Everyone I see in therapy is addicted.
So is everyone I know.
When I first became a therapist I distinguished between addicts and nonaddicts. That distinction no longer makes sense to me.
Now I think we’re all addicted to something. It’s just that some addictions are more obvious than others.
As I said (see Chapter 12), addicts are people who can’t deal with feelings, and so feel compelled to find something that makes feelings going away. This may be a substance (alcohol, drugs, food) or a behavior (work, sex, tv, shopping, video games, etc.). Anything that alters your mood can be turned into an addiction. That includes behaviors not inherently unhealthy, like exercise or meditation or volunteering.
The variations may be infinite, but they share the same root: the need to alter or control how one feels.
My own addictions came in both flavors, substances and behaviors.
Sugar was always my drug of choice. In grade school I ate it by the spoonful. I also drank maple syrup. In grad school I smoked a pipe until cumulus clouds formed in my office and my tongue morphed into hamburger.
My compulsive behaviors included watching television (an alternate reality where I spent most of ages twelve through eighteen), reading books (the alternate reality I still find preferable much of the time), and writing (in my thirties and forties I carried a spiral notebook everywhere with me, compulsively filling page after page whenever I felt confused or stressed out or scared. There are thirty-one dusty spirals stacked in a corner of my garage).
And I’m still addicted to work. But I can’t write intelligently about that here, since I remain in denial.
These were the main paths I followed into what I call the Garden of Numb.
You know that place. It’s where your focus narrows, and the world goes away, and anxiety recedes, and tension and worry slough off like dirt in the shower.
Great place to visit. Necessary, even. We all need vacations. The world can be a frightening and painful place, and living a human life is no picnic.
The problem comes when you find you can’t live outside the Garden.
Each of my addictions eventually took on lives of their own. Each stopped being something I was doing and became something that was doing me. I lost control of my need for control.
So now, whenever I meet a new client, I look for two things:
(1) What they do, repeatedly and compulsively, to get themselves into the Garden,
(2) How impaired this controlling behavior leaves them.
The signs of (2) are pretty predictable:
~ Bad feelings. Since they have no way but numbness to manage feelings, and since nobody can stay numb constantly, addicts are emotionally uncomfortable much of the time.
~ Bad choices. Since their unconscious priority is feeling-management, addicts tend to follow the path that is least threatening emotionally, and their decision-making reflects this — instead of, say, an awareness of reality, determination to solve problems, or concern for the needs and feelings of others.
~ Bad relationships. Addicts struggle with relationships simply because addicts aren’t all there: their feelings are missing. So they can’t be fully honest and authentic, can’t tolerate honesty and authenticity in others, and can’t communicate in a way that promotes real connection and mutual understanding.
See yourself in this?
Don’t feel too bad.
We’re all control addicts.
If you’re human and breathing there’s no avoiding it.
For the anxious, constipation is a problem. For the depressed, it’s a lifestyle.
Usually it starts unconsciously and in self-defense. All my depressed clients grew up in dangerous families where it was unsafe to be themselves. (See Chapter 14.) Kids in such families have little choice but to self-constipate.
Ever been physically constipated? Remember how, the longer it lasted, the more distracted and uncomfortable you felt? How eventually the internal pressure and tension came to sap your energy and occupy all your attention?
That’s just what happens to the depressed. It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (my shit’s coming up, can’t get my shit together) to describe emotional processes. Feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are physical byproducts of what we eat. And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings must be expressed — not hidden or stored up. When they aren’t we get sick, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Humans either express themselves or depress themselves.
The best book I know on all this is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body, which explains depression as a physical symptom, an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need to come out. Lowen writes,
The self is experienced through self-expression, and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed…. The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.
For control addicts – who experience life itself as one long litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts — some depression is inevitable. And since everyone is addicted to control, it is not surprising that depression is called the common cold of mental illness.
I’ve had my cold for six decades.
I caught it in grade school. Nobody called it depression then. This was the fifties. I’m not sure if back then anyone even knew that kids got depressed.
