Unbind The Chains and Unlock The Locks

Obligations can be stifling.

We are often burdened from a sense of duty or obligation that makes it feel like we are bound and tied to the things we do for the rest of eternity.  It may not be easy, but there is a way out.


Two Competing Forces


I believe human experience is driven by two competing forces.  One is human psychology and the other is something I like to call potentiality.  As a force, psychology relies on the ability and capabilities of the human brain.  The brain is constantly at work processing a lifetime of input, sensations, memories, dreams, goals, aspirations, obligations, judgments, emotions and lots and lots of irrelevant data we collect along the way.




Potentiality is a force almost impossible to define, for it represents the potential of infinite possibility.  Potentiality is the spark of imagination and creativity that we draw on when trying to find our way through the maze of life.  Potentiality is everything we can be, or everything we might think of doing if we only had the will or nerve to try.  In a sense, potentiality represents the freest form of freedom, in that there are no limits or bounds on its shape or structure—other than those we throw up to protect ourselves from our own yet to be discovered selves.


All Boxes Are Not Alike


A box may be built from our sense of duty or obligation.

A box is like a skin. It’s a specialized filter we wear to handle a given situation.

In its simplest form, a box is a cube-like structure, but when it comes to human psychology it’s more useful to think of a box as a very specialized filter—one we climb inside and use for looking at an ongoing problem, issue, or challenge.  The box walls are built from obligations we feel, our perceptions of events, our fears, the debts we think we owe to others, etc.  Together these add up to a framework or a set of rules we use to muddle through a given situation.   Because of the way boxes are built and due to the fact we reside inside them, they may feel a bit like body armor and thus be mentally or physically uncomfortable.


One interesting aspect of boxes is each has a unique shape and structure which often makes them difficult to recognize—at least, initially.  Some boxes seem cloaked in camouflage.  Others seem wispy or frail.  Boxes can be large or small, square, round, or any odd shape, and hard or soft-shelled.


We may take up residence in a box at any time and any place in our lives.  This can occur for a variety of reasons—maybe a loved one suddenly requires more care, perhaps there’s been a change in a relationship, a crisis may pop up in the workplace, and so on.   It’s often easy to assume others in our position should have the same kind of boxes we do, but there is no way to predict it.  Everyone probably has at least one box to reside in, but some may take up residence in several boxes and split their time among them.


Observable Though Not Necessarily Observed


Boxes are observable.

I didn’t even know I was living in a box.

Though a box is definable in certain terms, and though others may notice we have taken up residence within one, we may not even be aware of  its existence.  However, whether or not we recognize  it, a box is like an layer of ill-fitting skin, and though clumsy and awkward it does seem to add a layer of protection from the world beyond.  As long as we stay inside our box we feel safe, though eventually we start to feel itchy and want to move around (which is difficult to do by the way).  In this sense, a box is a little like a piece of hardened cellophane wrapped around our brain.  It’s not natural, it doesn’t wear like human tissue should, and the view to the outside is somewhat distorted.  Worse, the distortion prevents us from seeing the path in front of us and therefore we come to view our options to move forward as limited or out of reach.  The thing is we get used to wearing our box so taking it off is difficult.



We Are In Charge


One critical aspect of boxes that can be hard to grasp at first glance is that they are completely and utterly of our own making.  True, we may create them unconsciously, but we create them nonetheless.  The idea of who creates our boxes is important—it is only in having the power to make boxes that we also have the power to unmake them.  If someone else were actually in control of our boxes it could be much worse for us.  Why?  Because then we would need to rely on their will or whim to escape.  This is like a choice between having a jailer or living in a jail but having our own set of keys.  We want those keys.  They represent our freedom.


The Power To Change Comes From Within


We have the power to unmake our boxes.

What do you mean I put myself in here?

For many, the idea that we are in control of making or breaking a box is a hard fact to swallow.  In other words, it may seem as if our choices are limited by the actions or inactions of others who hold power over us.  The truth, however, is that everyone controls their own boxes.  If other people seem to control us, it is because we choose to let them.  This is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  It’s just the way things are.  The key is to understand whether the benefit we gain by giving away our power (i.e. by giving in to the perception we are controlled by others or by events) is really worth the cost.


Box And Anti-Box


For the purposes of our discussion, it’s worth pointing out that potentiality (as described above) is everything a box is not.  You might think of it as the anti-box.  Potentiality is all that lies beyond or outside the box.  The box is everything keeping us from obtaining what potentiality may have to offer, including hope for a much better and easier life.


