Background music: Control and anxiety

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

That’s Bert at left, having a bad day.

Bert speaking:)

I’m a nervous monkey.

Not full-blown, panic-attack nervous (though there have been times, like my first day of kindergarten, when I came pretty close).  

No, my anxiety is more of the garden-variety, chronic type.   You know, where you go around tense or uneasy, unable to fully relax or enjoy yourself because it feels like something bad’s going to happen, only you’re not sure what.  You know.  

I’ve been this way as long as I can remember.   Anxiety has followed me around throughout most of my life, wherever I go, whatever I do, like background music. 

It took me a while to figure it out. 

How to keep yourself nervous 

What I finally discovered — mainly by sitting in on sessions where Steve was teaching clients about control addiction – is that I have  two favorite ways to keep myself nervous. 

One way is to

(1) Control the future.   

I do this mainly by thinking about it.  Anticipating it.  Planning it.  Worrying about it.   Obsessing about it.   Forming expectations.  In other word, by letting my thoughts be dominated by monkey mind.

This is a highly efficient system that keeps anxieties growing like weeds.  Because the more I worry about the future, the more anxious I get.  And the more anxious I get, the more I worry about the future.  And so on. 

My other favorite way of staying nervous is to

(2) Control other people

I do this by insisting — secretly, I mean, in the privacy of my own mind — that other people always like me, and approve of me, and admire me, and agree with me, and laugh at my jokes.  That I really need them to behave that way, and that I’ll find it intolerably painful when they don’t. 

(That second part is an exaggeration, of course.   But it’s not hard to convince myself that it’s true.  All I have to do is check in with Top Dog, who reminds me how inadequate I am.  Then monkey mind does the rest.  Like tag-team wrestling.) 

I try to control other people mainly by editing myself — hiding the parts I think they won’t like.  For example, I bury feelings instead of expressing them.  The more feelings I bury, the more anxious I get.   The more anxious I get….

No doubt you’ve noticed a pattern here.  The main symptom of my addiction is an endlessly repeating cycle: anxiety leads to controlling, which leads to more anxiety, which leads to more controlling, around and around and around.

So.  What to do?

Stop the music

Well, you can’t stop it; not entirely.  Some background anxiety is simply the cost of being human — of having a big brain that worries endlessly, and of needing relationships to feel secure.

But you can turn down the volume.

I find the two ways — two practices, actually — that work best both involve (surprise) giving up control.

The first practice is not controlling the future.  I do this (even though I hate it) by meditating.  This involves sitting for twenty minutes a day in one place, watching my own anxious thoughts run amuck, pushing them gently aside and counting breaths instead.  And doing this over and over.  It’s difficult.  It gets easier with practice.  It works. 

The other practice is coming out of hiding with people.  I do this by  noticing the urge to go into hiding, even in small ways.  (No, that dress doesn’t make your butt look big at all.)   I face this choice between fifty and a hundred times a day.  My practice is to gradually increase the percentage of times I tell the truth, show myself as I am.  To exercise the honesty muscle. 

This, too, is difficult.  This, too, gets easier with practice. 

And this, too — probably more than anything else –  helps turn down the volume of the music in the background.


19 responses to “Background music: Control and anxiety

  • john

    Once again Bert a real great post! what jumped out @ me was the coming out of hiding and being honest. Over the past 2 years in my life I learned how important honesty has become. When I was younger things that you and Steve are talking about just didnt matter to me but as I get older I realize that these are the core values of getting through life especially if you want to do it with other people. So I guess that old saying “Honesty is the best policy”, realy is true,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, John. Yes, funny how that goes. It takes most of us a long time to realize that Plan A doesn’t work. And some of us never realize it at all.