All I knew was I always felt sad, shy, nervous, worried. Different. Inadequate. Flawed.
I preferred being alone. Preferred books to people. Preferred tv to real life.
“Moody,” mom called me. “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.
I also felt bad about feeling bad. It must be my fault, I thought. Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try. So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder. I just didn’t know how.
I felt bad through high school, college, and into adulthood. Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood. Through college, graduate school and into professional life.
Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books. Lots of books. The idea of happiness, always mysterious to me, became a preoccupation, then a challenge, then a sort of quest.
I read everything I could that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life?
It was only after I began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.
Doing therapy with control addicts taught me that I hadn’t gotten depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or because they fought or divorced when I was eight. It wasn’t because I never had as much money as I wanted, or the body I wanted, or wrote the book I always wanted to write. Or because of anything that had happened to me.
I was depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.
Or rather, didn’t react.
We express ourselves, or we depress ourselves.
Just published a guest post
on Lisa Fredericksen’s blog
Breaking the cycles,
“Control and other necessary fictions.”
You can read it here.
The anxious are all different and all the same.
Big and little, old and young, rich and poor. Worried seniors, controlling spouses, insecure employees. Obsessive parents, stressed teenagers, scared kids.
Their symptoms are both painful and remarkably common. They can’t stop worrying. Their thoughts race. They either can’t fall asleep or can’t stay there. Their appetite comes and goes. They’re self-doubting, perfectionistic, agonize over mistakes. They get irritable, cranky or tearful. They’re self-conscious around other people. Even when alone, with no jobs to do, they can’t relax or enjoy themselves.
Some develop physical symptoms: restlessness, muscular tension, teeth grinding, indigestion, nausea, headaches.
Some suffer social anxiety. Others have panic attacks. Still others report obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors.
But behind all these differences they have three things in common:
(1) They try to control the future.
They do this mainly by thinking about it. Anticipating it. Planning it. Worrying about it. Obsessing about it. Forming expectations. In other words, by surrendering their thoughts to the not-so-tender mercies of monkeymind.
This highly efficient system keeps anxieties growing like weeds.
Because the more the anxious worry about the future, the more anxious they get. And the more anxious they get, the more they worry about the future. And so on.
(2) They try to control other people.
They do this by insisting — secretly, in the privacy of their monkeyminds– that other people always like them, accept them, approve of them, agree with them, admire their clothes, hair, physique, income, intelligence or sense of humor.
They convince themselves that they really need other people to do this, and that life will be intolerable when they don’t.
Thus they scare the crap out of themselves, and set off on a desperate course of seeking a degree of interpersonal control nobody can ever have.
(3) They overcontrol themselves.
This habit is an inevitable outgrow of the last. Anxious people try to control other people mainly by editing themselves — hiding the parts they think others won’t like.
Most importantly, they bury feelings instead of expressing them.
That last sentence defines the heart of anxiety.
That’s because feelings are – excuse this analogy – like shit. Feelings are supposed to be expelled and expressed, not buried and hidden. When they’re buried, they don’t go away. They collect. The person becomes emotionally constipated, lives in a constant state of self-interruption, internal pressure and emotional pain.
And anxiety is the name we give to this pain.
After the workshop described in chapter 13 — the one where I redefined codependency as control addiction — I went back to doing therapy with clinic clients.
Mine was still a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the same problems every therapist faces.
But now something was different.
Did you ever buy a new car — a new Honda, say — 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.
That’s what happened to me.
Suddenly my caseload was filled with control addicts.
The clients hadn’t changed, of course. I had. It’s like I’d put on new eyeglasses. My vision had refocused or sharpened or something, and now I couldn’t help seeing how relentlessly and self-destructively controlling they all were.
They? I mean we. Everyone.
Controlling, I realized, was a universal addiction. It was everywhere I looked. Not just in clients I’d labeled codependent, but in every client. Not just in clients, but in colleagues, and friends, and family, and on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watched on tv or in the movies.
