“The idea of control”
Earlier I described how they trap monkeys in Asia by placing bait in a heavy jar with a narrow neck. The monkey smells the bait, reaches in to grab it, and traps himself by refusing to let go.
The monkeytraps to which humans are vulnerable are psychological — situations that trigger us into holding on when we really should let go.
And how can you tell when you’re approaching entrapment?
Notice where you’re uncomfortable.
We’re controlling whenever we need or want to change some piece of reality instead of accepting it or adapting to it as is. And we’re most likely to want to change the realities that make us uncomfortable. So it makes sense that our discomfort zones are where we’re most likely to get monkeytrapped.
Bert: Personally, I hate rejection. So I’m most controlling with people I think might reject me. I hide feelings I think will upset them, pretend to agree when I really don’t, avoid confronting behavior I dislike, laugh at stupid jokes, and so on and so on. It keeps me busy.
Notice where you’re stuck.
Stuck as in not learning, healing or growing — struggling with the same problem over and over. You know you’re monkeytrapped whenever you find yourself doing what you already know doesn’t work, but can’t think of an alternative.
Bert: All that controlling I just described traps me because it (a) stops me from being myself, which (b) prevents me from ever getting accepted as myself, which (c) keeps me chronically scared of rejection, which brings me right back to (a). It’s like riding an endless merry-go-round.
Notice where you’re scared.
Like all addictions, compulsive controlling is anxiety-driven. We stay monkeytrapped because we’re scared to do anything else. Often even the thought of giving up control in such situations is enough to scare us silly.
Bert: It took me decades to see that controlling doesn’t work. Or that it does, but only for five minutes at a time. Then another scary thing comes along and I have to control that. And life being what it is, there’s no end to scary things. So as an anxiety-reduction tactic controlling is a total flop.
The most frightened people are the most controlling people.
And it is the most controlling people who remain the most frightened.
The healthiest anyone gets is neurotic.
Thus spake my first supervisor.
I was dismayed. Back then, as both a new therapist and a recovering depressed person, I clung to the idea of mental healthiness the way a sinner clings to the idea of redemption.
But decades later I know he was right.
Neurotic means split into two parts: one public, one private. You create neurosis by convincing a person that it is neither acceptable nor safe to be him- or herself.
This happens to everyone. It is the inevitable result of socialization and other forms of conditioning which teach us not to be ourselves.
Think of it as what happens when two sets of needs collide.
We each need to function as autonomous individuals, to operate in ways that meet our individual needs. Some needs are physical (food, shelter, etc.), some psychological, some emotional. We have a psychological need to establish ourselves as unique individuals, for example, (see the discussion of separation and individuation in Chapter 28) and an emotional need to express how we feel (see Chapters 24 and 25 on anxiety and depression).
Call these the self-needs.
At the same time we’re also social animals with social needs. We need contact and connection with other people, need their acceptance, approval, affection, protection and support. No less than the self-needs, these social needs define what it means to be a human being.
But getting social needs met can be costly. Even if we grow up in a reasonably healthy family able to love and accept us unconditionally, the world outside is less gentle. There we face inevitable demands to adapt and conform, to redefine and disguise ourselves according to what the tribe expects. And we have no choice but to comply.
When I work with couples I explain that all relationships are difficult because they force us to wrestle endlessly with two questions: How can I have you without losing me? How can I have me without losing you?
Every socialized human being struggles with the same questions. How can we satisfy self-needs and social needs at the same time? How can we belong to the larger tribe without losing what makes us unique individuals?
So pervasive is this struggle that it can blur the boundaries that define us. For many it becomes hard to tell where we end and the rest of the world begins.
I’m mad at Dad. But if Dad knows I’m angry he may reject me, and I’m scared of that. I’m afraid it would leave me feeling hurt, guilty, inadequate, abandoned and/or disinherited. So I hide my anger in self-defense.
Am I controlling myself in order to control Dad? Or am I controlling Dad in order to control myself?
Thus I get split into two selves, private and public, real-me and false-me, controller and controlled.
And my boundary gets blurred, and after a while I can’t tell who I really am, what I really need, or how I really feel.
