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Feeling Trapped in Hamlet’s Prison

Posted Jun 15 2012 12:00am

In the second act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark welcomes his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to  his country, although Hamlet feels sorry for them that they have to be there…

HAMLET:   … What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune that she sends you to prison hither?

GUILDENSTERN:   Prison, my lord?

HAMLET:   Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ:   Then is the world one.

HAMLET:   A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ:   We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET:   Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Imagine you’re in a room that has lots of things to keep you busy and occupied – a computer with internet, books, television, music, a well-stocked kitchen and a bathroom. You could easily stay there for days without feeling bored or unproductive. There’s only one problem: you’re locked in. You know there are people who may be around who can let you out, but they’re not responding right now and you have no way of knowing if they’ll be back in a few hours or a few days. You look around for the key and can’t find it anywhere. You try to get work done but you have a hard time concentrating because you keep thinking about how long it will be before you can get out. Not that you have to or even want to leave; you just want to know that you can. Until then, however, you can’t focus on anything else.

This is the situation in which a lot of people find themselves. They feel stuck in circumstances that are not of their own choosing. What bothers them isn’t the way their lives are right now, it’s just the feeling that they don’t have other options if they wanted them. The sad thing is that they could be perfectly content with what they’re doing and whom they’re with, and they may even choose to stay just where they are even if they felt there were many other options available. The problem is that they don’t feel that they have other options, and that is keeping them from enjoying and being productive with what they have.

Let’s go back to the imaginary room. What if, at some point during your many breaks from work to get up and look around for that key, you suddenly found it? Would you feel the need to open the door and run out? You may, but not necessarily. You might want to unlock the door and then go back to work or whatever it is you were doing. Or you may just want to leave the door locked for privacy.

Whichever you choose,  it just feels better to know that you could leave if you wanted to. Now that you know that, you find yourself able to concentrate on what you’re doing, and feel much happier and content staying in that room. What happened to make you feel better if you haven’t changed anything about your circumstances? Your perception of the situation has changed. You know that you have the freedom to do something different if you choose to.

I’ve been talking about the importance of autonomous control and the role it plays in how you feel and, as I’ve also been arguing, in how you behave. In this illustration, the sense of having the ability to choose is the only thing that has really changed. You’re there now because you choose to be, not because you have to be. It’s about perception: Hamlet and his friends are talking about the same place; to him it’s a prison and he pities them, but to them it’s not and they’re fine with it.

Think about situations that you may be in, like relationships or work, that make you feel stuck and unhappy. Is it all bad? Are there any benefits to being there? For example, if you’re not happy at your job, do you find yourself focusing on all the reasons you feel that way? Put those aside for a minute and think of aspects of it that you like and would want to have even if you had the option of leaving. Thinking of those things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave, but until you have that opportunity, it could make life a lot more pleasant.

Just having the knowledge that you can take control of your situation by viewing it differently is a major part of feeling less trapped and hopeless. This can affect not just how you feel, but how you actually perform at work or behave in other situations, since, just like knowing where the key is in case you want to leave the room, you can now focus on getting back to work and being more productive.

The implication of this as it relates to emotional eating, is that when you feel trapped in one area of your life you may feel the need in some other area to prove to yourself that you’re really free to behave as you wish; for example, by breaking your self-imposed rules about eating. The ability to see yourself as more in charge of your life could reduce the need to find that “freedom” elsewhere in ways that, ironically, make you feel a prisoner of your own behavior.

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