And, of course, in myself. (I’d discovered Bert.)
Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snaked through every problem, every motive, every personality, every life.
Most surprisingly, I noticed that the five most common problems clients brought to therapy all had compulsive controlling in common.
Anxiety, depression, addiction, relationship problems and problems with parenting — all seemed to grow out of the same dysfunctional urge to control what either couldn’t or shouldn’t be controlled.
Like five weeds growing out of the same root.
So the first thing to remember about Plan A is that we learn it and follow it unconsciously.
And the second thing is that every Plan A has the very same goal:
Control over emotional life.
Do this, it tells you, to be safe and avoid pain. Do this to win love and acceptance.
This becomes clearer when you examine the lessons and rules which are Plan A’s component parts.
I, for example, grew up in an alcoholic family. Alcoholics are addicts, and as noted earlier, addicts are people who can’t handle feelings. So I spend my childhood with people who reacted to my feelings with hurt and guilt, anxiety and anger. And the Plan I evolved (essentially the same Plan evolved by every kid in that situation) reflected all that.
One important lesson was, “Feelings are uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst.” This lesson grew into a rule: Feel as little as possible. Think your way through life instead.
Another lesson was “You’re responsible for other people’s feelings.” This grew into a second rule: Never be yourself around other people.
These two lessons were the foundation stones of my Plan A.
They also called my inner monkey into being.
Bert was born to take control of my chaotic emotional life. He set out to accomplish that by doing things like burying his feelings, developing an acceptable image, and becoming painfully oversensitive to the emotions, perceptions and opinions of others.
Interestingly, it was Bert who convinced me to become a therapist. Attending to others’ feelings while disguising my own seemed a natural fit to my original Plan.
Little did either of us suspect that becoming a healthy therapist would mean I’d have to outgrow Bert and develop a Plan B.
* * *
was recently interviewed
about this book you’ve been reading
by Dwight Hurst
on his podcast
“The Broken Brain.”
And you can hear this
(I knew you’d want to know.)
You have completed Chapters 1 – 20, comprising
which is archived here.
This chapter begins
In the end there’s only one reason anyone goes to therapy:
Plan A has broken down.
Plan A is my label for everything we learn as children about life and how to live it.
We each have a Plan A. And we all pretty much learn it in the same place and in the same way.
The place is our family, and the way is unconsciously.
Nobody sits us down at the kitchen table and says, “Listen up. Here’s how you do Life.” No, they just do Life themselves, and we watch and listen and soak it all up like little sponges. Which explains why our Plan A tends to look so much like that of our family members.
And it works okay for a while. Especially while we’re still living in the family. We’re all following the same unwritten, unspoken rule book.
But Plan A always breaks down.
Eventually we move beyond the family into the larger world, filled with new people and new challenges. And we discover that what worked at home doesn’t always work out there.
At which point we have, in theory at least, a choice.
We can tell ourselves, “Oh, I see. I guess I need a Plan B.”
Or we can tell ourselves, “I must be doing it wrong. I better try harder at implementing Plan A.”
Guess which we choose?
Right. Plan A.
Always Plan A.
Two reasons for this. First, we may not even know there’s such a thing as Plan B. Childhood trained us to see Plan A as normal. (Why would anyone do Life in any other way?)
Second, even when we suspect there are other options, we cling to Plan A because it’s familiar. We already know how to do it. We can do it in our sleep.
And change is scary.
So we keep following Plan A even despite mounting evidence that it no longer works.
And that’s when we begin to develop symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, communication problems, bad relationships.
Those symptoms are what drive us into therapy.
Seeking, whether we know it not, a Plan B.
By now you may have noticed the most interesting thing about monkeytraps:
They’re not really traps at all.
They’re just invitations to trap yourself.
They succeed because of a part of the human personality I call the inner monkey.
This is the part dominated by monkeymind, the addicted part, the compulsive part. The scared part that grabs on, and panics, and then can’t let go.