Again, nobody can avoid the tension between self and environment.
Which means neurosis happens to all of us.
Which means it’s normal to end up split, and scared, and trapped by the control addiction to which neurosis gives birth.
Which means we’re all monkeys on this bus.
I never really wanted those grapes
anyway. I am sure they are sour.
Rationalization means explaining something in a way that is comforting but dishonest.
Control addicts use rationalization all the time. They actually have to, in order to convince themselves that control is essential and possible.
Sometimes it appears as stinking thinking, the form described in chapter 34 (If I just try a little harder, a little longer…).
And sometimes it manifests as mistaking the desirable for the possible, a type of thinking I call the shoulds.
He should take better care of me emotionally. He should know what I feel and give me what I need. He should know when I need a hug, or to be listened to, or to be left alone. He should know what I want in bed. When I’m upset he should know what to say to make me feel better. If he really loved me he’d just know.
The shoulds can transform a reasonable desire (I want X) into an unrealistic expectation (I should have X), and ultimately to an emotional problem (I’m angry that I don’t).
Control addicts regularly apply this kind of wishful thinking to other people, places, things, and themselves.
The control addicts we call perfectionists should on themselves constantly.
I should be thinner, richer, smarter. I should be further along in my career. I should be nicer to my mother. I should be a better parent. I shouldn’t get so angry. I shouldn’t have made that mistake. I shouldn’t make any mistakes. I can’t stand mistakes.
A third form of rationalization is rooted in the following belief:
Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad.
This is called The Just World Hypothesis, and most people believe in it whether they realize it or not.
It explains why we tend to feel guilty when bad things happen to us, and why we torture ourselves with second-guessing (If only I hadn’t…). It’s common among religious people, raised on the idea of sin. But belief in God is no prerequisite to belief in a Just World. I once worked with an atheist who argued endlessly against the existence of God but never doubted, when confronting personal misfortune, that he himself had somehow caused it.
Why do we cling to this bias? It provides the illusion of control.
If bad things can happen to good people, that means everyone’s at risk. But if the good are rewarded and the guilty punished, maybe I can avoid punishment by being good, and maybe the world makes some sort of sense.
Belief in a Just World also leads to even more pernicious misinterpretations, like blaming the victim.
She was kidnapped at knife-point from a restaurant parking lot by a drifter who raped her twice. But the jury showed little sympathy, and the rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it by the way she was dressed,” said the foreman.
The type of victim-blaming I hear most often in therapy is self-blame, where clients impede their own recovery by taking unrealistic responsibility for bad things that happen to them. It’s common among abuse survivors, and people who grew up in families prone to unpredictability and emotional turmoil, where kids often got blamed for things that weren’t their fault. They were left feeling vulnerable, vaguely guilty, and too quick to blame themselves.
Sure, imagining cause-and-effect relationships where they don’t exist can be comforting.
But ours isn’t a just world, or the world we want.
Maybe not even the world we deserve.
Just the world we have.
Ever chew gum for too long?
Until it’s a flavorless wad, your jaws are weary, and you wonder “Why is this junk still in my mouth?”
We do this all the time with our minds.
We chew the same thoughts over and over and over.
We give this habit different names: worrying, obsessing, persevoration.
They all amount to the same thing — a kind of futile mental gumchewing.
They’re not defenses, strictly speaking, but these habits of mind clearly serve a defensive function.
They’re one of monkeymind’s favorite ways of trying to control feelings.
Think about this long enough, monkeymind whispers, and you’ll figure things out, and then you’ll feel better.
But you don’t.
You don’t figure things out, you just keep chewing endlessly.
And you don’t feel better, you feel worse.
That’s because mental gumchewing is not analysis (which leads to clarity), or problem-solving (which produces solutions), or planning (which fosters discipline), or even venting (which discharges feelings and brings emotional relief).
It’s not even thinking, if we define thinking as using your mind to consider something carefully.
Gumchewing isn’t using your mind; it’s allowing your mind to use you.
It’s unconscious, automatic, mindless. Also dysfunctional, which means it won’t do you any good at all.
