The Virtue Trap

Week 5 of The Artist’s Way is about “recovering a sense of possibility”. The chapter talks about allowing yourself to believe that the dreams you aspire to are possible and that you are capable of achieving them. It goes on to talk about something called “The Virtue Trap”, which can basically be thought of as the “virtuous” excuses we come up with for not achieving our goals. For instance, a father who wants to train to run a 5k may say that he can’t spend time training because he needs to work overtime to support his family. The family may be able to do just fine without the overtime and a few cutbacks, but the man tells himself that expecting his family to sacrifice for him would be selfish…whereas sacrificing his goals for them is virtuous.

This is a trap that I think almost everyone falls for in one way or another, especially when it comes to giving up our time for others. It’s a strange thing, really, but many of us would rather sacrifice our dreams and look virtuous in the process than to allow ourselves to focus on our dreams and end up looking selfish. I can think of a hundred examples:

–  A new mother may love her job and long to return to work, but she stays home with the baby because society tells her that she’s supposed to.

– Someone may give up on their dream job because it would require their spouse to move far away from home with them, and they don’t feel they can ask that.

– A grown adult may long to travel the world, but instead stays home to take care of their aging parents.

– An older sibling might give up on their aspirations to go to an ivy-league school because they know that if they do it will practically bankrupt their family and possibly kill any chance of the younger sibling going to university.

The list goes on. Think about your own life. What have you given up (or for that matter, what do you give up on a daily basis) because what you want would affect others? What don’t you allow yourself to do because you tell yourself that it would be selfish?

The problem is that oftentimes when we’re sitting around, brooding about our lost opportunities and telling ourselves that we can’t be selfish, we neglect to look at things from the other point of view…that maybe we’re not the selfish ones.

Image borrowed from
Image borrowed from

Let’s look at my original example. The man wants time to train, but instead he works tons of overtime so that his family can live more comfortably. He tells himself that he’s being virtuous by working the overtime, that it would be selfish of him to cut back his hours in order to train because it would require his family to cut back on their expenditures. What he doesn’t consider is that perhaps he’s not the one thinking selfish thoughts – perhaps his family is the one being selfish, expecting him to give up his spare time and his goals so that they have more money to spend.

This isn’t necessarily the case for every situation, of course, but I invite everyone to look at their own situations.

Would it really be selfish of you to follow your dreams and goals? Or are other people in your life being selfish by expecting you to give them up? Are you falling for the Virtue Trap?


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