How to live with Crazy

I lead three weekly therapy groups all of whose members are busy coping with crazy relationships.

Crazy is my politically incorrect term for any dysfunction in an individual that impacts another person. 

That includes anger, anxiety, addiction, depression, narcissism, codependency, chronic illness, and anything else that keeps someone in a chronic state of distress.

Which is stressful for anyone who cares about that someone.

So the question that comes up over and over in group is How do you live with Crazy?

It’s possible, as it turns out.

But it requires following three difficult rules:

1. Don’t take Crazy personally.

2. Don’t try to fix Crazy.

3. Model unCrazy behavior.


  • Don’t take Crazy personally is the hardest rule to accept.

Because we’re social animals, wired for relationships, it’s hard for human beings to detach from the feelings of the people closest to them.

It’s even harder for those of us raised in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families, where boundaries got so blurred that the pathology of some members seeped into the emotional lives of the rest. 

That’s classic codependent conditioning.

And if you were shaped by that conditioning it’s inevitable that, even as an adult, the Kid inside you will experience another’s unhappiness as being somehow your fault.

You will feel both tormented and responsible for the torment.

And so you’ll set out to fix things.


  • Don’t try to fix Crazy is the rule that targets this tendency.

It takes a long time to learn.

Partly this is because fixing others gets mistaken for love and compassion.

I love X, we think. How can I just sit and watch them suffer?

But there are questions which can help us identify our true motives and distinguish compassion from caretaking.

One is Am I giving from love or from fear? Fullness or emptiness? Strength or desperation?

Another is Has my helping really helped in the past? 

Honest answers to these questions can help us decide if we’re acting out of love or merely trying to defend against the kind of emotional spillover kids in sick families experience.  


  • The third rule, Model unCrazy behavior, may be the closest we can get to bridging the gap between a loved one’s emotional pain and our inability to fix it.

It means managing our own anxiety and helplessness in the most intelligent way possible.

It means shifting our attention from outside to inside, from our struggling loved one to our reaction to that person’s Crazy.

And it means asking ourselves What do I need right now?

This too may be difficult for us — even guilt-inducing — if we were taught by our families that self-care is selfish and that the needs of others should always come before our own.

It takes enormous courage to stand up for yourself in the face of such conditioning.

But learning to do so is a gift not only for us, but for the people around us who need to learn healthy self-care and for someone to show them how it looks.  

We also need to remember that we can’t give away strength that we don’t really have.

 Without, you know, going Crazy ourselves.



I’ve been Crazy plenty of times myself.

And during those times of pain and confusion what I need most from the people who love me is that they follow these three rules.

I’m always grateful when they are able to.

Because it makes my Crazy easier to bear.

I hope they can do it again next time around.

Because it’s safe to assume there will be a next time.

Since into each life some Crazy must fall.







So I’m rereading your book,” she says.

“Oh?” I say. “How’s it going?”


“Really? Why?”

“I keep saying to myself That’s me and That’s me too and That’s me again. I’m on every damn page, and it’s discouraging.”

“Give me an example.”

“Let me look,” she says, and pulls out her copy.

“Okay, it starts with ‘Defense Department,'” she says, “Chapter 30. Then gets worse with each defense you describe. I do all of that.”

“All of what?”

“Oh, I bury my feelings, ignore problems that scare me, confuse one relationship with another. I worry endlessly. And I project all the time,” she frowns.* “Sometimes I feel like all I ever do is what you call stinking thinking.”

“Uh huh,” I say. “Want to hear a secret?”


“I know the guy who wrote the book.”

She grins.

“And he wrote it from personal experience,” I go on. “In other words, I do all that shit myself.”


“Sure. We all do. That’s the whole point of the book. To show how we’re all addicts, constantly trying to control our emotional lives, and how all that controlling makes us sick.”

She hesitates, then asks:

“What do you do?”

“Good question. Mostly I’m in my head. I try to think my way through life. I make lots of plans and lists. I have this file on my computer desktop where I list all the jobs I need to do in every area of my life — my practice, my writing, my house-and-yard stuff.  It’s color-coded, and it’s ridiculous.”

“Why? Doesn’t the list make you feel organized?”