Taking Up Residence Inside A Box


Let’s examine a concrete example and see how boxes limit options:  Suppose you have two brothers.  Let’s call them Ray and Terry.  Ray is the oldest among the three of you and recently suffered a stroke.  Every day he needs more and more care.  Your younger brother, Terry, doesn’t seem that concerned.  However, you don’t find that particularly surprising, since he has never taken any kind of responsibility for himself, much less shown the capacity to care for someone else.  Unfortunately, there is no other family, and because of Terry’s irresponsible nature, you feel obligated to take on the burden of Ray’s care giving yourself.  You are angry the obligation has been thrust upon you, but you just don’t see any option for Ray.  In other words, the obligation you feel toward Ray leaves you stuck inside a box.  It’s a box built out of your sense of duty and moral commitment to family—a duty and commitment Terry doesn’t happen to share.


Negative Though Telling


Once we know were in a box we want out.

Even JB struggles with boxes.

Boxes are negative in the sense they create a sense of being stuck or of having very limited options to move forward.  In worst cases, that can leave us feeling like we’re living inside a prison.  However, having a thought or notion about being stuck may be the spark needed to help recognize other feelings like sadness or anger over a given situation.  Sometimes, it takes powerful feelings like these to recognize the situation needs to change.  In other cases, we may go along for some time and be completely unaware we’ve taken up residence in a box.  This can happen when we avoid our feelings.


Eventually every person residing in a box may notice the air around them is starting to feel stuffy.  This is a result of being trapped for an extended period of time.  After awhile any trap will begin to make you feel desperate, or lead into a state of depression.  Up until you have these feelings, you may be chugging along in life, thinking things are fine.  However, once you see you are in an unfavorable or dysfunctional pattern, you will want a way out.


The Way Out


Sometimes, seeing you’re in a box is enough to motivate you to do something different and that will be enough to win freedom, but other times it’s more complicated.  Your box may be built out of certain, heavy obligations that are difficult to shuck off. You may worry about disappointing loved ones.  Your sense of duty can feel like a huge weight around your shoulders. Burdens like these may feel so powerful, they leave you feeling hopeless, or you may start to feel so bad you’ll think life is spinning out of control.


Staying on the right path can be hard.

I’m ready to move on, but which way do I go?

If you’ve been living in a box and have come to recognize it, you’re probably asking, “What’s the way out for me?”  I wish I could tell you the path out is an easy one, but most of the time it’s not.  Sometimes the obligations we feel create barriers too difficult to overcome.  Other times we can overcome them, but it takes work.  I’m not talking about physical labor, either. I’m talking about a form of mental gymnastics.  You see, the way out of a box is to go deep within your mind, and envision a way to observe the box you’ve built around yourself.  The idea is to discover the flaws and weaknesses in the structure of the box.  That’s what gives you the ammunition you need to break free of it.  In a sense, you have to “think outside the box” to win your freedom.


Let’s see how to do that…


7 Steps To Freedom


A 7 step process for getting out of your box:


Ask yourself telling questions.

What does your box look like?


Step 1:  Define the size and shape of your box.  As we’ve seen, you may come to a point where you are unusually sad, angry or depressed, and then conclude this is not a unique situation—it’s a reoccurring pattern.  Congratulations, you have discovered you’re in a box.  The thing is every box is different so you need to start defining exactly what your box looks like and how it limits your choices.  This may sound like an obvious thing, but it’s really more involved.  You’ll need to start asking yourself probing questions.


For example: Why am I feeling this way?  Is my feeling covering up another even bigger feeling?  Am I facing a big problem, a medium-sized challenge or simply the leftover crud because I had a bad week?  What do I think is the main cause of this problem?  Am I the only one who sees this as an issue?  How or why am I choosing to let this happen to me? Why is this happening over and over again? How is my decision to stay in the box affecting those around me?  What is keeping me from making a different decision in this situation?  Is there an easy way out of this situation that I’m ignoring or avoiding?  Why do I ignore the easy way out?  What’s holding me back from doing something different?


2 friends running together.

Don’t be afraid to share your feelings.


Step 2: Check in with others. As you start to define the box for yourself, you may begin to wonder if other people have noticed you’ve taken up residence.  This part may seem hard if you’re not used to sharing feelings.  It’s one thing to talk about the weather, cooking or sports and altogether something else to reveal some of your most intimate feelings, or to talk about the ways you feel limited. However, if you want out of your box, this step is critical—you need to risk talking with others.