And the harm it does is considerable. It can create anxiety and depression where neither existed before, by keeping your attention focused mainly on problems and pain.
Where you put your attention is what grows, someone once said. Gumchewing keeps inflating pain and problems until you can’t think of anything else.
It’s like scratching an itch and making it worse.
Or like picking through garbage expecting to find diamonds.
A man out walking one night finds his neighbor on hands and knees under a street lamp. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “I lost my house key,” moans the neighbor. So he gets down beside the neighbor and together they search the street, without success. Finally the man asks, “Where were you when you lost the key?” “In the house,” the neighbor replies. “In the house? Then why are we searching for it out here?” “Oh, it’s light out here,” replies the neighbor. “It’s dark in the house.”
The defense called denial is about avoiding dark places. It means refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant reality we’re afraid could overwhelm us.
Denial is the most common defense mechanism because it underlies so many of the others. Suppression and repression deny the existence of troublesome feelings; intellectualization tries to bypass feelings altogether; projection denies our inability to know the unknowable, and so on.
Like other defenses, denial can be adaptive or maladaptive. Some of it — like denying the inevitability of our own death, or the risks of driving highways or eating in restaurants — is essential to daily functioning.
I think of this as small-d denial, as opposed to large-D denial, which is pathological.
Large-D denial is familiar to anyone who’s ever known an active alcoholic or drug addict, or grown up in a family with an addict at its emotional center.
Once I refused to get into the car, telling my Dad he was drunk and I wasn’t going anywhere with him. He hit me and shoved me in the car. My mother cried and told me never to criticize my father’s drinking again. How could I spoil such a nice family outing?
This is the famous elephant-in-the-living-room syndrome, where everyone in the family ignores something that’s painfully obvious to outsiders.
Another form is what AA calls stinking thinking, the denial-ridden thought process of alcoholics:
I’m a social drinker. I can stop whenever I like. It’s only one beer. I deserve to relax. If you were different I wouldn’t need to drink. Everyone’s against me. Life’s just too hard for me. Who cares? You have to die someday.
Control addiction, too, could not exist without denial, since it allows us to forget the mountain of prior experience reminding us how limited our ability to control reality is.
Control addicts, too, employ stinking thinking. It takes various forms, but behind them all is one dangerous (and often unconscious) assumption:
If I just try again, or harder, or longer, or differently, I can finally make things turn out the way I want them to.
Two other forms of denial that crop up in therapy are blaming and victimization.
Clients blame when they don’t want to take responsibility for problems. It’s the path of least resistance and greatest comfort. And given the normal vicissitudes of life and relationships there’s never a shortage of people, places or things to blame.
Dad was a drunk. Mom was depressed. My parents fought all the time. My brother was a bully. My sister never stopped complaining. Mom and Dad loved X best. We never had enough money. I was sick a lot. I grew up in a shitty neighborhood. My teachers didn’t like me. What chance did I have?
Victimization is a more unconscious and complicated form of blaming. It’s what happens when a person becomes defined by prior painful experiences.
Victims often start out denying that they’re victims. Sometimes their memories are too painful to bear, and sometimes they’ve been trained (e.g., by someone who abused them) to see themselves as responsible for whatever bad thing happened. The work with such victims is to help them enter the dark house and face the pain hidden there.
Other victims can’t get out of the house. They live in a kind of waking nightmare: the bad thing that happened to them doesn’t feel like it’s over and done with. They carry it around with them in their bodies and their mind, and it reshapes them the way the artist’s wire reshapes a bonsai tree. It colors their view of themselves, other people, life itself. For them there is no present or future, only a past that recurs endlessly.
The goal of therapy with these people to help them escape the dark house, redefine themselves as adults responsible for their lives, and develop the power to love, protect and take care of themselves.
No, I can’t read your mind.
No, I can’t predict the future.
No, that doesn’t stop me from trying.
Welcome to the wonderful world of projection.
The classic definition of projection is the unconscious misattribution of unwanted parts of the self onto others. This can apply to qualities, thoughts or feelings.