“It does when I’m making it. My Kid thinks adding a job to the list means taking a step towards completing it. And occasionally it does. But mostly I just end up with a longer list.”

“And feeling worse.”


“So what can you do about that?”

“I try to practice alternatives.** I try to detach from the endless To Do list and focus entirely on one thing at a time. There’s a Buddhist saying: Chop wood, carry water. I try to get out of my head and just chop wood, carry water. Rake leaves, clean office.”

“And then I try to address the feelings that drive the list-making. Usually they’re old feelings I’ve carried since childhood — guilt, inadequacy, disappointment in myself. Anxiety about how others see or judge me. I try to tell my wife about them instead of acting them out.”

“And that works?”

“When I remember to do it. But I also know the feelings will come back and I’ll have to practice again.  And that’s as good as it gets.”

“It is?” she asks. “That’s depressing too.”


“I don’t know. I guess I had this idea that if I worked hard enough and long enough I solve all my emotional problems, and end up…”

“Perfect?” I say.

“I suppose,” she shrugs. “Is that stupid?”

“Unrealistic,” I say. “Also self-defeating. Perfectionism is nothing more than a form of controlling which guarantees we’ll always, always, always feel inadequate. It’s like swallowing a small dose of mental poison every day.”

“Well, shit,” she smiles. “So I should give up on perfect.”

“Right. We don’t get to be perfect. We don’t need to be perfect. There is no perfect. Perfect’s an illusion. Just like control.”


*She’s referring to chapters 31 (“Interruptions”), 34 (“Ostrich”), 32 (“Mistaken Identities”), 35 (“Gumchewing”) and 33 (“Superpowers”).
**Explained here:

The three paradoxes of control

We are all control addicts.

And all in denial.


Because we can’t help but see control as a solution.

And sometimes it is.

But more often than we want to admit, it’s not.

It’s a problem.

A big problem.

One that makes us emotionally and spiritually sick.

Three reasons why:




Feel nuts? You’re normal

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.  That’s the two of us over on the right.

Bert speaking:) 

Alexander Grey

I’m nuts.

Yes, you heard me right.

I’m nuts.

Not embarrassed to admit it, either.


Because I know a secret.

You’re nuts, too.

How do I know this?

Because you’re human.  (Unless, of course, you’re one of the dogs or cats who enjoy this blog.)

And, being human, you’re a victim of what Buddhists call monkeymind.

What’s monkeymind?

It’s what you hear in your head when your attention isn’t distracted.

It’s the sound of a brain which over millennia has evolved into a sort of top-heavy computer, built for problem-solving, and devoted to finding new problems to solve.

It’s the whispering, worrying, fretting, scolding and mocking that keeps you unhappy and on guard against life.

It’s the sound of a normal human mind at work.

In other words, the most human part of you.

Still not sure what I mean?

Experiment:  Take a moment now (when you finish reading this sentence) to sit without thinking for, oh, a minute or so.  Just sixty seconds.


Hear that?

Yup.  Monkeymind.

The nuts part.

Steve wants to add something.

What makes monkeymind nuts is its disconnection from reality. 

As a monkey swings from branch to branch and tree to tree, monkeymind swings from past to future and back again, over and over, ceaselessly remembering, anticipating and fantasizing. 

It’s never still, never focused on the here-and-now — a Now which may actually be perfectly safe and okay. 

So when you’re caught up in monkeymind you’re having all these feelings — often painful ones, anxiety and anger and such — that have nothing to do with what’s really happening in your life at the moment. 

It’s like being trapped in a nightmare, unable to wake up. 

Speaking as a recovering inner monkey, I would add that there’s one other thing that makes monkeymind nuts.

It really really really believes in control.

It operates on the assumption that if we think and analyze and strategize long and well enough we can solve every problem and bring life under control.  That if we could just figure things out, life could be perfect.  Perfectly safe, perfectly comfortable, perfectly happy.

I remember a Little Rascals episode in which the kids got their mule to walk in a circle by extending a pole out over his nose with an apple dangling from the end.  The donkey kept plodding after the apple endlessly, never getting closer, and apparently never noticing.

Yes.  We all chase that apple.

Well, I’m sick of it.

