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.
A camel is a horse designed by a committee.
~ Old joke
Codependency is a camel of a word.
It was cobbled together in the 1970s (from “coalcoholic” and “chemical dependency”) to describe a cluster of symptoms clinicians were finding in family members of alcoholics, and later popularized by self-help writers like Melody Beattie.
What’s it mean? Good question.
“Codependency” has been defined, but in so many different ways that there is no commonly accepted meaning.
This I discovered while researching a talk I was once asked to give on the subject. I found not one but six definitions of “codependency.” Each contained a piece of the truth, and yet none seemed entirely adequate on its own.
So I decided to share all six with my audience. Which I did.
When I’d finished, a man raised his hand and asked,”So what the hell is codependency?”
And in a burst of insight I answered: “Addiction to control.”
That has been my working definition of codependency ever since.
It’s also the best explanation I know for why family members of alcoholics experience the chronic emotional problems they face: guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, painful relationships, even their own substance abuse.
Here’s how it works:
Living with an addict is unpredictable and scary. Inevitably you wish, if only to protect yourself, that you could control their behavior or its consequences.
It’s a short step from wishing that to actually trying to do it.
Thus a codependent wife may hide her alcoholic husband’s liquor, or pour it down the sink, or lie to his boss about why he’s not working, or to his kids about why he’s not home, or to her family about why he never attends birthday parties, or to the neighbors about how she got her black eye.
She may try to persuade, nag, beg, guilt, or threaten the alcoholic himself. Or manage his moods by avoiding conflict, never complaining, never speaking up, never expressing her own thoughts, feelings or needs.
Over time this way of coping becomes second nature to her. A way of handling all experiences, all feelings and all relationships. An approach to living rooted in the belief that survival depends on controlling people, places and things.
This is the codependent approach.
It infects wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, parents, friends and coworkers of addicts.
Nor does it end there.
Addicts are people who can’t handle feelings.
Usually because they never learned to as kids. Usually because their parents never taught them. Usually because they couldn’t, because their parents never taught them.
(Usually. There are other paths to addiction, but this is the most common.)
Being unable to handle feelings is a problem, since feelings tend to keep coming up. So the kid of such parents naturally starts looking around for something to make the damn things go away.
Drugs, alcohol and food are obvious solutions. Though anything that alters your mood (work, shopping, sex, porn, tv, videogames, housecleaning, alphabetizing your spice rack) can be turned into an addiction.
And even when they work, these solutions are temporary. Feelings always come back. So a person without some healthier way to handle them is forced to drink, drug, eat, work, or whatever they do to make the feelings go away again.
And that’s how addiction is born.
Some are more destructive than others. But in the end each addiction is the same. Because each has the same goal:
To give the addict control over emotional life.
And that’s why, when I’m asked “What does control have to do with addiction?” I reply, “Everything.”
Because finally every addiction is an addiction to control.
More people talk about it than understand it.
That’s because most people don’t know the secret at addiction’s heart.
That secret is (surprise) this book’s subject.
Because all addicts are control addicts.
And every addiction is an addiction to control.
There’s one more distinction to make.
It is closely related to the last one, but essential to understand in its own right:
Controlling may be choiceful or compulsive.
Choiceful means both conscious and freely chosen. Compulsive means driven by anxiety, to where a person essentially loses the ability to choose.
Most dysfunctional controlling is compulsive.
Compulsive controllers are people who see no other way to feel safe or secure than by trying to control people, places, things and themselves. And who keep on controlling despite all evidence that the control they seek is an illusion.
Another word for compulsive is addictive.
Compulsive controllers, then, are addicts:
People who feel driven to control.
Who are unable to stop, even when their controlling is inappropriate, unhealthy or impossible.
Who’ve lost control of their need for control.
Submitted to The Practice Corner:
We’re separated a year and a half now, and it still doesn’t feel real. Behind all our talking and fighting and negotiating and problem-solving certain thoughts play like background music:
It‘s just a separation. Be careful what you say. Don’t push him away. Maybe he’ll see the changes I’ve made. Maybe he’ll come back. It‘s just a separation.
But life has moved on. Now, after years of stay-at-home momming, I have a job I love. People notice and value what I do. And I’m beginning to feel, you know, like a full-fledged person.
So today he calls to talk about our budget. And he’s being irritable and rude.
And I’m tired of it.
“Why are you talking to me this way?” I ask.
“Because you don’t help me,” he snaps.
And the background music suddenly stops.
“You’re a dick,” I say, and I hang up.
And a full-fledged person walks away from the phone feeling like she turned a corner somehow.
~ Shared by Anonymous (2/22/15)
Archived in Tales of Responsibility
The Practice Corner is an occasional series of true (but cleverly disguised) stories told by readers working actively to free themselves from compulsive controlling. Read more here.
Perhaps most importantly:
Controlling may be either functional or dysfunctional.
Functional controlling is in some way necessary, appropriate or need-satisfying.
Dysfunctional controlling — a.k.a. dyscontrol — is none of those things.
Distinguishing the two can be tricky. Dysfunctional control often seems, in the moment, to be an effective way of coping.
Remember the list of controlling behaviors I offered in Chapter 7? Do you ever lie? Go along to get along? Hide your true thoughts and feelings? Most of us find it impossible to never engage in some of that stuff.
But eventually all forms of dyscontrol fail.
That’s because, where functional controlling represents an attempt to face and solve a problem, dyscontrol is a fear-based response whose main goal is to avoid anxiety or discomfort.
We’ll examine specific examples of this in Part 2: Dysfunction. They include anxiety, depression, addiction, and most relationship problems.
For now it’s enough to define dyscontrol as any controlling that ends up frustrating needs instead of meeting them.
Even Edith Bunker came to recognize this. Eventually she saw she needed to stand up to Archie, to stop appeasing him and simply say No.
(Haven’t seen that particular episode? Please do.* And notice the studio audience’s reaction.)
*All in the Family, Season 6, Episode 8: “Edith Breaks Out” (YouTube)
Jump to 12:00.
Controlling can be conscious or unconscious
Conscious controlling is the sort we notice ourselves doing. Unconscious controlling operates outside our awareness.
Archie probably knew he was trying to control Edith. Edith, though, may not have realized she was controlling him back.
One way we hide our controlling from ourselves is by calling it something else:
Niceness. Politeness. Respect. Helpfulness. Protection. Loyalty. Love.
That’s not to say all unconscious controlling is dishonest or unhealthy. But it’s also true that the vast majority of compulsive controllers are relentlessly “nice” people unaware of their driving need for control.
They’re also unaware of how much their need for control controls them.
It’s easy to identify such people. Just place them in a situation beyond their control and see how uncomfortable they get.
(On the wall behind my chair there’s a picture of flowers. I once tilted it so that it hung crooked. Then I spent the day watching my clients’ eyes flick back and forth between my face and the crooked picture. Most were unaware they were doing this. All seemed increasingly restless or irritable. Two finally felt compelled to ask permission to straighten it.)
We’re still forming two Skype-based study/support groups for readers who want to explore these ideas with me in real time. One is for therapists who want to integrate these ideas into their clinical work. Both groups will be small, six members at most, and meet weekly. Fee is $50 per session, and group members may purchase Monkeytraps (The Book) at half price. Interested? Write me: firstname.lastname@example.org.