  • attachmentgirl

    Hi Steve and Bert, I started reading recently by following a link from Therapy Tales and I just wanted to say thank you. I subscribed to your feed and am enjoying, and finding extremely true, all of your writing. Learning to be honest has been a long, difficult road, and one I’m still working on, so this just really resonated with me, especially the need to let go of other people always approving of me. And you’re convincing me I really need to start meditating. I’ve been dong a lot of reading about mindfulness, and the concepts have been really helpful. This is making it clear that I need to make the effort to go one step further.

    So thanks for all your efforts, I recently left therapy (after many, many years) on a regular basis, but find it really doesn’t change much. :) I’m still learning and growing and hopefully will be as long as I draw breath. Reading your blog is really helping me grow.

    Best Regards,
    Attachment Girl

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Attachment Girl, and you’re welcome. (Yes, Therapy Tales is cool, no?) Honesty’s a rocky road, and we each need all the company and encouragement we can get. Keep coming back and feel free to comment..

  • Linda R.

    Hi Steve,
    Good post…
    Keep this up & you’re going to lose business, but I’m sure Bert has already warned you about that! LOL!
    This post reminded me of one of my favorite sayings: “Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair… It gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere”.

  • Susan

    Hi Steve,
    That was interesting. I had not considered “editing myself” a means of control but it makes sense. Thank you

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, self-editing becomes so unconscious and automatic that we tend to forget both that we’re doing it and why.

  • jpbauer

    Perception isn’t always reality though, and reality isn’t always the truth””, so does that mean “feelings” are closer to the truth than perception? Or are feelings and perception 2 sides of the same coin? Your thoughts?

    • fritzfreud

      Well, I see feelings as a way of perceiving — the body’s way of interpreting what it experiences — and so yes, two sides of the same coin.

      The “truth” conveyed by feelings is highly subjective, though, filtered through the history and bias of an individual personality. So the “truth” my feelings tell me may be very different from yours — much less from “objective” truth, if that mythical beast even exists. This subjectivity is best summarized in my favorite saying by Anonymous: “In politics, as in love, we are often amazed by the choices of others.”

      On the other hand, as a therapist I emphasize the importance of feelings because most of the people with whom I work have been taught to undervalue them. Feelings may represent only a piece of the truth, but for them that piece has gone missing, and it’s my job to help them recover it.

  • WG

    Great post, and rings very true to me. Subjective “truth” is one of the harder things to have challenged (ie in therapy) as it can impact on core/primitive beliefs about the self.

    Also Bert, now I want to see if your butt *does* look big in that dress ;)

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, WG.

    As for the dress, I’ll send you a photo.

    But Bert asks me to remind you that, just as truth tends to be subjective, buttsize lies in the eye of the beholder.

  • Marie

    Good Post Steve. So that’s what I do every time I plan a vacation. I worry so much that something will happen and I won’t be able to go on that vacation.,(trying to control the future) I become an anxioius wreck!! I guess I do the same thing with worrying about my daughter’s health. I can’t control her health and the trying to do just that makes me an emotional mess. Meditation and focusing on the positives rather than the negatives helps. It is difficult to change old habits. Especially habits which developed as a result of bad experiences. Sometimes it’s hard to get off the merry go round. Even when it’s not all that “merry”.

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, Marie. Of course the irony is that all that projecting and worrying we do is rooted in the (unconscious) assumption that it will somehow protect us, reduce our stress or vulnerability or pain. Sort of like mistaking poison for medicine. Over and over again.

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  • releasing lunacy

    It’s 4:20 in the morning, Bert. So this might not be coherent. Control can make us depressed? Not showing our feelings to avoid annoying or angering someone is control? But what if what we say about what we think we feel (cuz I’m not even sure what I’m thinking or feeling) really does make the person annoyed or angry? And what if the person doesn’t think we should feel the way we think we feel? like we’re being unreasonable and maybe I kinda am. Then the person thinks I shouldn’t feel/think what I am and we both know I’m being unreasonable even though I know, technically, I’m allowed to feel/think what I do. Doesn’t make anything better. …just gives me a headache thinking about it. Lots of times sharing feelings, instead of burying them, makes things lots and lots worse!

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