That’s why I’m a recovering monkey.  I’m sick and tired of feeling victimized by my own mind.

Tired of fighting reality instead of accepting it.

Tired of trying to control everything.

Tired of this never-ending plod towards an apple I can never reach.

Tired — so so tired — of being nuts.



Three songs for 2023


The song of the child:



The song of the socialized adult:



The song of the healthy grownup:



Which will you sing?

Not the one you’d like?

If so, no worries.

Watch this space.

Singing lessons on the way.







This barking world

So we’re lying in bed, Hank and I, both half asleep.

And he hears a car in the street or a bird in a tree or a plane overhead.

And he yelps.

Yelps loud.

Scares the crap out of me.

But what happens then is interesting.

I flinch.

I mean, I just flinch.

And roll over and resume dozing.

Interesting because not long ago I might well have reached out and slapped him for yelping.

(Or tried to. He’s fast.)

What’s changed?

It’s not that I’m used to him yelping.

I’ll never get used to his yelping.

It’s that this time I did not take his yelp personally.

I somehow redefined his yelp to

(a) something Hank does


(b) something Hank does to me.

I know that sounds silly.

Dogs yelp. They just do.

It’s nothing personal.

But how many times are we frustrated or upset or enraged by things that are nothing personal? 

The driver who cuts us off in traffic.

The long line in the bank.

Rising prices.

Rude waiters.

Lying politicians.

Neurotic relatives.

Dysfunctional medical offices.



Bad weather.

The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

This process of redefining such shocks is called detachment.

It’s a mental skill I learned from twenty years of thinking and talking and teaching about our addiction to control.

And an enormously valuable one.

The silver bullet, in fact, of healing control addiction.

Because it allows us to accept discomfort without taking it personally.

To see clearly, instead of squinting through a lens of defensive victimization.

To move beyond suffering to mere pain.

To, in the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, live life on life’s terms.

And to understand what Joseph Campbell meant when he said

Life is this wonderful,

wonderful opera.

It just hurts.

Detachment is what allows us to live in this beautiful, barking world without losing our last marble.





How controlling makes us sick.

 Here’s the second law of control:



This is the Law of Dysfunction.

Stated more fully, it means that compulsive controlling causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems.  

It builds on the first Law, that we are all addicted to control.

Because only when you see how controlling you are can you start noticing how dangerous controlling can be. 

You may notice that overcontrolling your feelings — by hiding them from other people, say — leaves you more anxious, not less.

Or how hiding feelings from yourself — like when you bury them so deeply you forget where you put them — can leave you exhausted and clinically depressed.  

Or how attempts to control others by pleasing or impressing them leave you feeling, not more loved and accepted, but more frustrated and alone.

But compulsive controlling is baked into our nature.

It’s every human being’s unconscious default position.

So it can take a long time to see all this.

And most people never do.

Which explains why so many of us go around in emotional pain much of the time.

And how do we respond to this pain?

We try, of course, to control it.

So controlling leads to pain, and pain leads to controlling, which leads to more pain…

Just like in any addiction.


About control addiction


There are four laws of control, laws we obey whether we realize it or not.

Here’s the first:



It’s the Law of Addiction.

What does it mean?


Control means the ability to edit reality — to make people, places and things the way we want them to be,


Addiction means the compulsion to repeat a certain behavior in order to achieve a particular gratifying — but ultimately unhealthy — experience. 

So a control addict is anyone who 

(a) feels compelled, over and over and over again, to edit reality according to their preferences,


(b) experiences intolerable discomfort or anxiety when they cannot. 


We are all control addicts.


Can’t relate?

Think of it this way:

Moment to moment, we each carry around in our heads a picture of the reality we want. 

And we constantly compare that picture to the reality we have. 

Anything we do to bring those two realities closer together is what I call controlling

It’s controlling whether we do it in speech, or behavior, or in the privacy of our imagination. 

Our controlling may be obvious or hidden, conscious or unconscious, choiceful or compulsive, creative or destructive, healthy or unhealthy.

Notice how vast a range of human behaviors this description covers:

I’m controlling when I mow my lawn, balance my checkbook, steer my car, swat a mosquito or help my kid do homework.

