warm, or cold and stiff?”
Tell the truth in the safe presence of others. Support groups and twelve-step programs can be a wonderful place to share your truth—and learn from others who are doing the same. Find a local or online meeting where you will be in the company of people who can relate to and empathize with your experience. Attend at least three meetings before you decide whether or not it’s for you.
#5 The Prison of Guilt and Shame
If there’s some part of yourself you routinely resent or criticize, imagine yourself being very little, so tiny you can crawl inside your body and say hello to each of your organs, to each part of yourself. If you believe that everything is your fault, then gently hold your heart, hug that wounded part of you, and exchange it for a loving self. Tell yourself, “Yes, I made a mistake. It doesn’t make me a bad person. My doing is not the entirety of my being. I am good.” If your trauma is still living in your body, embrace it, because you survived it. You’re still here. What you pay attention to grows stronger. Replace the messages of guilt or shame with a daily practice of kind and loving self-talk. Say, “I’m powerful. I’m kind. I’m a person of strength.” Then kiss yourself on the back of each hand. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Say, “I love you”.
#6 The Prison of Unresolved Grief
Let the dead be dead. Grief changes, but it doesn’t go away. Denying your grief won’t help you heal—nor will it help to spend more time with the dead than you do with the living. If someone you love has died, give yourself thirty minutes every day to honor the person and the loss. Take an imaginary key, unlock your heart, and free your grief. Cry, yell, listen to music that reminds you of your loved one, look at pictures, read old letters. Express and be with your grief, 100 percent. When the thirty minutes have passed, tuck your loved one safely inside your heart and get back to living.
The spirit never dies. It’s possible for grief to guide us in a positive direction, toward a life with more joy and meaning and purpose. Talk to the loved one who has passed. Say what you’re thankful for: the memories you cherish, the skills he or she taught you, the gifts you carry with you because that person touched your life. Then ask, “What do you wish for me?
#7 The Prison of Rigidity
Give a gentle embrace. Choose a current challenge in your life—an injury or physical ailment, an ongoing tension or conflict, or any circumstance that has you feeling restricted, limited, or confined. Start by speaking your truth. What don’t you like about it? How does it make you feel? Then get curious. Ask, “What is this situation telling me? What’s in my best interest? What serves and empowers me now?”
Meet others as they are. Write down the name of a person with whom you’re in conflict. Then write all your complaints about this person. For example: My daughter is rude and ungrateful. She calls me names and uses toxic language. She has no respect for me. She flat-out ignores me and breaks curfew. Now, rewrite the list; this time, state what you observe, without any editorializing, interpretation, judgment, or assumptions. Eliminate rigid words like “always” and “never.” Simply state the facts: Sometimes my daughter raises her voice and uses swear words. Once or twice a week, she comes home later than 11:00 p.m.
#8 The Prison of Resentment
Change the dance steps. Many couples have a three-step dance, a cycle of conflict they keep repeating. It starts with frustration, escalates to fighting, and appears to restore harmony when they make up. Until the initial frustration is resolved, the peace won’t last for long.
What frustration triggers keep going unresolved in your relationship? How can you change the dance at step one, before you fall into the old cycle? Decide on one thing to do differently the next time frustration brews. Then do it. Take note of how it went and celebrate any change.
#9 The Prison of Paralyzing Fear
Change is synonymous with growth. Do one thing differently today than you did yesterday. If you always drive the same way to work, take a different route—or ride your bike or take a bus. If you’re usually too rushed or preoccupied to chat with the checker at the grocery store, try making eye contact and conversation. You don’t have to stay where you are, how you are, doing what you’re doing. Mix things up. You’re not stuck.
Notice the distinction between stress and distress. Distress is chronic danger and uncertainty. If you’re living in distress, your foremost responsibility is to tend to your safety and survival needs, to the degree that this is possible. Do whatever is in your power to protect yourself. But if the fear is causing you stress, acknowledge that stress can be healthy. Notice how stress might be giving you an opportunity to grow. Finally, for each of the realistic fears, generate a list of things you could do today on your own behalf to strengthen yourself and build the life you want
#10 The Prison of Judgment
Our best teachers are often the most toxic, obnoxious people in our lives. The next time you’re in the presence of someone who irks or offends you, soften your eyes and tell yourself, “Human, no more, no less. Human, like me.” Then ask, “What are you here to teach me?”
We’re born to love; we learn to hate. Make a list of the messages you heard growing up that divided people into categories: us/them; good/bad; right/wrong. Circle any of these messages that describe how you see the world today. Notice where you may be holding on to judgment. How is this judgment affecting your relationships? Is it limiting your choices or ability to take risks?
#11 The Prison of Hopelessness
Don’t cover garlic with chocolate. It’s tempting to confuse hope with idealism, but idealism is just another form of denial, a way of evading a true confrontation with suffering. Resiliency and freedom don’t come from pretending away our pain. Listen to the way you talk about a hard or hurtful situation. It’s okay. It’s not that bad. Others have it so much worse. Everything will work out in the end. No pain, no glory!
It takes courage not to be discouraged. There’s progress and change all around us; nothing new ever happened before. Set a timer for ten minutes and make a list of as many things as you can think of that are better now than they were five years ago. Think on the global scale—human rights advances, technological innovations, new works of art. And think on the personal level—things you’ve made, achieved, or changed for the better. Let the work that still needs doing be a catalyst for hope, not despair.
#12 The Prison of Not Forgiving
Think of a person who has wronged or harmed you. Do any of these statements ring true?
- What she did was unforgivable.
- He hasn’t earned my forgiveness
- If I forgive, I’ll let him off the hook.
- If I forgive, I’ll give him permission to keep hurting me.
- I’ll forgive once there’s justice, or an apology or acknowledgment.
If you relate to one or more of these statements, you are likely spending energy being against someone, rather than for yourself and the life you deserve. Forgiveness isn’t something you give someone else. It’s how you release yourself.
Acknowledge and release rage. Make a rage date with yourself. If the idea of being angry is too terrifying to face alone, ask a trusted friend or therapist to help you. Legitimize your anger, then choose a way to channel and then dissolve it. Scream and yell. Hit a punching bag. Bang the ground with a stick. Break plates on the patio. Get the rage moving, let it out so it doesn’t fester and contaminate you. Don’t stop until there’s nothing left.