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Beige Looking Beach

Individual Resources

  • Writer's pictureDayton Olsen

Acceptance and Willingness - The Chinese Finger Trap

Many of us can likely look back to childhood and remember our first experience with a Chinese Finger Trap. If so, you probably remember the dilemma that you found yourself in during this initial experience with these little devices made of weaved bamboo. You can probably recall casually placing your index fingers into each opening, and then realizing... uh, oh.

You’re stuck.

You can probably remember then doing what many of us do reflexively when we are stuck. You tried to get unstuck, of course. You pulled, yanked, squirmed, and struggled to free your poor fingers from this little trap. Did this work?



6 Chinese Finger Traps on a purple background.


The Dilemma

In fact, you probably remember encountering just the opposite effect. As you pulled your fingers away harder and harder, you found that the weaves actually tightened their grip. At this point, if you’re prone to panic and poor judgment, maybe you figured that the solution was to redouble your efforts, pulling away with more and more force in order to get free (an unlucky few of us might even remember then dealing with a dislocated finger or two in the process. Ouch!).

What to do now, having found yourself in this trap, where pulling away and struggling to escape seems to cause you to fall deeper and deeper into the very situation you’re trying to rid yourself of?


The Solution

The answer, of course, turned out to be obnoxiously simple, yet not intuitive. Freedom here was to be had by gently pushing your fingers inward, towards the middle of this trap. When you did this, you felt the weaves loosen their grip, creating space where there was none to be had when you were struggling. This newfound flexibility allowed your fingers to then finally pull away.

There is an important piece of wisdom here that applies to all of us, and it is about infinitely more than simply keeping your cool when you feel stuck or panicked. The significance of the Chinese Finger Trap metaphor lies in the fact that the dilemma itself, as well as it’s solution, captures the struggle that so many of us face in regards to emotional pain. Escaping and avoiding pain tends to keep us stuck and preoccupied.

It takes only a bit of self-reflection to see how true this is.

Think of the struggles you face, whatever they may be. Loneliness, anger, loss, rejection, grief, sadness, etc. Consider how you’ve struggled with these things. Maybe you’ve tried to numb yourself to them, or avoid them by any means necessary. What’s been the cost of such struggling? How much of your time and energy has been spent fighting, avoiding, or pulling away from your experience? There has likely been a high price to pay.


Apply Acceptance and Willingness To Your Life

The goal here is not to feel better. Not in an immediate sense, anyway. The goal is to live better.

Acceptance is the key. Within the context of mental health and emotional wellness, ‘acceptance’ here does not imply passively accepting a painful situation or resigning oneself to such a situation. Rather, what we mean here is something more like willingness. A willingness to acknowledge when we are stuck, to feel our feelings fully and intentionally, and to open ourselves up to the full breadth of our experience, even if that experience entails feeling discomfort. Acceptance means acknowledging that efforts to fight with or struggle against emotional pain are largely ineffective, and that whatever benefit there is to be had from that struggle comes at too great a cost. When we practice acceptance, we practice looking directly at our experience without blinking. The goal here is not to feel better. Not in an immediate sense, anyway. The goal is to live better.

The Latin root of the very word “accept” is “capere,” meaning “to take in”. This is what we mean when we talk about acceptance in therapy. To be willing and accepting is to gently push your fingers into the Chinese Finger Trap to create more room for yourself to live in, rather than struggling vainly against your experience by pulling away. It entails giving yourself enough room to breathe. Practicing this, in moments when it really matters, is the trick.

I provide a warm, empathetic, and non-judgmental space for all people to bring whatever issues they need to work through. See more about me or reach out to me with questions or comments.

Dayton Olsen, Licensed Professional Counselor

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