My last post described my workshop epiphany, how on the brink of public humiliation I discovered something I didn’t know I knew: that what self-help books call codependency is actually addiction to control.
Here’s the rest of the story:
After the workshop I go back to doing therapy with clinic clients. Mine is a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the sorts of problems every therapist faces: anxiety, depression, addictions, bad relationships, parenting problems.
But something’s different now.
Have you ever bought a new car — say, a Honda — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas? Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.
This is happening to me. Suddenly my caseload is filled with control addicts.
The clients haven’t changed, I have. It’s like I put on new eyeglasses. My vision has refocused or sharpened or something, and now I can’t help seeing how relentlessly, compulsively and self-destructively controlling they all are.
They? I mean We. Everyone.
Controlling, I find, is the universal addiction. It’s everywhere I look. Not just in my codependent clients, but each of them. Not just in clients, but in colleagues, and friends, and family, and on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watch on tv or in the movies. And, of course, in myself. (I’ve discovered Bert.) Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snakes through every problem, every motive, every personality, every life.
Why is this? Originally I’d assumed that dysfunctional families create codependency. But now I find the red thread running everywhere, which must mean either that (a) all families are dysfunctional (which is arguable) or (b) the urge to control is hardwired into us, rooted in some deep part of our brain that can’t help rejecting what life hands us and trying to replace it with what we prefer. Or (c) both. Or (d) something else entirely. I don’t know.
I spend the next fifteen years studying the idea of control.
I hunt for books on control (there aren’t many), then for books on related ideas like desire and addiction and power. I buy lots of books. I start reading everything with a highlighter in my hand, scribbling big yellow Cs alongside the parts that relate to control. Half my books start to look pee-stained. I buy more books. I start typing out control-related passages I like and collect them in a computer file which as of today runs to 117 pages. I become interested in Buddhism, which turns out to be all about control addiction. (Buddhists call it attachment.) I try meditating. I hate it. Well, not hate it exactly, but resist it like hell, to the point I’m unable to sustain a regular practice. (Thanks, Bert.) I buy books on discipline. Also more highlighters.
I reshape my approach to therapy around the idea of control. I teach my clients to notice when they’re monkeytrapped and how to escape. I write articles for them about control addiction and ways to recover from it. (We teach what we want to learn.) The therapy seems to work, for some at least. I am struck by how many clients tell me, as they become less controlling, “It’s so much easier.”
I decide to write a book.
I get blocked. My own control addiction prevents me from writing about addiction to control. (Thanks again, Bert.) The block lasts for months, then years. I buy books about writing and the creative process, which turns out to have lots to do with (surprise) surrendering control. Some of the books are wonderful. I learn a lot. The block continues.
But I am able to use what I’m learning to help my clients, parent my kids, manage my marriage, cope with a monkey-driven culture, and understand myself a bit better. (I’m not always thrilled with what I understand. Still. Better to know than not know, I figure.) I still project and worry, but now the worrier in me has an Off switch which actually works, oh, maybe half of the time. Unfortunately not the time I spend writing. I finally start this blog in hopes that daily writing and feedback from readers will jump-start the book.
What have I learned from all this?
Well, my view of control remains a work in progress. But I have reached four pretty firm conclusions:
(1) We are all addicted to control.
(2) This addiction causes most emotional problems.
(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.
(4) There are better ways to handle feelings than control.
Since they seem true of everyone I meet, and seem to operate pretty invariably, I’ve come to think of these conclusions as the four laws of control.
Soon I’ll start writing here about what they mean and how they operate.