Getting input from others will be important for looking at your problem in a new light.  In fact, the bigger your “sharing circle” (i.e. the number of people you feel comfortable talking to) the better.  When we fail to talk and socialize with others, or when we only share our secrets with a very tight and close-knit group it’s much harder to look at things objectively.  Small groups tend to speak the same social languages and often join in so-called protection rackets.  That means they often ridicule or put down those outside the group as a way to keep their members in line, or to keep members from leaving the group altogether.  This is why talking with more people or talking with people outside of a group is often more productive.  You get a more objective viewpoint.


In truth, all groups may encourage or discourage certain behaviors—ones that align with or promote the group’s interests.  This makes looking at a group’s dynamics tricky.  Sometimes the behaviors and rules a group promotes are useful or entirely appropriate in the larger scheme of life.  However, when you feel stuck, it’s worth examining all the things you do, all the groups you belong to, and all the messages you receive from them.  Then you can decide if these things serve your best long-term interests.


Step 3: Write out a description of your box. Now that you’ve had a chance to define your box and talk it over with others, it’s time to write it all down.  Whenever you write something down it forces you to focus and clarify your thoughts.  You start building a structure of words into sentences.  The sentences get reordered and become paragraphs.  When you get enough paragraphs you discover you have converted a previously vague or undefined concept into an articulate, concise and well-written work.  Words are important to our language.  We use them to justify our opinions and judgments or to reinforce our beliefs.  By examining the words we use as we write down our problems we can often see things from new and different perspectives.


Break big problems down to tackle them.

Try breaking a big box into smaller boxes.


Step 4: Break your big box into smaller ones. If you have a problem and you’ve spent some time defining and clarifying it, perhaps you can break it down into smaller problems that are easier to work around.


To see exactly how this works, let’s suppose your car died for the sixth time this month.  You are angry and at your wits end.  In fact, you are ready to call up the tow company and have it scrapped.  Thankfully, you talk it over with a friend who knows something about autos.  Your friend knows a good mechanic and suggests you have him look at the individual systems that make up the car to see if it’s really as bad as you think.  After the mechanic checks out the electrical system, the hydraulics, the engine, the fluids, and other systems, he discovers one of the spark plug wires is defective, the alternator isn’t fully recharging the battery, and your fuel filter is plugged.


Thus, by diagnosing the individual systems in the car (i.e. by taking your bigger problem and breaking it into smaller more manageable ones) you suddenly went from a car that doesn’t work, to a car that needs three relatively minor fixes to run as good as new.  Hey, you’re back on the road!


Step 5: Brainstorm. With your box well-defined and your problem or issue broken down into manageable components, it’s time to brainstorm for solutions.  Brainstorming is really just another way to say, “Its time to come up with some fresh ideas to solve a particular problem.”  When you brainstorm, no idea you come up with should be shot down or rejected out of hand.  In fact, the best way to brainstorm is to get several people together in a room, talk about a specific problem, and then let each of them spout off about ideas for solving it.  As they do, someone should be in charge of writing the ideas down, and someone else should be in charge of making sure everyone sticks to brainstorming.  The key is to make sure you don’t immediately jump in to analyzing whether or not a particular idea will work.  That step should only come after you’ve finished with brainstorming.  Otherwise, you end up getting stuck in the same old thought patterns that created your box in the first place.


When you brainstorm anything goes—even absurd, off the wall or wacky ideas are considered okay.  In a sense, you want to enter that realm where you are thinking outside the boundaries of your box.  In other words, you want to think your way past all the usual barriers you throw up that keep you from doing something different.


Include any idea when you brainstorm.

Sometimes you can redefine an issue to make it invisible to your filters.

One idea often missed while brainstorming is to try to redefine a given situation enough so that your box and the associated filters it’s made of don’t make you react in the usual way.  If it’s helpful, you can think of this like flying under radar—you want to fly low enough so as not to be seen.  This is a mental juggling act to be sure, but it can be useful in some cases.


For example, suppose you really need your job, but there is one aspect of it you hate doing, like calling up customers to ask for payments on late bills.  Rather than continue to seethe and stress over the fact this is one of your worst duties, you could decide you it’s just a chore you need to do to support the business, not unlike the chore of cleaning the bathroom at home. Yes, it’s a messy or gross task at times, but the end result is getting to use a sparkling clean restroom, or in the case of work, of helping the company stay afloat and thus supporting all the people who work there.  In fact, doing this chore is something you can do to express your appreciation to your co-workers for having a job that supports your family.


