(Talk #6) Mindware

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #6) Mindware.  Questions and feedback welcome.

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Change how you see and

see how you change. 

~ Zen proverb

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The idea of anxiety

Before we move on to Plan B, let’s look at anxiety.

My clients and I talk a lot about anxiety, so most of them know how I usually explain it.

They’ve heard me describe it as a symptom of emotional constipation. 

They know I believe that feelings, like shit, need to be expelled from the body, not stored up inside.  And that when we don’t express feelings we feel shitty. 

Anxiety is the name we give to this feeling. 

Psychologist Paul Foxman explains,

When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup or physical tension.  When that tension is not released, an internal pressure builds up.  An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally.  That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger. 

Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings. (1)

I know this is true because of all the anxious clients who describe how their anxiety drops when they’re able to express what they feel. 

But I also think anxiety is much larger than that. 

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Consciousness

Anxiety is an organism’s response to a real or imagined threat. 

We tend to experience it as heightened tension, sensitivity to our environment, and a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come.

For human beings anxiety is simply the cost of being conscious.  That’s because to be conscious is to be aware of (among other things) threats to survival and safety and wellbeing.  We sense threats in the present, remember them in the past, and anticipate them in the future.  We can’t help this; we are hardwired to do so. 

So to be conscious is to be forever on guard to some extent. 

Anxiety both causes and results from being on guard. 

It’s not inherently unhealthy.  We actually need some anxiety.  We wouldn’t want it to go away entirely.  That would leave us unconscious and vulnerable. 

But anxiety is damned uncomfortable. 

Severe anxiety can be crippling.  (Ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack.) 

Severe anxiety can be so unbearable that people kill themselves to escape it.

Moderate anxiety depletes energy, impairs concentration, limits productivity and destroys peace of mind.

Even mild anxiety is uncomfortable enough so that we work constantly to lower it and keep it at tolerable levels.

Which is where the idea of control comes in.

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The goal of control

I’ve defined control as the ability to edit reality, to direct or dictate or manipulate our environment. 

Why would we want to do that?

Mainly to manage anxiety.

That’s because we’re used to thinking of anxiety as a reaction to people, places and things.

In their book about American neurosis and neurotics, sociologists Snell & Gail Putney write,

One of the unquestioned assumptions of American culture is the belief that emotions have an external explanation.  When an American feels angry he looks around to see what provoked him and when he feels happy he looks around to see who delighted him. (2)

Read that again; it’s important.

Because it is this unquestioned assumption which leads us into control addiction.

Ultimately the goal of all our controlling is

 

Actually our emotional reactions come not from externals but from how we interpret and respond to them.

But if you don’t know this, you have a big problem.

Because then you’re left with no choice but to try to control the world around you.

Which is largely impossible.

Sure, some externals are controllable.  But many are not.

Most are not. 

And even when we do get a bit of control we can’t hold onto it for long. 

(Have you noticed?)

So a person for whom control is the only defense against anxiety is driven, inevitably, into compulsive controlling.

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A new goal

By comparison, Plan B has a different goal.

It’s both more realistic and more achievable.

The goal of Plan B is

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The idea of objectivity

“Seeing objectively” means seeing clearly and realistically.  It means moving beyond feeling, fantasy or desire. 

Or as Alcoholics Anonymous describes it, dealing with life on life’s terms.

In Plan B the idea of objectivity replaces the idea of control.

Control addicts, in their need to edit reality, find themselves perpetually at war with What Is.  Objectivity allows us is to declare a cease-fire in that war, to accept What Is and to cope realistically with it. 

For example, objectivity enables me to move beyond fear and desire and become able to see

~ why it’s pointless to try and stop “my” alcoholic from drinking;

~ why I can’t expect a narcissist to meet my emotional needs;

~ why my parent’s inability to love me was about their limitations, not mine;

~ why someone’s abusive behavior is never my fault;

~ why hiding my feelings makes me feel more scared, not safer; 

~ that I can feel good even when people around me are feeling bad;

~ that I’m as sick as my secrets;

~ that I’m as healthy as my relationships;

and

~ that there are things I just cannot or should not try to control.

So how do we achieve objectivity?

We change our mindware.

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Mindware

Mindware is a term used by family systems theorist Michael Kerr to define “Mental knowledge and procedures used to solve problems and make decisions.” (3)

Plan B is a kind of mindware.

It’s a set of ideas and practices which allow us to remain objective under stress — i.e., replace anxiety-driven controlling with more rational and effective ways of managing our emotional lives.

The components of this mindware will be the subject of the remaining talks in this series.

I love the mindware metaphor because it suggests that, once installed, this new learning allows us to respond in a healthier way automatically.

In my first book (4) I told a story to illustrate how I discovered that the mindware I was teaching my clients had seeped deep into me:

During a routine physical my doc runs a cardiogram and finds a blip that suggests a TIA (transient ischemic attack).  He tells me to drive to the ER.  I feel fine, but I go.  At the hospital they put me on a gurney and park me in a hallway for four hours while they run an assortment of tests.  I have to cancel six clients, calm my worried wife over the phone, wonder what all this is costing me, and then just lie there and wait.  At one time I would have reacted to all this with frustration, worry and anger.  Now I surprise myself by closing my eyes and taking a nap.  It’s a pretty good nap, too.

Change how you see, and see how you change.

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Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

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(1) Paul Foxman, Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty (Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 48.

(2) Putney, Snell & Gail J, Putney, The adjusted American: Normal neuroses in the individual and society (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964), 99.

(3) In his book Bowen theory’s secrets: Revealing the hidden life of families (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019).  Kerr says the term was coined by Keith Stanovich, in his book What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

(4) Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (New York: Lioncrest, 2015).


(Talk #5) Hungry, lonely, scared: Decoding the laundry list

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #5) Hungry, lonely, scared: Decoding the laundry list.  Questions and feedback welcome.

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Because we are afraid of life, we

seek to control or master it.

~ Alexander Lowen

Three talks ago I told you about The Laundry List, those thirteen symptoms common to kids from dysfunctional families.

Three decades of working with adult children — plus seven decades of living as one — make it hard for me to read that list as anything but a detailed description of control addiction. 

For example, as an adult child

(1) I guess what normal is, then try to imitate it.

I don’t feel normal, whatever that is.  I feel emotionally hungry, lonely and scared.  I feel this all the time, and assume these feelings are unique to me, and am convinced that if you knew about them you’d judge me.  So I hide my feelings and fake normalcy.  I do this in order to control how you perceive and react to me.

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(2) I have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

This comes from how I handle discomfort.  I hate discomfort, mainly because I’ve no idea what to do with it.  I haven’t learned to detach or vent or ask for support or help or advice.  So I try to make the discomfort go away by stopping what I’m doing.  (I call this “taking a break.”)   And since all projects turn uncomfortable at some point, demanding I do things I’d rather not do, I end up stopping permanently.  Thus my garage remains a disaster, my graduate degree unearned, my book unwritten, and I may never lose those last ten pounds.  I do this to control how I’m feeling. 

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(3) I lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

Since the truth — like how I really feel about myself, or how I feel about you, or what I really want or hate or fear —  makes me uneasy, honesty feels dangerous.  It feels much safer to conceal and manipulate the truth.  I’ve been doing that for so long that now it’s become automatic, a habit.  I control the truth because it calms my anxiety and helps me believe I can control what happens next.    

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(4) I judge myself without mercy.