I’m controlling when I brush my teeth, salt my eggs, change channels, vote in elections or post selfies on Facebook.

I’m controlling when I pursue a goal, a degree, a job, a raise, a sale item, a cure for cancer or a sexual partner.

I’m controlling when I rage at bad weather, slow traffic, dumb commercials, rude waiters or lying politicians.

I’m controlling when I lie, hide my feelings, pretend to agree with you, worry that I’m fat or guess what you think of me.

I’m controlling when I try to get you to agree with me, hire me, understand me, respect me, kiss me, forgive me or do me a favor.

Also whenever I judge, criticize, manipulate, persuade, coerce or abuse you.

Not to mention whenever I anticipate, plan, ruminate, fantasize, worry, project or obsess.

That’s right. 

All controlling behaviors.

All stem from the urge to swap my current reality for one I think I’d prefer.

All those and infinitely more.

Our craving for control is inevitable and unavoidable, the mother of all motives, the psychological sea in which we swim.

Perhaps the best way to describe its enormity in human psychology is to describe its opposite:

The opposite of controlling is the ability to

say nothing, and do nothing, and trust that

things will work out just fine anyway.

How often can anyone do that?

How often can you?


Welcome, fellow control addict.





Paddling and nonpaddling


Hey, you. With the banana.



Welcome to

Thanks. What’s a monkey trap?

“A cage containing a banana with a hole large enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, but not large enough for a monkey’s fist (clutching a banana) to come out. Used to catch monkeys that lack the intellect to let go of the banana and run away” (Wikipedia). Other versions use heavy bottles or anchored coconuts to hold the banana.

This is what you’re blogging about? Catching monkeys?

No, it’s a metaphor.


Psychological traps. The sort we all get stuck in.

More specific, please.

A psychological monkeytrap is any situation that pulls you into holding on when you really need to let go. 

I know I’m in one whenever I find myself trying to control something that can’t or shouldn’t be controlled.

Such as?

Well, feelings can be monkeytraps. 

So can relationships. 

So can stressful situations of all sorts. 

Anything that scares us or confuses us or makes us uncomfortable.

Seen from this perspective, life itself is pretty much one monkeytrap after another.

That’s cheerful.

That’s realistic.

And you’re writing about this because…

Because not understanding monkeytraps makes people sick.

I’m a therapist. Thirty years of doing psychotherapy have taught me to see just about every emotional problem as rooted in some sort of monkeytrap. 

Anxiety, depression, addictions, relationship problems, family problems, problems with parenting —

all of them usually turn out to be caused by someone holding onto something when they really should let go.

Too much control makes us sick?


Too much controlling

Control itself, that’s usually an illusion.

Excuse me?

I know. 

Radical thought. 

But consider: 

What in your life can you finally, absolutely control?



We spend our lives grabbing for it anyway. 

Control is like a train you chase but never catch. 

And most of the time we don’t even know we’re chasing it.  

“Ideas we have, but don’t know we have, have us,” James Hillman said. 

Control is just such an idea.    

Like an addiction.

Exactly like that. 

We’re all addicted to control. 

I know I am.

How can you tell?

Because the opposite of controlling is being able to accept the reality you have instead of trying to replace it with the one you want.  

(The reality you want, that’s the banana.)

It means being able to relax and do nothing and trust that everything will work out okay. 

And I know I can’t do that very often.

Can you?

Almost never. Who can?

Nobody I know. 

I’ve known people who can do it occasionally. 

I’ve never known anyone who could do it all the time.  

I doubt any human being can. 

We’re the monkeys who simply must control things, or die trying. 

(And like most therapists, I’ve known people who did just that.)

It’s one of the reasons I dislike the term control freak. 

There’s nothing freakish about trying to control reality. 

What’s freakish is being able to stop.  

Why is that?

Why is one of the questions I hope to explore in this blog.  I have some ideas about it. 

I have ideas, too, about how to better understand and deal with this universal addiction.  I created as a way to road test those ideas.

Road test how?

Unpack them in public, ask readers to think and talk about them. 

Start a conversation about all this.

Okay.  Anything else I should know?


I have a book out about this, and more in the works.

The first is titled Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop.