Say I think I’m fat. You and I meet for the first time. My first thought as we shake hands is I bet she thinks I’m fat. Projection.
Or say I really dislike you. It’s a short step from there to imagining that you dislike me. Projection.
I think of projection as amateur mindreading, because that’s how it tends to appear in therapy.
A group member who’s habitually late comes in fifteen minutes after group has started. She sits down, looks around at the other members and finds a woman who’s frowning. “Go ahead, say it” she blurts. “I’m late again. I’m selfish, I’m disruptive, you all hate me, and I should drop out of group. Say it.” “Actually,” the frowner replies, “I just realized I have to pee.”
Another common form of projection is fortunetelling. That’s where we project our thoughts – our fears, mainly – onto the future, and end up convinced that we know what’s going to happen. We know we’ll fail that test, blow the audition, lose the argument. We just know.
A young man with low self-esteem goes to ask his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry his daughter. Driving over he is tortured by fears that Dad will find him unsuitable and his request will be denied. By the time he reaches the house he’s begun resent this imagined rejection. He walks up to older man and said “Go to hell. I wouldn’t marry her if you paid me.” Projection.
The two examples above illustrate the sorts of problems projection can cause. Projection blurs our boundaries, to where we confuse an internal problem (anxiety) with an external one (actual judgment or rejection by others). Then we act as if they were one and the same. We end up reacting to something that hasn’t happened yet.
People who rely too heavily on their superpowers tend to live lives beset by imaginary enemies and crises, fighting unnecessary battles both in their heads and out in the world.
I’m six years old, and my father is a tall red-headed man with a deep voice who beats me with a belt every day.
Flash forward thirty years. Dad’s dead and gone, I’m fully grown, and I have a job interview. The interviewer is a tall red-headed man with a deep voice.
Guess how I feel when I first shake his hand?
Transference is what happens when one relationship feels like another. Freud, who discovered transference in his patients’ emotional responses to him, never called it a defense, though clearly its main function is defensive. It kicks in when the mind finds a danger signal in its vicinity, some red flag (like the interviewer’s red hair) that reminds it of some prior danger or trauma. In that moment the person reacts emotionally as if the old danger has returned.
Transference can be puzzling (Why do I hate this man I just met?), but it’s not inherently pathological. It becomes a problem only when it leads us into maladaptive thoughts, feeling or behavior (like punching redheaded interviewers in the mouth).
Transference comes up all the time in therapy, where clients commonly mistake therapists for their parents. Some analytic therapists define the goal of therapy as working through this transference, getting a patient to where he or she feels like an adult in the presence of this authority figure. In my work this means helping clients get to where they no longer feel the need to control my reactions, where they feel safe enough to relax and be fully themselves.
Another popular form of defensive mistaken identity is summarized in a old joke:
Dad’s boss yells at him. Dad comes home and yells at Mom. Mom yells at Big Sister. Big Sister yells at Little Brother. Little Brother kicks the dog. Dog pees on the rug.
This is displacement: the transfer of aggressive feelings from the person who hurt you to a safer target.
As a grad student I once interned at a day treatment program for patients who were severely mentally ill. On my first day my supervisor showed me around. When we walked into the cafeteria a young man stood up, overturned his table and tried to punch me. Later my supervisor explained that I resembled the father who’d raped the young man when he was five. How much of his reaction was transference, how much displacement? I don’t know. But it was clearly mistaken identity. I’m not who the young man really wanted to punch.
Finally, there’s a kind of displacement that occurs when the safer target we choose in ourselves.
In this case Dad doesn’t yell at Mom; instead he turns his anger against himself. He feels guilty, inadequate, depressed, even suicidal. Gestaltists call this mistaken identity retroflection – when you do to yourself what you want to do to someone else.
Retroflection is common among depressed clients, as well as those plagued by chronic anxiety or guilt. They often don’t believe me when I suggest it’s not really themselves they’re angry at. But once I get them to redirect some of their anger outward, the depression, anxiety and guilt begin to lift.
The most common defenses are suppression and repression.