Childhood taught me to expect others to criticize, judge or reject me.  This was so painful that now I anticipate it and do it to myself before you can.  I’d rather abuse myself than feel victimized.  (Kind of like quitting a job before they can fire you, or ending a relationship before you can be dumped.)  And judging myself without mercy saves me from being surprised or disappointed should you ever do it.   I do this to control the anixety I feel in relationships.

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(5) I have trouble relaxing or having fun.

As a kid I never knew what to expect.  Will Dad come home drunk or sober?  Happy or angry?  Will he hug me or hit me?  Will Mom comfort me or point out my flaws?  Will my parents get along tonight or scream and break things?  This uncertainty made me hypervigilant.   I learned to constantly scan for danger, signs of unrest or tension or anger or conflict or some other trouble.  I did that for so long that I lost the ability to not do it, to drop my defenses and relax or just play.  I became an adult chronically braced against imminent danger.  I do this in an attempt to control my anxiety about living in an unpredictable environment.   

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(6) I take myself very seriously.

Anxiety makes you pretty damn serious.  It hijacks your attention, steals your energy, keeps you preoccupied and wary.  And since one of the things I’m most scared of is rejection, I’m forever worried that others will dislike or judge me.  I dread embarrassment and humiliation.  Dance?  Play?  Act silly?  Make a fool of myself?  God, no.  On some level I’m afraid of that all the time.  Chronic seriousness feels like controlling how you will see and evaluate me.      

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(7) I struggle with intimate relationships.

Intimacy means being able to be myself with another person and allow them to do the same.  It means dropping my defenses and surrendering control.  It requires faith, both in you (I trust you not to hurt or betray me) and in me (I am basically lovable and can take care of myself).   I never developed that kind of faith, intimacy scares the crap out of me.  Showing my true self to another person feels like skydiving without a parachute.  Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone can do it, or would want to.  Intimacy means surrendering control in a way I simply cannot.

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(8) I over-react to changes beyond my control.

I spent childhood defending against situations that were confusing, stressful and scary.  This left me experiencing the external world – the world of people, places and things — as dangerous.  And I concluded that the only way to achieve a sense of internal safety was to control those externals.  A logical conclusion, maybe, but psychologically disastrous, since it left me hypersensitive to everything I couldn’t control.  Every life is filled with the uncontrollable.  So now, to the extent that I rely on control to feel secure or confident, my internal life feels not safe but chaotic.  My need to control external reality keeps me scared of reality itself.

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(9) I constantly seek approval and affirmation.

Every kid needs large helpings of the four A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection.  These are the basic components of love.  Kids who get enough grow up feeling loved and lovable.  Kids who don’t grow up emotionally hungry.  I grew up hungry, and now my hunger compels me to seek feeding in the form of approval and validation.  Unfortunately I seek it in controlling and self-defeating ways.  For example, since I feel unlovable, I feel unworthy of feeding, so instead of showing you my true self I hide the parts of me I think you’ll reject.  I try to fool you into loving me.  This never works, because whatever love or approval I do win feels meaningless, since I had to lie to get it.  So I remain chronically hungry and chronically compelled to seek approval and affirmation again and again.  The controlling way in which I seek feeding makes it impossible for me to ever feel adequately fed.

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(10) I feel different from other people.

This comes from how I overcontrol my emotional life.  I don’t trust or listen to my true feelings so much as judge them.  Since I judge them, I don’t share them with anyone else.  Since I don’t share them, others don’t share their true feelings with me, so I never discover that we feel essentially the same way.  Trapped in this closed loop of feeling > judgment > more feeling > more judgment,  I’m forced to the inaccurate conclusion that I’m different from everyone else.  The wall I’ve built to control the risk of judgment keeps me feeling isolated, alienated and alone.

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(11) I’m either super-responsible or super-irresponsible.

This comes from how I manage my anxiety.  Since I don’t realize that my anxiety comes mainly from emotional constipation — i.e., holding feelings in — I blame it on external stressors, like the endless To Do list that is my life.  Sometimes I try to control my anxiety by finishing everything on that list (super-responsible), and sometimes I turn my back on the list (super-irresponsible).  Neither approach works for long.  Hyper-responsibility leaves me anxious and exhausted, while hyper-irresponsibility leaves me anxious and guilty.  So I swing like a pendulum between these two unhealthy extremes, confusing the hell out of myself and the people around me.  My attempts to control anxiety by focusing on externals just makes me more and more anxious.

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(12) I’m extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that my loyalty is undeserved.

This comes from doubting myself and the evidence of my feelings.  Childhood left me convinced I was permanently flawed, so when things go wrong between us I usually blame myself.  (If you hurt my feelings I decide I’m being oversensitive.  If you ignore or neglect me I tell myself Stop being so needy If I lose my temper with you I worry Am I crazy?)  My sense of self-worth is so low that I figure I’m lucky to have any relationships at all, and so must work extra hard to preserve them.  This habit of ignoring or misreading my internal radar keeps me in relationships long after a healthier person would have escaped.  My distorted self-image leaves me hanging onto you for security and constantly suppressing and overcontrolling myself.     

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(13) I’m impulsive — i.e., tend to lock myself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.

This, too, comes from how I manage anxiety.  I’m impulsive because I lack both self-awareness (for example, the fact that I’m constipated) and the ability to defer gratification.  Like a child, I grab for the first choice I think will bring relief.  (Boss yelled at me?  Quit the job.  Boyfriend didn’t call?  Throw a tantrum.  Girlfriend forgot my birthday?  End the relationship.  Partner cheated on me?  Drive into a tree.Adult children in recovery learn to calm themselves down — to take a breath, consider their options, maybe process their choices with a safe person.  In recovery I’ll learn there are better ways to reduce my anxiety than leaping without looking.  But now I get so flooded with uncomfortable feelings that the only way I know to control them is by acting out.

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Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

 


(Talk #4) Weapon of choice: The roots of control addiction

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #4) Weapon of choice: The roots of control addiction.  Questions and feedback welcome.

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We come now to the last of the three metaphors: control addiction.

I said earlier that control addiction is my favorite explanation for human behavior.

That’s because it explains so much of what we feel and do as adults.

It also combines the first two metaphors – Plan A and the inner Kid – in a theory of how we develop emotional problems.

Plan A, remember, is that set of adaptations we developed as kids for dealing with feelings, relationships and life in general.  And the Inner Kid is that authentic part of us which gets driven into hiding by the process of socialization.

Well, every Plan A is based on control.

And every wounded Kid gets triggered into compulsive controlling.

Since we all have a Plan A, and we all carry a wounded Kid inside, we are all, ultimately, control addicts.

Control & controlling

Some definitions to start with:

Control means the ability to edit reality – to make people, places and things (ourselves included) behave the way we want.

A craving for control is hardwired into us.  It’s rooted in our big brains – brains that remember and anticipate, analyze and plan, worry and obsess – brains which, in fact, have a life of their own and cannot stop doing any of those things. 

It works this way: 

Moment to moment, we each carry a picture in our heads of the reality we want.  And we constantly compare that picture to the reality we have.

Everything we do to bring those two into alignment — the reality we want and the reality we have — is what I call controlling.

We seek control constantly.  We do it in our heads, our speech and our behavior.  We do it in ways big and small, obvious and disguised, healthy and unhealthy.  Sometimes we do it consciously, but most of our controlling is both unconscious and automatic.

We can’t help ourselves.

Huge & invisible

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny,” Robert Pirsig writes. “But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.”

