Feeling trapped today? Caught in a bear trap or fell into a pit with sharp sticks that seems way too deep? Maybe you’re caught in a cage with impenetrable bars?

What if the trap you’re stuck in is a trap that you built yourself?

I see this often with veterans I work with. This is not something that is exclusive to veterans, but I find that we often get trapped in our rigid ways of thinking. While a focused, determined, not-gonna-quit attitude is great when we are storming a beach or taking a hill, it’s less beneficial when we are trying to live meaningful, productive lives after we leave the military.

So we’re in a cage of our own construction. The bars are tight and cold, and we’re trapped. What do we do about it? First, we have to realize where we are. Then we have to understand why we put ourselves there, and finally decide whether or not we want to stay there. That’s when the real work begins: the change that helps us free ourselves from the trap we created.

There are some concrete thoughts that get inside of our heads that become separate bars of our cages. Put each of these together, and we are left in a stuck place that is hard to get out of.


The word “can’t” was not typically in our vocabulary when we were in the service; why is it so prevalent now? “I can’t deal with civilians,” I hear many veterans say, or “no matter how hard I try, I can’t find a job. I can’t handle the pressure of all of these obligations.” If we buy into the cult of can’t, then we’ve just drank the kool-aid that is going to keep us stuck in that mindset. The idea of “I can’t” assumes that there is some deficiency within us that keeps us from accomplishing our goals. If we assume that we are deficient, then we will believe we are deficient, and it becomes true.

There is another side to the word “can’t”, a very real side. If you literally do not have the resources to do something, then it’s beyond your ability. If a job requires a certain degree type or education level that you don’t have, then you can’t be hired to do that job. That’s reality; unfortunately, many of us then resort to one of these other traps, like “should” or “must.”


If the word “can’t” is an assumption about our own internal ability, then the word “won’t” can be seen as an assumption about the external environment. “That guy won’t hire vets” or “They won’t help me, because they don’t give a crap.” Assuming that this is true, and acting on that assumption, makes it true. This type of thinking causes us to be trapped by learned helplessness, so that even if we come across someone who will hire or help us, we assume that they won’t.


The challenge with the word “should” is that it is often a denial of reality. “Well, he may have said he won’t help me, but he should,” or “I know that I can’t really do this, but I should be able to.” By using the word should, we tend to ignore the truth of what’s really going on, and instead cling to the idea of what we think has to be going on. By rejecting what is, and trying to create what should be, we cause ourselves to suffer by becoming bitter and frustrated. It’s something we have control of, so why do we torture ourselves by rejecting reality? Acknowledge it, accept it, and move on.

Must or Have To

We can get bogged down in forcing ourselves to do what we think we must do. The idea of “I must” or “I have to” can also be seen as a denial of reality. “I have to force myself to go to the mall on the busiest day of the year, because I must face my challenges head on.” Who said that you must or you have to? By placing arbitrary rules on your life, and then requiring that you follow those rules, you bog yourself down into a place that’s stuck between what you tell yourself you have to do and something you don’t really want to do.

Always and Never

I’m not a fan of absolutes. Nothing in our lives is as black and white as to always be something, or never going to be something. The minute we buy into the idea of “this sucks, this is always going to suck, and it’s never going to do anything other than suck” is when we start to trapping ourselves in our own cage. When you catch yourself thinking this, then you can challenge it. Has it always been this way, really? Was there ever a time when it wasn’t? Then there is a chance that it will not be this way again.

The idea of thinking traps and mental cages is nothing new. Here is an article on the ten most common thinking errors, and Sheryl Sandberg has talked about how Martin Seligman’s 3 P’s of Pessimism…Personalization, Permanence, and Prevalnce…helped her cope with the loss of her husband. Each of these things cause us to be trapped, but the most insidious aspect of this trap is that we create it ourselves.

The door is open behind you; let go of the bars of the cage of your own construction and set yourself free.

Did you enjoy this post? You may be interested in these other posts below, and may also be interested in a collection of 2016 Head Space and Timing posts that you can print and share. You can sign up for updates from Head Space and Timing and follow Duane, a combat veteran and mental health counselor, on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.

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Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.


The Equus Effect (@EquusEffect) · February 14, 2017 at 9:38 am

This is a perfect description, in my opinion, of reactions to the kind of chaos i hear veterans talk about who have been in combat. The words you use here describe rigidity….which is what Dr. Dan Siegel (a very smart psychiatrist who founded the Hindsight Institute) also uses when talking about a way we can all react. It is a self-constructed cage that occurs as a reaction to things being too unpredictable, or maybe to military training itself. Anyway, in Siegel’s opinion and experience, it takes connecting with someone or a group who can help challenge each bar of this cage and bring vets (and the rest of us) back into a sense of reality, flexibility and ultimately….integration.

The Doubt Trap and Veteran Mental Health - Head Space and Timing · September 21, 2017 at 5:22 am

[…] but if we think we can’t then that’s true. The trap of “can’t” is just as much a cage as the trap of “doubt,” and is in our control to […]

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