The first is the conscious choice to conceal thoughts or feelings. Say you hurt me, I decide you’re an insensitive jerk, and I get angry. But I’m also scared that if you know this you’ll get mad and hurt me again. So I hide both my opinion and my anger from you.
Then again, say you’re an important person to me – say my parent, my spouse or my boss — and the idea of your hurting or rejecting me is seriously scary. I fear my thoughts and feelings may leak out accidentally. So I defend against that possibility by hiding them even from myself. I bury them in my unconscious, essentially forgetting what I think and feel.
For socialized humans, suppression and repression are the cost of doing business. There’s no other way to coexist with other humans than by interrupting our own feelings. (Imagine a world in which everyone expressed all their feelings all the time.)
So these are necessary, largely functional defenses. Carefully taught in both schools (No talking, people) and families (Be seen and not heard), they’re also valued and encouraged by society at large. Notice how many movie heroes and heroines are emotionally unexpressive – strong, silent, stoic, cool.
Which leads most of us to overlook how dangerous these defenses can be as well.
I’ve already described how chronically stuffing feelings damages us emotionally, causing anxiety, depression and addiction. But overdependence on suppression and repression also damages
~ Relationships. A healthy relationship is one which addresses and meets the emotional needs of both partners. That’s impossible the partners regularly hide how they really feel.
~ Communication. Couples unable to share feelings usually argue about the wrong things. Emotional messages get disguised as fights about money or relatives or parenting, when what the partners really need to ask are questions like Do you really love me? Do you accept me as I am? Can I trust you? Will you be here tomorrow?
~ Intimacy. Intimacy means being myself with you and allowing you to do the same with me. But being myself means being my feelings at least some of the time. I once knew a pair of bright, traumatized people so frightened of feelings they tried to achieve a purely intellectual intimacy, talking endlessly of theories and ideas. It sounded sad, like two computers trying to converse. We are more than our minds.
~ Parenting. One of the most important things kids learn from their parents is how to identify and express feelings. But parents who pretend they don’t have feelings produce kids who are essentially unprepared to handle adult life. Expecting such kids to succeed is like sending them out to travel the expressway without first teaching them how to drive.
~ Physical health. Feelings live in the body, so expressing them fully means expressing them physically. We’re wired to strike out when angry, flee when frightened, cry when sad. (Kids do all this naturally, which is why, until we start training them out of it, most kids are healthier than adults.) To interrupt these natural methods of purging our feelings requires that we tense the muscles we would use to express them. We do this unconsciously and chronically. Then we wonder why we’re always tired, or suffer chronic pain or tension in our neck, back, head or stomach. One of my clients was chief of family medicine at a local hospital, and I asked him what being a doctor had taught him about people. “That there’s no such thing as a purely physical illness,” he said. We suppress and repress our way into ill health.
~ Self-awareness. A surprising number of clients can’t answer simple questions about themselves. What do you like? What do you love? What do you want? Then again, not so surprising, given all of the above.
“No man can come to know himself,” Sidney Jourard writes, “except as an outcome of disclosing himself to another person.”*
*The Transparent Self (D. Van Nostrand, 1971).
Defenses (or defense mechanisms, or ego defenses) are psychological processes meant to reduce anxiety.
Originally conceived by Freud as strategies employed by the mind to manage unacceptable impulses, defenses are automatic, unconscious, universal, and essentially inevitable.
To be human is to be defensive.
Our defenses get triggered when we face something painful or frightening, and they rely heavily on denial and distortion to make emotional life manageable.
What have defenses to do with control?
The idea of control itself – the idea that we can edit reality to our personal specifications and so avoid all emotional pain — is the mother of all defenses.
Real control is possible and appropriate sometimes. But we attempt it in so many situations where it’s clearly impossible or inappropriate that it’s hard not to see our controlling as rooted in denial, distortion and self-delusion.
Any defense can be functional or dysfunctional. It’s functional when it helps us to get our needs met, and dysfunctional when it distorts reality in ways that impair effective functioning. That’s why so many therapies try to help clients become more aware of the defenses they employ, and make better choices about which ones to utilize and which ones to minimize.
I do the same with my clients.