Control is one of those invisible huge things.

The urge to control explains a ridiculously wide range of behaviors.  Often we think of controlling as bossing, bullying or nagging, or a controlling person as someone like Hitler, Donald Trump or Mom.  But that’s like mistaking the elephant’s trunk for the whole elephant.

We’re controlling whenever we scratch an itch.  Comb our hair.  Mow our lawn.  Salt our soup.  Spank our child.  Balance our checkbook.  Change channels. Stop at a red light.  Vote.  Punch someone in the mouth.  Flatter someone.  Seduce someone.  Lie.  Hide our true feelings.  Worry.  Dream.

You get the idea.

We’re all controlling, and we’re controlling all the time.

We chase control all our lives, waking and sleeping, out in public and deep in the most secret crannies of our mind.  We chase it consciously and unconsciously, creatively and destructively, wisely and stupidly, from birth until death.

As I said, we can’t help ourselves.  Control-seeking is the default position of our species.

At the same time, because it’s such a given of human experience, we barely notice we’re doing it.

Control isn’t like a tool we pick up and put down.  It’s more like breathing, or blinking, or the way your knee jerks when the doctor taps your patellar tendon.  Constant, automatic, involuntary.

Nor is the wish for control like a faucet we can turn on and off.  An urge to control flows through us continuously, saturates all our behavior and feelings, infuses everything we desire and fear.

It not only drives our behavior, it structures our thinking.  

What is most of our thinking, if not an attempt to somehow change some circumstance, shift some piece of reality closer to what we’d prefer?  What else do you call problem-solving, planning, analyzing, fantasizing, worrying, obsessing?

It also structures our emotional lives. 

More specifically, it causes most of our pain.

Yoga teacher Stephen Cope writes,

Each of us has our own silent War With Reality.  Yogis came to call this duhkha.  Duhkha means, literally, “suffering,” “pain,” or “distress.”  This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior:  We reach for the pleasant.  We hate the unpleasant.  We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones.  We try to get rid of this pervasive state of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things “out there.”  By changing the world. 

The idea of control makes up the psychological sea in which each of us swims.

And most of the time we barely notice we’re wet.

Control vs power

Finally, control is very different from power.

The two words are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

In some ways, they’re opposites.

One difference is that power is possible, but control is often an illusion.

Another is that power can set you free, while controlling can make you crazy.

Again, control means the ability to edit reality, to get life itself to meet our expectations.  But power (as I use the word) means the ability to get your needs met.  To take care of yourself.  To not just survive, but to heal, grow and be happy.

And as difficult as it may be to attain this sort of power, it’s easier than forcing reality to meet your expectations.

An example of the difference:

Imagine your rich uncle dies suddenly and leaves you control of his multinational corporation.  You wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bucks, Inc.

You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire, buy and sell, build plants or close them, approve product lines, mount advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.

How do you feel?

If you’re like me, you feel crippled by anxiety. Bewildered and overwhelmed by your new responsibilities. Disoriented. Panicked.

Anything but in control.

Now imagine you decide, “To hell with this.  I quit.  I’m going home to eat a sandwich and take a nap.”

How do you feel now?

Notice that in this situation you gain power by giving up control.

Often we seek control when it’s power that we really want and need.  But since we never distinguish the two, we end up chasing the wrong one.  Which can be disastrous.

 As a recovering control addict I’ve learned two essential differences between control and power.

~ Control focuses outward, at other people, places and things. So control-seeking pulls me away from myself, away from self-awareness and self-care.   The more controlling I am, the more I lose touch with me, and the more preccupied I become with my environment.  This leads to worry and frustration and exhaustion and helplessness.   

But power focuses inward, on my own needs, thoughts and feelings.  So developing power is all about developing the ability to know, understand and accept myself.  And this leads to self-awareness and self-acceptance.

~ Control works paradoxically.   People who depend on having control to feel safe and happy don’t feel safe or happy most of the time.  Even when you get control, you can’t keep it for long.  Chasing control is like chasing a train you can never catch.  

Power, though — rooted in healthy, intelligent self-care — is something you really can learn and practice.   Like a muscle which, if you exercise it, grows stronger over time.

The roots of control

So how do we get so confused?  Why do we end up chasing control when what we really need is power?

Part of the answer is what I mentioned above: our big brains.

But another part has to do with the experience of childhood.

Psychoanalyst Alan Wheeler writes, “We all start out weak in the hands of the strong.”  We have no power as kids, no ability to take care of ourselves.  We need big people to feed us and wash us and protect us and comfort us when we’re upset or scared.

And inevitably we use control to make sure they do those things.  

Control is our only weapon against helplessness.  We learn this early on, even before we have language.  We begin to learn it the first time we cry and mom picks us up and feeds us or changes our diaper. 

“Hey,” we realize.  “What I do affects what she does.”

So we begin collecting data about how to get other people to treat us the way we want and not treat us the way we don’t.

We learn thousands of ways. 

Want mom to love you?  Don’t talk back.  Want dad to be proud of you?  Get straight A’s.  Want Teacher’s approval? Do your homework.  Want to avoid being bullied?  Make friends with the tough kid.

This is how kids navigate life.  For a kid, there’s no other way.

That’s why every Plan A is based on control.

Weapon of choice

Of course, at some point we’re supposed to grow up and develop some power.

Supposed to become able to express, take care of, and stand up for ourselves.

But many of us don’t.  Many of us — especially those who’ve been abused, neglected or traumatized — stay stuck in kid mode.

We continue relying on control to get our needs met and to manage relationships.  We keep seeking approval and avoiding rejection.  We hide who we are, bury our real feelings, put on a mask, and try our damnedest to be what we think others want us to be. 

Most of the time we do this without realizing we’re doing it.  It’s our Plan A and it just feels normal. 

But we’re acting, in effect, like kids. 

And if we want to be healthy adults it’s essential to notice that while kids cannot help but fall into controlling, adults have a choice. 

Adults can learn to function more like adults.

Which means learning how to

~ stop controlling what we can’t control anyway,

~ listen to ourselves and use what we hear to make choices,

~ identify and express our feelings,

~ parent the inner Kid inside us (instead of hiding or abusing it),

and

~ be our authentic selves in relationships.

Adults can exchange the kid’s only weapon against helplessness for more effective ways of thinking, feeling and coping.

Adults can develop a Plan B.

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Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

 


(Talk #3) Tranced: Inner kids & adult children

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The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #3) Tranced: Inner kids & adult children.  Questions and feedback welcome.

***

 

The child is in me still and sometimes not so still. ~ Fred Rogers

We’ve been talking* about the need to free ourselves from our families of origin in order to grow up emotionally.

We can’t do either without addressing our Inner Kid.

That means we need to acknowledge the Kid, accept it, figure out what it needs from us, and do our best to parent it.

Adults who never learn how to parent the Kid end up feeling permanently kidlike.

The Inner Kid

So what’s the Inner Kid?

Occasionally someone asks me this.

I usually answer, “It’s that part of you where you store unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unanswered questions and unresolved conflicts.”

Usually they nod.

Not one ever says No, I don’t have one of those.

That might seem odd, given the lack of attention we generally pay to this most secret part of us.

Then again, it doesn’t.

Since we all know we’re damaged or wounded in some way.

The inner kid gives us a language for talking about it.

In my work I tend to encounter each client’s inner Kid in two forms: as the source of that person’s hidden authenticity, and as the source of his or her hidden wounds.

Authenticity

Authentic means real.