You can buy it here.

The next will be Monkeytraps for Adult Children: There I Go Again.

I‘ll let you know when that one drops.

I’ll also be starting a YouTube vlog soon where I’ll be talking about how we can recover from our addiction to control.

And publishing new blog posts, and reposting old favorites.

Leave me your email and I’ll let you know when. 

Come back soon.

And bring your banana.

Dragon shit

The dragon’s mother is pain.

It’s pain — a hurtful event or situation — that incubates and drops the dragon egg.

The pain may be acute (a single experience, like an assault) or chronic (like living in a dysfunctional family).

The egg’s shell is a misreading of what caused the pain.

It’s this fundamental misreading (usually along the lines of This is my fault) that hatches the baby dragon.

The baby dragon itself is a mistaken conclusion, a lie we believe.

And that lie grows into an adult dragon big enough (though often invisible) to dominate your emotional life.

It does this by chewing on you (this is your fault, this is your fault) and littering your life with dragon shit.

The most common forms of dragon shit are guilt, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy.

So when you’re feeling shitty, look around for your dragon.


The difference between dragons and problems


The difference between

a dragon

and a problem

is as follows:


We are able to see

problems as problems

— things external,

things outside us,

things out in the world

that somehow hurt us.


But when we take



for a problem —

convince ourselves

This is my fault

then it becomes

a dragon.


Thus every dragon

is hatched from

a misunderstanding

of what’s hurting us.


And then, instead of

applying attention

and energy

and courage

to solving

the problem,

we invite the dragon

to chew on us.


And it does.


Often for a lifetime.


And the


distracts us

from ever


the problem.








I have a theory I’d like to share with you.

It’s about dragons.

Everyone has one.

Your dragon is the central problem of your life.

It creates most of the pain, fear and confusion you carry.

It also defines you, creates your identity.

You spend most of your time, energy and courage fighting this dragon.

Often without realizing it.

Often mistaking the dragon for some flaw in yourself.

But it’s not you.

It’s your dragon.

Everyone has one.


There is no shame in this.

In fact, recognizing your dragon is an important step toward awareness and healing.

Also a form of self-validation.

Instead of thinking of yourself as weak or inadequate or broken, you tell yourself,

This is difficult because this is my dragon.

Everyone has a dragon.

As a therapist, I know this to be true.

Dragons are what bring people into therapy.

Though they usually don’t recognize this at the time.

The first session with a new client usually introduces me to their dragon.

Sometimes it’s how they were parented.

Sometimes it’s the dysfunctional environment they survived as a child.

Sometimes it’s the aftereffects of some trauma or abuse.

Sometimes it’s an addiction.

Sometimes a chronic illness.

Sometimes a devastating relationship failure.

What all dragons have in common is that, initially, we can’t see them as dragons.

We can experience them only as flaws in our self.

There must be something wrong with me, we think, for me to feel this bad.


You feel bad because you’re being chewed on by a dragon.

And the proper response is not guilt or shame or self-blame.

That only makes you weaker.

The proper response is to pick up a sword and fight back.

(About therapy #7:) Micro losses and the pocket of your heart


“Something odd happened yesterday,” she frowns.  “I lay down to nap like always, but found I couldn’t because I was too sad.”


“I don’t know what else to call it.  A kind of dull ache around my heart.”

“Sounds like sad,” I nod.

“Right?” she says.  “But I don’t know where it came from.  Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s fine,” I repeat.

“Yes.  We’re all healthy.  Nobody in the family has covid.  The kids have adjusted to remote learning.  We’re doing fine financially, despite the pandemic.  And I’m really happy about the last election.  What’s to be sad about?”

“And yet,” I say.

“Right, and yet.  What the fuck?”

“I have a theory,” I say.


“You remind me,” I say, “of a guy I worked with once.  Came for help with anxiety.  He constantly worried about death.  Couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Couldn’t stop worrying that either he or someone he loved was going to catch something fatal or get into a car accident.”

“That’s awful,” she says.

“It was.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That his anxiety wasn’t really about dying.  That he was constipated.”

“Aha,” she smiles.

“You remember?” I ask.