Hence the next five chapters, which describe the defenses that come up most often in therapy.
Once there was a handsome young shepherd so self-absorbed he could love nobody else. The gods punished him by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pond and stare into it until he starved to death.
His name was Narcissus, and every third or fourth day one of his distant cousins shows up in my office.
They’re not there for therapy. What they really want is magic.
They want someone to help them control the people in their lives, whom they experience as unappreciative and ungiving. They want me to teach them how to get those other people to love them better.
They’re my toughest clients.
Most people mistake narcissism for vanity or self-love. It’s not.
It’s the opposite.
Narcissists are hungry blind people.
They’re hungry because (usually) they didn’t get fed enough as kids. Most grew up in families unable to provide adequate attention, acceptance, approval or affection, the four emotional staples known as narcissistic supplies.
And they’re blind because they carry that hunger into adulthood, where they’re so preoccupied with getting themselves fed that they ignore the needs and feelings of those around them.
I explain it this way to clients:
Narcissism is like trying to drive a car that has a mirror instead of a windshield. You look out over the dashboard and you don’t see streets or traffic or pedestrians; you see only your own needs, feelings and preferences. You’re so fixated on the mirror you don’t see where you’re going, or who you run over to get there. When you hit someone you barely notice the bump.
Me-monkeys take many forms, some easier to spot than others. The most obvious are the showmen, loud, demanding, self-conscious Donald Trump types who constantly polish their image, trumpet their viewpoint, and leave me feeling less like a therapist than an audience.
Then there are the victims, eager to tell me their tales of abuse and betrayal, and desperate that I agree that absolutely none of it was their fault.
Then the addicts, so busy struggling with their tangled unmanageable feelings that they’re simply unavailable for healthy relationship with anyone else.
Finally the codependents, who always seem to be putting everyone else first, but whose caretaking, people-pleasing and avoidance of conflict are actually subterfuges meant to protect them from rejection and win a few emotional tablescraps in return.
Again, my toughest clients.
There are two reasons for this.
The first: narcissists are terrified. The starvation they suffered as kids left them convinced there was something wrong with them, and they’ve carried that belief ever since. The false self they construct and show the world – be it codependent or Trumpesque – was built to hide their shame, sense of incompleteness, and their secret conviction they’re unlovable. It’s hard to do therapy with them, because therapy requires trust, and many of them trust no one. (How trust others if you can’t trust your parents? If you can’t trust yourself?) Many are just too frightened to come out of hiding and reveal the person inside. Some have hidden behind their false front for so long they can no longer distinguish it from their real self.
The second reason: I’m a me-monkey myself.
Earlier I mentioned that it was Bert’s idea I become a therapist. A nifty way, he thought, to put my codependent Plan A to work. I would help others solve their problems, win narcissistic supplies in return, and get my emotional needs met without having to reveal either my needs or my emotions.
That was decades ago. I’m well into my Plan B now, which is less about image and insulation than honesty and risk.
But every Plan B is an ongoing project, and I still have plenty of work to do on mine.
We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses…. If a doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is. Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is…the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.*
We teach what we want to learn.
*Quoted in Psychotherapy East and West by Alan Watts (Ballantine Books, 1961).
When I first opened my private practice I needed clients, so I went into local high schools to give talks about parenting.
Everyone’s favorite talk was titled “How to Parent Your Child Through Adolescence Without Committing Murder.” Each delivery generated new clients.
But most of them weren’t parents. They were teenagers, nervous and sullen, dropped off in my waiting room by Mom or Dad with a tag tied to their toe:
Fix my kid.
I jest. Well, partly.
Adolescence brings out the worst in many parents, for a reason which by now should be obvious: it challenges their sense of control.
Before this they could convince themselves they were in charge. Eat your broccoli, they’d say, and Junior complied. It’s late, come in now, and here comes Junior.
Or they could kiss the booboo and give Junior a hug and Junior would stop crying and hug them back. Problem solved.
Then Junior hits puberty and everything changes.