The Kid is the source of feeling, honesty, spontaneity, joy, creativity and growth.

Carl Jung wrote,

In every adult there lurks a child, an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education.  That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.

Other writers have echoed Jung’s view of the child as the source of all human potential and authenticity:

[The inner child is] that part of each of us which is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled; it is our Real Self — who we truly are. (Charles Whitfield)

[The inner child] is who we are when we were born, our core self, our natural personality, with all its talent, instinct, intuition and emotion. (Margaret Paul)

All the people we call ‘geniuses’ are men and women who somehow escaped having to put that curious, wondering child in themselves to sleep. (Barbara Sher)

The most potent muse of all is our own inner child. (Stephen Nachmanovich)

I also think of the Kid as the animal part, the part of us that has healthy instinctual reactions to what it experiences.

Occasionally when a client is trying to make a difficult decision, I’ll suggest they visualize each of the two alternatives they face.  Then I ask “What does your stomach want?”  That’s my way of checking in with the Kid.

Usually the stomach tenses when the person thinks of one alternative and relaxes when they think of the other.  That’s the Kid, voting.

The Kid is that part of us that knows what we really need and isn’t afraid to tell us.

Unfortunately most of us have been trained not to listen.

Wounds

Here’s where the wounds come in.

The inner Kid is the part of us that gets driven underground by socialization – i.e., when we’re trained to live with other people.

It’s the part that gets told

Don’t pee in your pants, use the bathroom,

and

Don’t eat that cookie, it’s almost dinnertime,

and

Stop yelling, you’ll wake your father,

and

Get up, it’s time for school,

and

Don’t you take that tone with me,

and

Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,

and

Why can’t you be more like your big sister?,

and so on.

Socialization is necessary, of course.  We all have to adapt to our environment in order to survive.

But the process of socialization inevitably creates psychological and emotional wounds.

It basically splits us in two parts: a public part and a private part.  Or more accurately, an adapted part and an authentic part.

This self-splitting is called neurosis, and it’s inescapable.

No one survives childhood without some splitting.

Which means no one survives childhood without accumulating unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unanswered questions and unresolved conflicts.

And no one avoids carrying these wounds into adulthood.

Adult children

Adult child is a term we use to describe this phenomenon.

In my last talk I defined adult children as people still living according to Plan A – the set of adaptations they developed as children.

Here’s another definition:

Adult children are grownups who still feel like kids inside.

Maybe not all the time, but under stress.

This happens because, under stress, adult children enter the equivalent of a hypnotic trance.

In that trance they forget they’re grownups and experience themselves as the kids they once were – scared, angry, confused, helpless, overwhelmed.

The worse they were wounded as children, the more powerful this trance is.

Anyone who’s ever experienced a panic attack knows what I’m describing.

So does any adult who’s ever felt him- or herself regress to age six in the presence of family members.

These feelings are what R.D. Laing was describing when he said, “We are all in a post-hypnotic trance induced in infancy.”

To some extent, we are all of us adult children.

Confusion

So why is all this inner Kid/Adult children stuff important?

Because it’s essential to understanding ourselves as adults.

It reminds us of where we came from, and what happened to us there:

~ that we started out helpless, totally dependent on the big people around us.

~ that we had no choice but to adapt to those big people.

~ that this adaptation occurred not just on the surface of our personality, but seeped down to the very core of us.

~ that, like a lie you tell so often you come to believe it’s true, this adaptation came to feel not like something we did but something we are.

~ that as a result it left us confused at the deepest level – confused about who we really are and how to be in the world.

This confusion lies at the root of the most common problems people bring to therapy — anxiety, depression, addictions, unhappy relationships and parenting problems.

I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t suffered from at least one of these.

They all flow from being tranced, from feeling like kids trapped in adult bodies, from having inner Kids we don’t know how to care for and listen to.

Adult health and happiness depend on emerging from the trance, escaping from the defensive prison to which childhood consigned us.

You simply cannot be an emotionally strong and healthy adult so long as you’re carrying around a weak wounded Kid inside.

Or as Carl Jung put it, “Whatever we don’t own, owns us.”

***

Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

_______________________________________________________________

* (Talk #1) Three metaphors, and (Talk #2) There I go again: Families and Plan A

______________________________________________________________

Jung, Carl Gustav.  The portable Jung.  Ed Joseph Campbell.  New York: Penguin, 1980.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen.  Free play: Improvisation in life and art.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.

Paul, Margaret.  Inner bonding: Becoming a loving adult to your inner child.  San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1992.

Sher, Barbara.  Wishcraft: How to get what you really want.  New York: Viking Press, 1979.

Whitfield, Charles.  Healing the child within: Discovery and recovery for adult childre dysfunctional families.  Pompano Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1987.


(Talk #2) There I go again: Families & Plan A

x

.

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #2) There I go again: Families & Plan A.  Questions and feedback welcome.

***

 

*

The family ocean

An old proverb tells us that fish will be the last creatures to discover water.

Makes sense, right?  Water is the only environment fish know.  So to a fish water is simply a given, something to be taken for granted and ignored.

Human beings are like that.

Except the water we take for granted is our family.

By family I don’t mean just the group of people around us when we’re born and raised.

I mean an emotional environment, a way of feeling and perceiving and thinking and acting.  We depend on family not just for our lives and emotional feeding but for our sense of what the world is and how we’re meant to function in it.

Family is the psychological sea in which we swim, the only reality we know.

So we have no choice but to adapt to it and absorb it, to carry it inside us everywhere we go.

And even when what we’ve absorbed causes us problems – makes us unhappy or emotionally sick, for example – we usually don’t think to step back question it.

Since it’s almost impossible to see your family objectively.

Fish roles

If you doubt this, think of how we get defined by our family roles.

Family therapist James Framo writes,

The “family way” of seeing and doing things becomes automatic and unquestioned, like the air one breathes.  [For example,] It is very difficult for anyone, no matter how grown-up or mature, to avoid the family role assignment when he is in the presence of his family.  Whether his role is that of “the quiet one,” “the smart one,” “the slick one,” “the troublemaker,” “father’s protector,” or any one of countless assignments, he will find himself behaving accordingly despite himself. [1]

Try a thought experiment.  Think of your family of origin.  Now ask yourself,

Who was the strong one?

Who was the weak one?

Who was the emotional one?

Who was the unemotional one?

Who was the funny one?

Who was the angry one?

Who was the anxious or insecure one?

Who was the controlling one?

Who got controlled? 

Who was the problem solver?

Who was the problem?

Now try asking yourself

Did I have a role?

What was it?

Do I slip back into it when I’m with my family?

How am I still playing this role somewhere else in my life?

Was I aware of this before now?

For most of us it takes a long time to discover how our family role has defined us – if we ever discover it at all.

Conscious fish

On the other hand, if we’re in recovery from anything – anxiety or depression or addiction or chronically bad relationships or some other emotional problem — sooner or later we begin to suspect that maybe we need to reexamine our family.

That we need to do what Freud originally defined as the goal of psychoanalysis: make the unconscious conscious.

So how do we do that?

How does a fish discover water?

We consciously turn our attention to what we’ve ignored, and to start asking higher level questions about it.

And a good question to start is: What’s my Plan A? 

Plan A

As I said last time, Plan A is my label for everything we learn as children about life and how to live it.

We each have a Plan A.  And we each pretty much learn it in the same place and in the same way.

The place is our family, and the way is unconsciously.