I have an inner monkey.
We grew up together.
I call him Bert.
It was my lifelong relationship with Bert that led me to create Monkeytraps: A blog about control.
In one of my first blog posts I invited Bert to introduce himself to my readers.
He wrote this:
I entered Steve’s life early, probably well before kindergarten. Probably before he could even talk.
To protect him.
Scary situations. Painful feelings. Discomfort of every sort.
Rejection. Failure. Disappointment. Frustration. Rejection. Conflict. Sadness.
(Just noticed I listed “rejection” twice. Sorry. I really really hate rejection.)
I did it mainly by searching relentlessly for ways to change things, things both outside and inside him. To somehow move them closer to what he wanted, or needed, or preferred.
I also taught him tricks. Coping tricks, like avoiding feelings and emotional risks. And relationship tricks, like hiding who he really was and pretending to like people he hated. Even perceptual tricks, like selective memory and trying to guess the future or read other people’s minds
None of these works over time. But they gave him temporary comfort, and we grew close quickly.
I became his constant companion, trusted advisor and, he thought, very best friend.
I meant well. And at times I’ve been useful, even helped him out of some bad spots.
But in the end ours has been an unhealthy relationship.
Why? Because in the end my need for control set Steve at odds with reality, instead of teaching him how to accept and adapt to it.
And because, instead of making him feel safer and accepted by other people, my controlling left him scared and disconnected.
It’s like that with us inner monkeys.
We mean well. We really do.
But we’re also, well, kind of stupid.
Some of you already know that the title of this blog refers to a method used to trap monkeys, where fruit is placed in a weighted jar or bottle and the monkey traps himself by grabbing the fruit and refusing to let go.
That’s what I do. I grab hold and refuse to let go.
I do this all the time, even when part of me knows it’s not working.
I can’t help myself.
One last word:
I’m betting you have one of my brothers or sisters inside you.
You have it as surely as you have fears, and a monkeymind that whispers and worries and scares you.
You may not have noticed this secret tenant before.
But look anyway.
Because monkeytraps are just invitations.
They work only because of what monkeyminded humans do:
Set traps, then reach into them.
Build cages, then move in and set up housekeeping.
For a detailed description of the traps and cages, read on.
Monkeymind is a Buddhist metaphor that describes how normal human consciousness operates.
Our minds jump from thought to thought, feeling to feeling, just like a monkey jumps from tree to tree.
Unsettled, restless, never content with the present moment, they are constantly distracted by the endless stream of internal chatter passing through.
Two important things to remember about monkeymind:
(1) Monkeymind is, arguably, insane.
That’s if we define sanity as being in touch with reality. Monkeymind is anything but.
Preoccupied with memories of the past and projections of the future, it spins a narrative saturated with fantasy and only minimal awareness of what’s actually happening right here, right now.
Anyone who’s tried to meditate knows this narrative all too well.
Never have? Try now:
Sit still. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath.
Stop thinking. Put all your attention on your breathing instead.
Count your breaths.
(Authorial pause while reader counts.)
How far did you get before your counting was interrupted by a thought?
That chatter you heard? That’s monkeymind.
(2) Monkeymind is all about control.
Acquiring control — being able to edit the reality we have into the one we want — is monkeymind’s mission.
It pursues it mainly by recalling old wounds and trying to heal them, anticipating new problems and trying to solve them. (Did you notice, a moment ago, how the thoughts that spontaneously came to mind were wound- or problem-related?) It is pain-driven and anxiety-driven, which is why the narrative it spins often feels like a bad horror movie.
It does this with the best of intentions. It’s trying to heal us, protect us, make us happy, keep us safe.
Unfortunately the control it chases is an illusion.
So in the end what monkeymind mostly accomplishes is to keep us confused, scared, angry, unhappy, and more than a little nuts.
All the factors just described — family, trauma, socialization, culture — combine in the human mind to drive controlling behavior.
