How to get trapped

So you want to add more suffering to your life and build a mental trap for yourself? Well then, look no further. This recipe is for you.

As the first step, you must be aware of the fact that you’re trapped. Traps aren’t traps if they are just a thing that happens every day. To become trapped, one must first recognize that there is another version of reality that exists without that thing that happens every day. This recognition is sometimes conscious, but often intuitive. In the most literal sense – and this is just my guess – an animal raised in captivity still recognizes that it is trapped, because there are eons of evolution whispering the songs of roaming the wilderness in its ears. For us humans, traps usually get complicated. The “learned helplessness” phenomenon is often used to describe the condition where a person is so unaware of the opportunities that might be available to them that they are unable to imagine a reality that’s different from what is. Put differently, if you aren’t aware that you’re trapped, you’re not actually trapped. You’re just living your life.

Once you’re armed with the two pictures of reality – a “what is” and a “what should be” – congratulations! You are part-way there. These two pictures form the primary intention. If your awareness of the trap is conscious, it will be a commitment or a resolution of one sort or another. If your awareness is intuitive, it will be a longing, a feeling that overcomes you suddenly and completely from time to time, and keeps nagging in the background. That nagging sense with sudden spikes of emotion is a sure way to spot that you’ve constructed a proper self-trap.

If you’re an overachiever, you could trap yourself with just this one step. Just make sure that the “what should be” is utterly unachievable. Long for something that never existed or cannot exist – and work hard to convince your mind otherwise. Look for idyllic memories of the past, or stories told by people you admire. The farther they are from reality, the easier it will be to construct that sturdy, long-lasting configuration of constant suffering. Nothing traps as well as vivid reimaginings of our ancestors’ ideals.

However, if you’re a slacker and your “what should be” is reasonable, move on to the next step. Here, the thing you’ll need is a barrier, or something that prevents you from simply traveling from “what is” to “what should be”.  Barriers come in the form of other intentions that aren’t aligned with your primary intention. We are mired in such intentions, so not just any will do. A secondary intention has to have these three important properties: strength, invisibility, and self-reinforcement. Let’s go through them one by one.

To trap ourselves well, we must pick a secondary intention that is strong. It must be at least as strong as the primary intention, and the stronger the better. Choose something that is sticky-sweet or horrifyingly spikey. Buddhists call them cravings and aversions. A traumatic experience works wonders in constructing a self-trap, but so does a simple but unyielding pull of physiological needs.

An effective secondary intention must be invisible. Find something that is a long-term habit, something you usually do automatically, without thinking. The best ones are those that you don’t even consider to be “bad habits”, or perhaps even view as virtuous. Look for the ones that formed so far in the past that you don’t even see them as habits. Behaviors based on childhood experiences tend to work well, since we may not even recognize them as distinct intentions.

Finally, if you’re serious about building a formidable trap for yourself, your secondary intention must be self-reinforcing. This one can be difficult to get right, but have faith: you can do it. One common trick is to make sure that the experience of acting on the secondary intention goes through this sentence: a) act on secondary intention, b) recognize that your actions are in conflict with your primary intention, c) feel as bad about it as possible and d) try to avoid thinking about  it as quickly as possible. That’s it! By making sure to feel horrible, you’re reinforcing the strength around the secondary intention, and by rapidly moving away from thinking about it, you’re keeping it invisible. I promise, it works like a charm. Shame is a power tool for building self-reinforced traps. If you’ve grown up in a culture that thrives on shame, you can master trapping yourself faster than anyone. Oh, and don’t forget to blame others. Few things can trap with more precision than moving the agency elsewhere. Get that sweet righteous anger going to solidify the trap.

And why stop with just one secondary intention? Traps work even better when there are multiple. Combine them and get an even more powerful trap.

To give you a quick example: if I am imagining myself ten pounds lighter than today (that’s my primary intention), an old habit of snacking while I am in the kitchen can serve me well as the secondary intention. All I need to do is make sure to feel shame while I am eating those potato chips while distracting myself with watching TV or another soothing activity. This forms a nice, robust trap: as my primary intention remains distant, the amount of shame grows, while my various means to reinforce the secondary intention continue to get more and more elaborate, producing more secondary intentions, and all the while churning out personal suffering.

Of course, if you find yourself wanting to get out of a trap, it is a bit more challenging than setting one up. After all, despite this somewhat tongue-in-cheek narrative, we find ourselves in traps of our own design without actually following any recipes. It takes self-patience and kindness to examine our traps, to discern the secondary intentions and their properties. It takes even more work to stay oriented toward them and gently untangle the habits, and find enough self-love to face them and have a long, quiet conversation with them. It may take weeks or it may take years or decades. But yes, you can get untrapped. I believe in you and I am rooting for you. You can do it.

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