The kid starts acting strangely. Refuses your broccoli; won’t even touch your dinner. Comes home late, or not at all. Stops giggling at your jokes. Acts like you’re a moron. Rude, defiant, loud, silent, stubborn, irresponsible, self-centered and incredibly sloppy.
Mom’s baby has morphed into an Orc.
This predictable family crisis is called separation and individuation. It’s a psychological threshold kids need to cross. Once they do they start detaching from their parents, develop their own identity, express their own views and values, and start feeling and functioning like grownups.
All this is essential to healthy adult functioning. Without it, no matter how old or how big someone gets, inside they feel incomplete and childish.
But many parents misunderstand separation and individuation. Even those that do understand usually find it uncomfortable.
And to parents with control issues, it can feel like an earthquake.
Some misread this normal developmental stage as disrespect, disloyalty, rejection, parental incompetence, or a sign their kid no longer loves them.
Some misinterpret it as psychopathology. They start hunting for signs of substance abuse, or Googling bipolar disorder.
Some panic. Often these are people for whom parenting was the one part of life where they felt somewhat in command, could expect to be respected and admired, listened to and obeyed. To such parents a child’s defiant No can feel like being tossed into deep water without a life preserver.
Some react with hurt, anger, judgment or withdrawal.
Some try to regain control by imposing new rules, demands or punishments.
Some become emotionally or verbally abusive.
Some become violent.
Some fight with their spouses about it. Some get divorced.
Some get depressed, or develop anxiety disorders.
Some drink, drug or overeat.
And some enter therapy.
Where, if they’re lucky, they start to learn alternatives to monkeyparenting.
I’m a couples therapist who used to be scared of couples.
There’s just so much going on in a couples session, so many levels and variables to be aware of. I was constantly asking myself questions like
~ What are these people actually saying? What are they holding back?
~ Which feelings can they express to each other? Which ones do they hide?
~ Which of their motives are conscious, and which are unconscious?
~ Are they reacting to their current situation, or experiencing old feelings from past experiences or unhealed wounds?
It was a lot of work.
And it made Bert anxious as hell.
Then things changed for me.
I began studying control, and developed what I call the Monkeyship Theory.
The theory has three tenets:
(1) A monkeyship is any relationship that turns dysfunctional because the partners are trying to control each other.
(2) All relationships get monkeyish from time to time.
(3) Most relationship problems are really control struggles in disguise.
This theory helped me feel safer with couples in two ways.
First, focusing on the idea of control helped me to observe and organize what was happening in sessions, sort of like an Etch-a-Sketch magnet rearranges iron filings. Identifying underlying control issues (You’re rude to my mother./You won’t share control of our money./Hold on, she’s my daughter too) clarified how the couple got into trouble in the first place.
Second, it gave me a way to help them get out of trouble.
I realized my job wasn’t so much to fix them or change anything as to help the partners notice what they were already doing – what they tried to control and how they went about it.
I did this mainly by pointing out what I was seeing and hearing.
Mary, you just interrupted John again. Were you aware of that? Does it happen a lot?
John, you look hurt. What’s coming up for you right now?
When you apologize I get the sense that sorry is not how you really feel. Am I right?
For many couples just noticing their patterns and hidden messages helps to defuse tension and redefine conflicts. Once they see what they’re doing, they have a choice of whether to keep doing it or not. This alone can feel empowering.
After they learn to spot their own patterns, the next step is to teach them alternatives to control.
There are three, I tell them:
~ Surrender, which is the ability to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway,
~ Responsibility, which is the ability to shift your attention from externals (people, places, things) to internals (your own thoughts, feelings, behavior) and to base your choices on what you feel and need.
~ Intimacy, or the ability to be fully yourself with another person and permit them to do the same with you.
Once they understand the alternatives, the job is to get them to practice.
This approach works better with some couples than others. Its success depends mainly on how willing they are to stop playing blame tennis and look hard at themselves.
Those with the courage to do so usually discover that they’ve been trying to change their partner into the partner they want, instead of accepting the partner they have.
And that, without realizing it, they’ve been dancing to the toxic theme song of all monkeyships:
Don’t be who you are.
Be who I need you to be.
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.