And the ultimate goal of that behavior is the most primitive and stubborn of all human goals:
I refer here not just to physical survival, though certainly much of our controlling (like when we’re driving a car or battling an illness) has that as its aim.
I mean emotional, psychological, and social survival as well.
We cannot help but believe control is essential to these, too.
Thus it is emotional survival that forces children to appease their narcissistic parents, since on the deepest level they know they need parental love, nurturance and protection in order to live.
It is psychological survival that demands trauma survivors limit their exposure to threatening triggers, since the alternative — constantly recurring states of fight-or-flight — would lead to intolerable stress and the disintegration of their minds.
And it is social survival that requires each of us to absorb and obey the dictates of the society to which we belong, since – again, on the deepest of levels – we know that we cannot last long without acceptance by the tribe.
For all these reasons we each come to believe that control is essential to our lives.
This conviction is so unconscious and inescapable that it makes getting control feel like a matter of life and death. It’s why even the idea of losing control can produce anxiety, and why control addiction plays like a silent soundtrack behind every human experience.
And where does it come from, this conviction that we must control or die?
Mainly from the structure of our minds.
There’s one more social element that nudges us into compulsive controlling.
Let’s call it culture.
Culture means all the unspoken values, rules, assumptions, expectations, tastes and preferences of the tribe (or subtribe) to which we belong.
Even within one society, cultures vary wildly. New York bankers live in a world light years away from that of Wisconsin dairy farmers or teens in a Los Angeles barrio. They wear different clothes, speak different languages, dream different dreams, understand the world differently.
We can’t avoid being shaped by some culture, even those of us who try to resist it. Culture surrounds us, penetrates our feeling and thinking. It’s a psychological sea in which we all swim.
And the culture that saturates us all is a culture of control.
Control, remember, means the ability to make things the way we want them, to tailor reality until it fits our needs and expectations.
Culture is a voice that tells us what to need and expect. It does this indirectly, by promoting some values and dismissing others, rewarding some preferences and ignoring or denigrating the rest.
For example, take the culture attached to democracy. Who, if they live in a democracy, won’t end up expecting and demanding freedom, fairness and equality? Or feel outrage when those ideals fail?
Or the culture of materialism. Which of us can watch endless ads on tv and not end up wanting to buy stuff and own stuff, new stuff and more stuff? And not feel at least slightly deprived when we can’t?
Or the culture of technology. Who hasn’t come to depend on electric light, computers, cell phones, remote controls, microwave ovens? To where we panic a little when they break down?
Besides shaping our expectations, all cultures offer one more thing: an unofficial guidebook to getting along by going along.
Do this, culture whispers, or be different. Conform, or be abnormal.
And as noted in the last chapter, abnormal is dangerous. Different is a hard way to live.
On the other hand, if all you can see is what everyone else sees, and all you want is what everyone wants, you’re less a member of a society than its victim.
Think of culture as socialization in sheep’s clothing.
However common trauma may be, there is another, even more inevitable experience that drives human beings into control addiction: socialization.
Socialization is that process by which individuals are trained to adapt and conform to their social environment. They do this first by learning — and finally by internalizing — a set of rules, norms, values, behaviors, customs and social skills.
To be socialized is what it means to be normal.
And as every human knows, abnormal is dangerous.
That’s because we’re social beings, wired for life in groups. Deep within us is the conviction that security comes only with membership, with belonging.
At that same primitive level, we know rejection and expulsion mean isolation and death.
As a result we’re driven by social needs only slightly less than by biological ones. Where animals survive by listening to inborn natural instincts, humans survive by obeying the rules imposed by their tribe.
Early sociologists and psychologists saw socialization as a generally good thing, a necessary counterbalance to human selfishness, a civilizing influence.
Most therapists see it differently now.
We see the cost at which people purchase normality.
How socialization erodes the individual’s connection to his or her true self. How over time this becomes an inability to even know who that true self is — what one really thinks and feels, wants and needs.
How self-awareness gets replaced by preoccupation with how other people see them.