If you try redefining the problem and it doesn’t help, it probably means your box is still clouding up your view or filtering your view to make the problem look a certain way.  In this case, you may need to try again or go back and try other ideas you’ve brainstormed.


Here’s something else to consider: Brainstorming never requires that you do anything you don’t want to do.  It’s just a process to use for generating new ideas.  However, the beauty here is discovering the freedom to explore all the options that “potentiality” has to offer you.


Step 7:  Commit to doing something different. One of Alfred Einstein’s more notable quotes is his definition of insanity.  Einstein describes insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  Isn’t that also an apt description for a box?  There we are stuck inside our box and hoping for something better, but it never comes because we keep looking at the world in the same old way.  If you’re seeking a way out of your box, the path to take is the one that requires you do something different.  That means taking one of those ideas you came up with by brainstorming and put it into play.  Ultimately, doing something different is the whole point of this process.  You’re not happy as you are, right?  Well, then, how can expect to be happy by doing the same old thing?  This means it’s time to push past old fears or habits (i.e. punch a hole in the box) and commit to change.


Winning Freedom From A Box: An Example


Let’s consider a final example to see how it might look to win freedom from a box:


Kim and Daryl just broke up.  Daryl is depressed.  Daryl’s past six relationships have ended poorly.  As he starts to think about that, he realizes the sorry state he’s in is a familiar one.  Worse, he now realizes that each of the people he has been dating have similar characteristics.  Daryl love sports, so he’s always thought it natural to be attracted to others who love sports as much as he does.  However, he now realizes five out of six of his former partners are sports fanatic and are also highly competitive.


Daryl is at a loss in how to proceed.  He really wants to get his next relationship right.  Not knowing what else to do, he starts talking his situation over with some buddies and one convinces him to go to a counselor.  Both his buddies and counselor agree that he’s really been dating the same basic person (only in a different physical package).  Plus, after doing a bit of journaling to better define his box, he now realizes he is just as competitive if not more so than his previous partners. In fact, winning means everything to him and there’s no way he’d ever throw a game—even if it might help his partner feel better.  His counselor suggests that if he wants to continue having the same failed relationships in the future he can continue looking for the same type of person and be as competitive as always (i.e. stay in his box).  However, if he wants something better, he needs to think outside of his usual parameters.


Daryl takes his counselor’s advice to heart and gathers with some trusted friends.  He starts by describing the issue with them.  As a group, they come up with several ideas for meeting different kinds of people, like speed dating, online dating, and joining a new club.  Plus, one of them has a particular person in mind and recommends a “blind” date.  Previously, Daryl would never, ever let a friend set him up this way.  Yet, now he realizes it’s time he started looking for someone who can broaden his horizons, someone not as wrapped up in sports, someone who might lead him to new hobbies or directions, and someone who isn’t so competitive.  Pushing through some last minute hesitation he decides to go for it.  Good for Daryl!  He’s well on the way to breaking free of his box.


Moment Of Truth


It can take awhile to build up your courage.

Eventually, you may win your freedom.

You’ve now reached a critical point in the process to get out of your box.  For some, breaking free of a box may turn out to be easy.  If that’s true for you, you have probably decided that the only thing that’s been holding you back are self-created bonds of fear, duty, self-judgment, obligation, and/or the potential risk of failure.  As you envision casting those aside, it’s as if you are peeling the outer layers of an onion and finally reveal the succulent and tasty vegetable inside.


For others, it may be too difficult to take a final step toward freedom.  You may wish for something better, but now that you’re on the cusp of real change, you may decide the potential fallout is no different than it’s ever been.  Your fear of being judged by others, or perhaps the self-judgment you expect to experience for breaking free of your bonds will seem too high a price to pay.  Does this make you bad or somehow less than you should be?  No, it makes you human.  We all have things we can face and things we can’t.  However, since you know you still reside in a box, and since you know being there makes you unhappy, it’s worth continuing to reach out for support and look for more options.  Who knows?  Maybe someday you’ll find the courage to try something new.


Final Word


We are often burdened from a sense of duty or obligation that makes it feel like we are bound and tied to the things we do for the rest of eternity.  Yet the issue is still the same: Unless we’re willing to look at a given situation from outside the self-imposed limitations of our box it’s not going to change.  Getting free of a box requires conscious thought and effort, and that works best when we have others in our lives willing to help or share their insight and experiences.  If you feel stuck, reach out and take the steps above to define and refine your problem.  Then keep at it, until you gather up the courage to try something new.  Come on, what do you have to lose?

If you’re trying to find the strength to change you might also want to read Time To Shift Your Paradigm

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