Nobody sits us down at the kitchen table and says, “Listen up.  Here’s how you do Life.”  They just do Life themselves, and we watch and listen and soak it all up like little sponges.  Which explains why our Plan A tends to look so much like that of our family members.

And it works for a while.  Especially while we’re still living in the family.  We’re all following the same unwritten rule book.

But Plan A always breaks down.

It happens when we move beyond the family into the larger world, filled with new people and new challenges.  And we discover that what worked at home doesn’t always work out there.

At which point we have, at least in theory, a choice.

We can tell ourselves, “Oh, I see.  I guess I need a Plan B.”  Or we can tell ourselves, “I must be doing it wrong.  I better work harder at Plan A.”

Guess which we choose?

Right.  Plan A.  Always Plan A.

Two reasons for this.  First, we may not even know there’s such a thing as Plan B.  We think Plan A is just normal.  Why would anyone do Life in any other way?

Second, even when we begin to suspect there are other options, change is scary. 

So we cling to Plan A because it’s familiar.  It may not work great, but we can do it in our sleep.

And we usually keep doing just that until we develop symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, communication problems, bad relationships.

Those symptoms are what drive us into therapy.

Seeking, whether we know it not, a Plan B.

Symptoms

In 1983 Janet Woititz published a book titled Adult Children of Alcoholics[2] which contained what came to be known in recovery circles as The Laundry List.

It’s a list of thirteen traits typical of adults who grew up in dysfunctional families.

A dysfunctional family, by the way, is simply one in which the members cannot get their needs met.

And adult children are people still trying to figure out what their Plan A was and which parts of it they need to exchange for something healthier.

If you’d like to be able to notice when you slip into Plan A – to say “Oh, there I go again” instead of reacting unconsciously — the Laundry List is a good place to start.

Below is a revised version.

If you’re an adult child,

    1. You guess at what normal is, then try to imitate it.

    2. You have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

    3. You lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

    4. You judge yourself without mercy.

    5. You have trouble relaxing or having fun.

    6. You take yourself very seriously.

    7. You struggle with intimate relationships.

    8. You over-react to changes beyond your control.

    9. You constantly seek approval and affirmation.

    10. You feel different from other people.

    11. You’re either super responsible or super irresponsible.

    12. You’re extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that your loyalty is undeserved.

    13. You’re impulsive — i.e., tend to lock yourself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.  This creates confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over your environment.  You also spend large amounts of time and energy cleaning up the mess.

If you identify with one or more of these symptoms you may wonder what it means.

I’ll tell you.

It means you’re like me, and everyone else I know.

Because there’s no one on this bus but us fishes.

***

Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

____________________________________________________

[1] James Framo, “Symptoms from a Family Transactional Viewpoint,” in Explorations in Marital and Family Therapy (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1982), p. 31.

[2] Adapted from Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1983).

 

 


(Talk #1) Three metaphors

*

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series starts today with (Talk #1) Three Metaphors.  Questions and feedback welcome.

***

*

 

*

Unconsciousness

The first thing a therapist learns is that most people don’t know why they feel what they feel or do what they do.

We think we do, but we don’t.

Once during a lecture Joseph Campbell drew a big circle on a blackboard and then added a tiny notch at the top.  The circle, he said, represents the whole human being, and the notch represents the conscious part.  

The main goal of this group is to expand your notch – to raise your awareness of the forces that shaped you and where your feelings and behavior come from.

We’ll do that by looking at your family of origin and how you were unconsciously conditioned by it to see, feel and act.

Personal

I’ve been trying to expand my own notch for forty years now, and the most important part of that work has involved looking at my family of origin. 

My father was alcoholic and my mother was codependent.  Those two facts shaped my life more than anything. 

They taught me how to see myself and other people.  They taught me how to handle feelings and relationships, cope with stress and perceive the world. 

They also left me with anger, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, narcissistic tendencies, social anxiety, workaholism, an identification with underdogs, a tendency to self-medicate with sugar, and a compulsion to solve other people’s problems. 

At 69 I’m still trying to understand how all that happened, and to sort out the useful lessons from the unhealthy ones.

It’s the main reason I became a therapist, and the main reason I wanted to do this group.

Three metaphors

In the course of figuring out my own conditioning and helping others figure out theirs I’ve come across three useful metaphors we’ll be using in this group: Plan A, the Inner Kid, and control addiction.

~ Plan A refers to everything you learned as a kid about yourself, other people, feelings, relationships and life itself – all the conclusions, assumptions and rules you absorbed from your environment and your experiences. 

We each have a Plan A, and we each learn it the same way – unconsciously.  We watch and listen to the big people around us and decide that’s how we’re supposed to be.  We also have stressful experiences which force us into certain ways of coping and then, as adults, we revert to those Plan A reactions in times of stress. 

Why is understanding Plan A important? 

Because to the extent we rely on it as adults, we feel like kids inside, and we function in ways that are often outdated, maladaptive and unhealthy. 

Speaking of feeling like kids inside:

~  The Inner Kid refers to the part of you that was forced into hiding when you were powerless.  I think we each have an Inner Kid, and that understanding that helps us understand both ourselves and other people better.

In therapy I tend to think of the Kid as the authentic part – the real you, the part that reflects what you really feel and really need. 

I also think of it as the wounded part — the part that carries all your unmet needs, unexpressed feelings, unresolved conflicts and unhealed wounds. 

Again, I think we each have a Kid which was driven into hiding when we were young, and which gets triggered now when we’re stressed.  And one sign that our Kid is getting triggered is that we become controlling.

~ Control addiction is my favorite explanation for human behavior.  I’ll explain my view of it in more detail later, but here are the basics:

[] Control means the ability to edit reality – to make people, places and things (including ourselves) behave the way we want. 

[] Human beings are hardwired to seek control, mainly as a result of our big brains – brains that remember and project and plan and analyze and worry and obsess – which cannot, in fact, stop doing any of those things.    

[] I believe

~ We’re all addicted to control.     

~ This addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems.

~ The root of this addiction is the wish to control feelings.

~ There are better ways to handle feelings than control.

I call these the Four Laws of control, and they’re the basis for how I do therapy.

So those are the three metaphors.  I’ll explain each in detail in the weeks to come.

Learning goals

In the description I sent you I said this group would have three goals.  The first had to do with what I hope you’ll learn here:  To help you better understand how childhood issues play out in your current life. 

In the language of the three metaphors, that means figuring out

(a) what your Plan A is and where it came from,

(b) how your Inner Kid functions and what s/he needs, and

(c) what triggers you into compulsive controlling.

Stages

One last note about what we’ll be discussing:

Much of what I’m teaching you will be counterintuitive. 

That means not just that it will be unfamiliar, but that your mind and emotions may well reject it, at least initially.  It just won’t fit your normal ways of perceiving, feeling and acting.  It may even make you uncomfortable.

If that happens, relax.  It’s normal. 

Learning this new view means going through three stages: (a) understanding the idea, (b) accepting the idea, and finally (c) practicing the idea.

Take all the time you need with each stage.

***

Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.


Agony in adults

 

The person in the grip of an old distress says things that aren’t pertinent, does things that don’t work, fails to cope with the situation, and endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present.

~ Harvey Jackins

(Continued from “Agony.”)

I can only guess, of course, whether someone with whom I am working received adequate attunement from their mothers.

But occasionally I meet people who make me suspect that might have been the case.

They tend to be people who seem forever at war with their feelings.