How self-care gets replaced by a compulsion to manage and manipulate other people, places and things.
And how self-acceptance and self-love are replaced by a craving to feel valued by others.
I see these results daily, in clients convinced that happiness lies somewhere Out There, and so spend their lives pursuing external rewards – love, approval, success, popularity, fame, money, possessions – in the belief that such rewards are what life is all about.
Who end up losing themselves, and teach their children to do the same.
Another good way to create codependency is to traumatize someone.
Trauma (“injured” in Greek) means any shock to mind or body which a person experiences as overwhelming, terrifying and helpless-making. All traumatic events – whether they occur in a moment (like an assault or a car accident) or extend over time (like war, sexual abuse or chronic illness) — “overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.”*
In other words, central to all trauma is loss of control.
So it is inevitable that all trauma survivors set out in pursuit of the control that they lost.
Much of this is unconscious and involuntary. The symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, for example — called re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal — can all be understood as the mind/body’s desperate attempts to prevent recurrence of the trauma and regain the sense of control that was lost.
Thus the combat veteran hearing a car backfire flashes back to the experience of bombardment and automatically seeks cover; the car crash survivor feels compelled to go miles out of her way rather than drive by the scene of an accident; and the rape victim meeting a man who resembles her assailant reacts with rage, terror or both.
What all these survivors have in common is a hypersensitivity to their external environment, which feels like the source of both danger and relief. Preoccupied with people, places and things they experience as threatening, some spend their lives seeking safety by trying to manage their exposure to those externals.
Most of us already understand this, if only on an intuitive level.
But what many people don’t understand is how common – even unavoidable — traumatization is.
“Common occurences can produce traumatic aftereffects that are just as debilitating as those experienced by veterans of combat or survivors of childhood abuse,” writes psychologist Peter Levine. Such occurences include
fetal (intrauterine) trauma, birth trauma, loss of a parent of close family member, illness, high fever, accidental poisoning, physical injuries (like falls and other accidents), all forms of abuse, abandonment, neglect, witnessing violence, natural disasters (like fires or floods), certain medical and dental procedures, surgery (particularly tonsillectomies with ether), anesthesia, and prolonged immobilization (like the casting or splinting of broken bones).**
As a therapist who’s treated his share of traumatized clients, I’d add: teasing, bullying, public humiliation, academic failure, social awkwardness, sexual embarrassment, getting fired, being the victim of bias, and having an unfaithful spouse.
I’ll say more later about the connection between trauma, compulsive controlling, and recovery from both. Here it’s enough to note that
(a) far more emotional problems are rooted in unresolved trauma than most of us imagine,
(b) anyone trying to understand their own compulsive controlling should consider trauma as a possible explanation.
*Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and recovery (Basic Books, 1992).
**Peter A. Levine, Waking the tiger: Healing trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997).
You need not be in relationship with an addict to develop a codependent approach to life.
There are plenty of other ways.
One of the most common is to grow up in a narcissistic family.
Narcissistic families are those unconsciously organized to meet the needs of the parents, not the children.
This description covers a wide range of possibilities. It includes families that abuse children physically, sexually or emotionally; families fixated on addicted or mentally ill members; families stressed by poverty, racism, or chronic illness; those where the parents are strict, rigid and demanding; those where the parents are not present, physically or emotionally; and those which teach their children to be seen and not heard.
Kids in narcissistic families have no choice but to adapt to their emotional environment. To protect themselves by trying to control the big people on whom they depend, mainly by pleasing and appeasing them.
Such kids typically experience at least some of the symptoms of codependency: guilt, shame, anxiety, depression. They see their own feelings and needs as at best inconvenient, at worst inappropriate — even dangerous. So they go into hiding. They become pleasers and appeasers and rescuers, better at taking care of others than themselves. And they tend to carry those symptoms into adult life.
And since no family is perfect, and no parent is perfectly healthy, every family is at least slightly narcissistic.
Which means nearly all kids grow up at least slightly codependent.