“Sure,” she smiles, and recites.  “Feelings are like shit, and when we don’t express them we feel anxious and depressed, in other words, shitty.”

“Exactly.  Well, this guy had plenty of feelings he wasn’t expressing, about his marriage and his job and his kids and his parents.  I told him that was what was making him anxious.  But since he wasn’t aware of it his mind went to work trying to explain this shitty feeling, and it latched onto the fear of death.”

“He misinterpreted the anxiety,” she says. 

“Right.  I also told him that when he began expressing those feelings in therapy he’d become less anxious and his death anxiety would go away.”


“And that’s what happened.”

“Wow.  Cool.  But what has that to do with my sadness?”

“I think you’re probably constipated too.”

“How so?”

“Think about it.  What causes sadness?  It’s a reaction to loss.”

“Right,” she says uncertainly.

“And even though you tell me everything’s fine, you experience losses every day.  I call them micro losses, and they’re part of the new normal.  So like most of us you’ve adapted to them, told yourself they’re no big deal.  But they’re losses nonetheless.”

“What kind of losses do you mean?” she asks.

“Little things we used to have or used to be able to do.  Like going in to the office, or out to a restaurant or a movie, or taking your kids to the park.  Like having people for dinner, or going out with friends for a drink, or to a ball game.  When was the last time you went grocery shopping without having to mask up?  When was the last time your parents visited their grandchildren?  How long since it felt safe to hug anyone you wanted?”  

“Right,” she says thoughtfully.

“And then there’s the news.  Covid and the election and dysfunctional government.  The economy and corruption and racism.  Trump and Putin and Kim Jung Un.  Black Lives Matter and the Proud Boys and Jeffrey Epstein.  I mean, really.”

“The new normal,” she muses. 

“Right.  And even when we avoid the news it’s impossible to insulate ourselves from all that crap.  It chips away at our emotional life.”

“And you think that’s why I’m sad?”

“That, plus the fact that we live in a culture which tells us happiness is okay but sadness is not.  It’s not okay to be sad or scared or angry or frustrated or discouraged or hopeless.  So we ignore those feelings instead of processing them fully.  And they build up in your system.  They collect like lint in the pocket of your heart.  And then your wonder why you feel….”

“Shitty,” she says.  “So what do I do?”

“How are you feeling right now?”

“Like crying.”

“Do that.”

And she did.  


(About therapy #6:) Therapy and the three tests


We’ve been talking for thirty minutes, and it’s going fine for a first session, but I can tell something’s bothering him. So I ask what it is.

“How do I know if you’re the right therapist?” he asks.

“Good question,” I say. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you’re the third one I’ve talked to this year,” he says.

“And the others weren’t right?”

“Nope,” he says. “But it took me months to realize it, and I don’t want to go through that again.”

“I don’t blame you,” I say. 

“To answer your question, you can’t really know ahead of time if a therapist is right for you. But you can get to where you trust that they are. And there are tests to help you get there.”


“Yes. You’re probably performing them already, but it can help to put a label on what you’re doing unconsciously.”

“What tests?”

“There are three. The first is for safety.

“Drop down out of your head and ask your stomach: How does it feel to be talking to this guy? Does it feel like I’m being judged? Can I imagine telling him the truth about stuff I usually keep to myself? Do I feel safe disagreeing with him? Questions like that. Trust your stomach’s answers. If it tightens up, that might be a red flag.”


“The second test is for relief. When therapy works, you should feel better at the end of the session than at the start — calmer, or clearer, or more hopeful, or at least less alone.  Not all sessions end this way, but most of them should.”

“That didn’t happen with the other two therapists,” he muses. “But I thought it was my fault.”

“Like I said, trust your stomach. It’s often smarter than your head.” 

He nods. “That’s what I finally did when I fired them. Okay, what’s the third test?”

“It’s for what I call resonance.

“The right therapy teaches us things that on some level we already know, even if we can’t articulate them. So the right therapist will say things that resonate — echo inside you, like a shared truth.

“It’s what helps you feel the therapist gets you.  It’s also what makes it possible to trust them. Essential, I think, to getting any real work done.” 

I pause.

“Did you have that experience with either of the other two therapists you tried?”

“No,” he says. “But I may have just now.”

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