Like Alan, a quiet man whose marriage is failing because he’s so disconnected emotionally, who works all day and then goes home to pore over paperwork at his kitchen table, so turned inward that he can barely sustain a conversation in session, and whose frustrated wife complains that “even when he’s there he’s not there.”

Or Bonnie, a chronic people pleaser who always looks tired, seems surrounded by people who discount or abuse her, and who worries constantly about falling back into the suicidal depression which overwhelmed her twenty years ago.

Or Cate, an attractive educated woman who keeps drifting into relationships with emotionally unavailable men, spends months trying to get them to love her, then blames each failure not on the man but on her own unworthiness.

And Dustin, a recovering alcoholic stuck in a ten-year affair with a married woman who gives him less and less time and attention, but whom he refuses to leave because “she’s the only woman who’s ever made me feel like someone loved me.”

Harvey Jackins’ phrase —

endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present

— is a perfect description of each of these people.

Each is trapped in what I’ve called the Kid Trance: an emotional life dominated by how they felt when they were helpless children.

The Trance is an agonizing place to live.

Its defining characteristic is a tendency to perceive and treat ourselves as we were perceived and treated by our parents.  If they abused or neglected or judged us, we abuse or neglect or judge ourselves. 

And if our parents had no clue about how to deal with difficult feelings, we too are left essentially clueless.

What we do, then, is retreat into the ways of coping we discovered as children. 

We may disconnect and distract ourselves from feelings, like Alan.  Or exhaust ourselves trying to win love and emotional feeding, like Bonnie and Cate.  Or cling desperately to someone we think capable of meeting our emotional needs, like Dustin.

There’s another reason the Trance is agonizing: shame.

Psychologist Russell Carr writes,

In the absence of a sustaining relational home where feelings can be verbalized, understood and held, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing.

Whether it comes from being actively discouraged from identifying and expressing feelings (Big boys don’t cry) or from lacking a model for even noticing them, the inability to process feelings cannot help but leave us feeling flawed, broken, inadequate, and cut off from other human beings. 

Why cut off?

Because, in our shame, we won’t see relationship as a safe place in which to feel or reveal ourselves.

We may not even believe in the possibility of what Carr calls a sustaining relational home.

And this is one serious wound.

“Trauma is a basic fact of life,” writes Mark Epstein.

It is not just an occasional thing that happens to some people; it is there all the time.  Things are always slipping away….  The healthy attachment of a baby to a “good-enough” parent facilitates a comfort with emotional experience that makes the challenges of adult life and adult intimacy less intimidating.

Relationship is the adult’s secret weapon for handling such challenges, a life jacket to keep us afloat, a safe harbor to which we can retreat from storms. 

Without it we can’t help but feel adrift, vulnerable to emotional waves that threaten to drown us, “traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting a pain we do not understand”(Epstein).

And with no life jacket or safe harbor available to us, we have no choice but to turn to the illusion of control.   

________________________

Russell Carr is quoted by Epstein (see below).

Mark Epstein.  The trauma of everyday life.  New York: Penguin, 2013.

Harvey Jackins is quoted by John Bradshaw, in Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child.  New York: Bantam, 1990.

 

 


Agony

.

There is no cell of our body that does not have a wounded child in it.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

There is another kind of unfinished emotional business which predates the kind I just described (see “Shit”) and prevents us from feeling and functioning like grownups. 

It is rooted in the way our mothers responded to us when we were infants.

Mark Epstein explains it in his book The trauma of everyday life (Penguin, 2013), drawing on the seminal work of British child analyst D.W. Winnicott.

Here’s a simplified version of his explanation:

One of the most important jobs a mother has is to teach her child how to identify and handle feelings.  She does this by modeling a combination of empathy (Oh, you’re having a feeling) and reassurance (Everything will be fine).  Anyone who spends any time observing mothers with their children sees this happen over and over. 

Oh, you’re wet and uncomfortable?  Here, let’s get you changed. 

Oh, you’re hungry?  Let’s warm up your bottle. 

Oh, you hurt yourself?  Here, let mama kiss it.  

And so on.  This ability to pay attention to and respond appropriately to the infant’s emotional experience is called attunement.

“In this state,” Winnicott writes,

mothers become able to put themselves into the infant’s shoes, so to speak.  That is to say, they develop an amazing capacity for identification with the baby, and this makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach.     

Mom’s attunement is essential to the infant because it models for the child how to attune to itself.  The basic message is Here’s what you do with a feeling: You respect it.  You pay attention to it.  You figure out what it’s telling you, and you respond.

Attunement provides a kind of emotional container — an experience of holding, attention and safety — which the infant absorbs and, eventually, learns to provide for him/herself.  

But what if the mother is unable to attune to her infant? 

What if something else is occupying her attention or draining her energy?  What if she is exhausted, or sick, or depressed, or frightened, or angry, or being abused, or self-medicating with some substance?

“An infant who is held well enough is quite a different thing from one who has not been held well enough,” writes Winnicott.

You see two infants: one has been held…well enough, and there is nothing to prevent a rapid emotional growth, according to inborn tendencies.  The other has not had the experience of being held well and growth has had to be distorted and delayed, and some degree of primitive agony has to be carried on into life and living.

What Winnicott calls primitive agony is the experience of being left all alone to deal with incomprehensible and uncontrollable feelings.

This is not an experience that simply drains away over time.

Instead those afflicted carry it into adulthood, as I understand it, in two forms.

One form is a chronic background anxiety, which occasionally erupts as a fear of breaking down, “losing it,” going crazy.

The other form is an inability to deal healthily with their own feelings.

(To be continued.)

 

________________________

Mark Epstein.  The trauma of everyday life.  New York: Penguin, 2013.

Thich Nhat Hanh.  Reconciliation: Healing the inner child.  Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.

D.W. Winnicott.  Babies and their mothers.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.

 


Shit

Whatever we don’t own, owns us.

~ Carl Jung

.

Among recovering people, and in the lexicon of nearly every therapist I know, the single most common word used to describe unfinished emotional business is shit.

Not surprising.  It’s a good metaphor.

Consider:

Actual shit is a waste product, what’s left undigested after our systems process nourishment.

Emotional shit is what’s left undigested after human beings process (or can’t process) emotional experiences.

Actual shit is smelly and unpleasant.  So is emotional shit.

Actual shit, when it collects inside you, makes you very uncomfortable.  So does emotional shit.

Releasing actual shit is an enormous relief.  Ditto the emotional version.

The biggest difference between them is that most people instinctually know what to do with actual shit.

They know they need to expel it from the body on a regular basis.  And they know that if they don’t they’ll get sick.

But many people don’t know that about emotional shit.  They think the way to handle it is to hide it, keep it inside, store it up.

Then they don’t understand why they go around feeling shitty.

They’re emotionally constipated.

Constipation produces all sorts of symptoms, like anxiety and depression and anger and addiction.  Also high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal distress and exhaustion.  Also arguments and violence and child abuse and divorce.

What has this all to do with what I call the inner Kid?

Because this is the main way inner Kids gets wounded.

We’re not born constipated.  We’re born healthy little animals, able to trust what our bodies tell us and automatically expel waste products.  Then in childhood we begin hearing messages like Quiet down and Big boys don’t cry or Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.  Surrounded by giants on whom we depend for food, shelter, love and security, we have no choice but to follow such instructions.

Voila.  Constipation.

And why, exactly, does emotional constipation make us feel shitty?

“When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup of physical tension,” Paul Foxman explains.

An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally.  That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger.  Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings.

One more consequence of constipation is worth noting:

It makes it impossible to feel like an adult.

Being adult means being strong and healthy enough to be yourself.   That includes being able to notice your feelings, even the smelly ones, and take responsibility instead of hiding them.  Taking responsibility means learning to express feelings in appropriate ways, ways that leaving you feeling stronger, not constipated.

Hiding feelings is what kids do.  So no matter how old we are, to the extent we feel compelled to hide our feelings from others, we are going to feel like kids inside.

Adults can, in the jargon of recovery, own their shit.

There’s more to adulthood than this one ability, of course.  Owning your shit doesn’t automatically make you a grownup. 

But you can’t start growing up until you start owning your shit.   

 

_______________________________

Foxman, Paul.  Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty.  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.


Weak and strong

All of us start out weak in the hands of the strong.

~ Allen Wheelis

 

So why is understanding the Kid part so essential to understanding ourselves as adults?

Because it reminds us of where we came from, and what happened to us there.

It reminds us that we started out helpless, totally dependent on the big people around us.

That we had no choice about adapting to those big people.

That this adaptation occurred not just on the surface of our personality, but seeped down to the very core of us.

That, like a lie you tell so often you come to believe it’s true, this adaptation came to feel not like something we did but something we are.

In other words, that it left us confused at the deepest level.

“We are hypnotized from infancy,” writes Willis Harmon.  “We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are but as we have been persuaded to see them.”

“Nearly all human activity is programmed by an ongoing script dating from early childhood,” is how Eric Berne puts it.

“We build up our selves out of our defenses but then come to be imprisoned by them,” Mark Epstein explains.  “This leaves us feeling dissatisfied, irritable, and cut off.  In our misguided attempts to become more self-assured, we tend to build up our defenses even more, rather than disentangling ourselves from them.”

That last quote points to the main reason we need to understand the Kid part of us:

Until we do, we can’t understand how we — or people we care about — get emotionally sick.

By sick I mean afflicted with the most common symptoms people bring to therapy: anxiety, depression, addictions, unhappy relationships and parenting problems.

I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t suffered from at least one of these.

They all flow from the childhood adaptation I’m talking about, one which splits us into two selves — one public, one private — and starts a war between them.

This self-splitting is called neurosis, and I’ll say more about it later.

Here it’s enough to point out what should be obvious: that a personality at war with itself is unlikely to be a very healthy or happy one.

Adult health and happiness depend on rewriting the script, emerging from the trance, and escaping from the defensive prison to which childhood consigned us.

You simply cannot be an emotionally strong adult so long as you’re carrying around a weak wounded Kid inside.

Or as Carl Jung put it, “Whatever we don’t own, owns us.”

___________

Berne, Eric.  Quoted in James, Muriel & Dorothy Jongeward. Born to win: Transactional analysis with Gestalt experiments.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1971.

Epstein, Mark.  Going to pieces wihtout falling apart: A Buddhist perspective on wholeness.  New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

Harmon, Willis.  Old wine in new wineskins.  In Challenges of humanistic psychology, ed. J. Bugental.  New York: Magraw-Hill, 1967.

Jung, Carl Gustav.  The portable Jung.  Ed Joseph Campbell.  New York: Penguin, 1980.

Wheelis, Allen.  The path not taken: Reflections on power and fear.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

 

 

 

 


Inner casualties

When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults.

~ Brian Aldiss

*

For thirty years I’ve been talking to clients about what I call the inner kid. 

Occasionally one asks what I mean by the term.

“It’s that part of you where you store unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions,” I usually say.

They usually nod.

Not one has ever said No, I don’t have one of those.

That might seem odd, given the lack of attention and respect we generally pay to this most secret part of us. 

Then again, it doesn’t.

We all know we’re damaged, wounded and crippled in some way. 

The inner kid gives us a way of talking about it.

“In every adult there lurks a child,” wrote Carl Jung in 1934,

an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education.  That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.

Other writers echoed Jung’s view of the child as the source of all human potential and authenticity:

[The Child is] that part of each of us which is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled; it is our Real Self — who we truly are. (Charles Whitfield)

It is who we are when we were born, our core self, our natural personality, with all its talent, instinct, intuition and emotion. (Margaret Paul) 

All the people we call ‘geniuses’ are men and women who somehow escaped having to put that curious, wondering child in themselves to sleep (Barbara Sher) 

The most potent muse of all is our own inner child. (Stephen Nachmanovich)

Most of the time, though, when we talk about the Kid inside, we define it in terms of how it gets damaged.

In order to survive in our world we have all denied the Child within to one degree or another.  And this is also abuse.  (Lucia Capacchione)

When the Child Within is not nurtured or allowed freedom of expression, a false or codependent self emerges.  (Charles Whitfield)

There is no cell of our body that does  not have that wounded child in it.  (Thich Nhat Hanh)

That is why we dread children, even if we love them.  They show us the state of our decay.  (Brian Aldiss)

This view of the Inner Child as a casualty has become nothing less than a cliché, embraced — or at least wrestled with — by hordes of people trying to recover from all sorts of emotional maladies, everything from addiction, anxiety and trauma to depression, spiritual crises and bad relationships.

Why do we discover this essential part of us only through suffering?

Once we’ve discovered it, what should we do with it?

Are the damages done to my inner Kid even repairable?

If so, how can I repair them?

Those are questions I’ll answer here in coming weeks. 

I’ll do it by exploring five premises to which twenty-five years of practicing therapy have led me:

1. Everyone carries a kid inside.

2. Everyone’s inner kid gets wounded.

3. Wounded inner kids become what we call adult children.

4. Adult children are addicted to control.

5. By fighting this addiction we can heal the inner kid and start living like grownups.

As I said, the idea of an Inner Kid has become nothing less than a cliche of recovery.

That’s a good thing, I think.

Because it is the single most useful metaphor I know for understanding human beings.

 ______________________________________

Cappacchione, Lucia.   Recovery of your inner child.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Jung, Carl Gustav.  The portable Jung.  Ed Joseph Campbell.  New York: Penguin, 1980.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen.  Free play: Improvisation in life and art.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.

Nhat Hanh, Thich.  Reconciliation: Healing the inner child.  Berekely, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.

Paul, Margaret.  Inner bonding: Becoming a loving adult to your inner child.  San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1992.

Sher, Barbara.  Wishcraft: How to get what you really want.  New York: Viking Press, 1979.

Whitfield, Charles.  Healing the child within: Discovery and recovery for adult childre dysfunctional families.  Pompano Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1987.

 

 


Evidence of children

x

The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.

~ Fred Rogers

Yesterday I argued with a family member.

We’re not especially close.  (The argument, in fact, was just an exchange of angry texts.)  We don’t see each other often, and I’m not especially concerned about what this person thinks or feels about me. 

So I was surprised at the strength of my reaction to the fight. 

I was upset.  I felt like crying.  I was also furious.  I couldn’t stop raging, replaying the argument in my head over and over.  I was also confused.  What this my fault?  Was I missing something?  Nor could I stop imagining what would happen if we were to resume it in the future.  What would I say?  How would X answer?  How would I feel?  

I did this so much I couldn’t sleep.  I  mean, at all. 

So at 3:40 AM I’m lying in bed and wondering Why the hell is this happening?

And my smarter self answered,

Because you feel like a kid.

*

This happens every day in my therapy office.   It’s just not me it usually happens to.

It happens to the wife who hates her husband and is desperate to end their marriage but looks at me helplessly and says, “But I don’t know how to start.”

To the mom whose daughter bullies her and to whom she cannot reply because she’s afraid she’ll lose the girl’s love forever.

To the husband who vents endlessly in therapy about his wife’s drinking but finds her anger so unnerving that he has never said a word to her.

To the adult son so desperate for his father’s love and approval that he bites his tongue whenever Dad launches into a racist political harrangue.

To the boyfriend whose fiance makes all the couples’ decisions unilaterally but who doesn’t complain for fear she’ll break their engagement.

To the nurse who’s afraid to seek a better job because of how scared she gets in interviews.

To the teacher who’s worked herself into chronic health problems by overworking and never saying No to any demand. 

To the therapist whose need for clients to like her is so great that she regularly extends their therapy hour, reduces her fee, comes in on weekends, and takes crisis calls at all hours of the night.

I could go on, but you get the picture. 

I imagine you’ve seen versions of it yourself.

Maybe you’ve lived those versions.

Anxiety.  Terror.  Sadness.  Helplessness.  Bewilderment.

Regression to the most vulnerable emotional state you know.

Evidence of the kid you carry inside.

*

First in a series about inner kids, adult children and control addiction.

Watch this space.

 

   


Kids + wounds + lessons: An invitation

x

The way we were treated as small children is the way we treat ourselves the rest of our life.

~ Alice Miller

 

Dear friends and fellow monkeys,

I’m inviting you to share your responses to an upcoming series of blog posts.

The posts will be about adult children*, which is the subject of a book I’m writing.

The premises of this book are that

1. Every human being carries a child inside them.

2. Every inner child gets wounded.

3. People who bring these wounds into adulthood are what we call adult children.

4. We are all adult children.

5. This means we all carry three kinds of wounds:

~ disorders of identity (confusion about who we are),

~ disorders of feeling (confusion about how to handle our emotional lives), and

~ disorders of relationship (confusion about how to deal with other people).

6. We can heal these wounds by relearning how to be healthy human beings.

Of course, none of these ideas is particularly new.  There’s been a stream of books about inner kids and adult children and emotional healing since the 1970s, many of them excellent. 

But mine (working title: Monkeytraps for Adult Children) will be the first to organize these ideas around the theme of this blog and of all my books: control addiction.

In the coming weeks, I’ll explore them in posts that will eventually become book chapters.

How can you help?

Give me feedback. 

People who work with me or read my first book know what I mean by feedback.  It’s a communication skill I teach in group therapy. 

It’s not just offering opinions, criticism, judgment, diagnosis or advice. 

Instead it’s an attempt to go inside yourself and answer questions like

How do I relate to what I just read? 

What memories came up while I was reading it? 

What was I feeling? 

What am I feeling right now? 

That’s right.  An emotional response, not an intellectual one.

What’s in it for you? 

Several things, I hope. 

Giving feedback can help us identify our own unfinished business and unhealed wounds.

It may even bring long-buried issues and needs into awareness.

It can also help us to identify and express feelings which, if left unaddressed, might cause anxiety, depression or other problems.

Hearing feedback can help reduce a sense of isolation, guilt and shame by illuminating our commonality with others. 

Then too, I’d hope anyone who shares feedback here would derive satisfaction from knowing they contributed to a book whose aim is to help people heal emotional wounds just like theirs.

I’ll publish the first post shortly. 

Please consider joining the conversation.

*

You can share feedback publicly or privately. 

Public feedback can simply be posted in the Comments section following each blog post. 

Private feedback can be sent to me at fritzfreud@aol.com.

 

 


*What’s an adult child?  See “Inner kids and adult children.”


The case against me

She ended the relationship six weeks ago and has been struggling ever since.

Doubt, self-blame, anxiety and depression are the signs of the struggle.

This is not the first time she’s gone through this.

Not the first time for me, either. 

Most of my clients are women, and many of them react in just this way when an important relationship fails.

For some the reaction lasts for months.

For others, years.

It’s my job to help them transform that reaction into a healthier, more self-loving one.

So I expect that the email I sent her is one I’ll will save and use again and again. 

It’s about how her Inner Kid experiences relationship problems.

Here it is:

 

Not sure this will help, but here’s something to consider while battling your demons:

(1) Until it finally heals — that is, develops a clear and realistic perception of itself — every inner Kid operates out of a distorted perspective which may be thought of as an inherited bias.

(2) The Kid inherits this perspective mainly from its parents, which it absorbs and accepts as The Truth — however distorted it may actually be — on the unconscious level.

(3) It then sets out to confirm this perspective by gathering evidence in support of it.

For example, say the parents tell the kid she’s “stupid.”  The kid will then go through life noticing all the stupid things she’s said or done or thought and adding them to the pile of evidence.

Evidence that she is not stupid will be discounted or ignored.

Think of this as building a case against yourself in the courtroom of your mind.

(4) The payoff for this seemingly self-defeating behavior?

There are two, both unconscious.

Building the case against myself

(a) reduces my confusion.  (I don’t have to figure out what I really am — I have all this evidence that I’m stupid — case closed);

and

(b) allows me to stay attached to my parents.  (Whereas, if I come to see them as unreliable or rejecting or pathological, I may be left feeling abandoned and entirely on my own).

I suggest that the above explains what you have been doing since your breakup.

The bias you inherited is a view of yourself as flawed, inadequate and unloveable.

You are using (even distorting) the “evidence” of your failed relationship in support of this biased view.

You have been doing this your whole life, so it feels true and normal.

It’s actually distorted and self-destructive.

The people who care about you recognize this.  That’s why our feedback about your relationship is so different from the feedback you’ve been giving yourself.

But until now our view has lost in court to the inherited bias — i.e., to your imaginary need for parents you have, in fact, outgrown.

The solution?

Grow up psychologically.

Which means develop — with the aid of people whose opinions you trust — a more realistic and compassionate view of yourself than you inherited.

x

(PS: The technical name for inherited bias is introjection.  For a further description, see “Identity and introjection” on the Psychology Today website.)

 

 


Why everybody tries to control everything

.

.

“So what the hell is codependency?” asks a man in the back row.

He’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket and he sounds annoyed.

I’m not sure how to answer.  I’m in over my head here.

I’m a new social worker, six months out of grad school, working for a clinic on the east end of Long Island.  My new boss has decided I should run the weekly Family Education Series, basically a crash course in alcoholism and how it screws up families.  And tonight the topic is codependency.

I know my subject well enough.  I’ve worked as an alcoholism counselor.  I’ve treated hundreds of codependents.  I can diagnose one in the first five minutes of a conversation.

But when it came time to prepare this talk I found I couldn’t define the word.

At work we talk about codependency all the time without ever stopping to explain what we meant.  And when I looked into my half-dozen books on the subject I found each defining it in a different way.  One was:

A specific condition characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence on another person, activity, group, idea, or substance. [1]

Another:

An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. [2]

A third:

A multidimensional (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) condition manifested by any suffering and dysfunction that is associated with or due to focusing on the needs and behavior of others. [3]

A fourth:

A recognizable pattern of personality traits, predictably found within most members of chemically dependent families, which are capable of creating sufficient dysfunction to warrant the diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder as outlined in DSM-III [4],

which sent me off to yet another book to learn what the hell that meant.

Finally I came to codependency maven Melody Beattie, who explained that a codependent is simply

a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. [5]

A fine definition.  Until you notice it describes just about everyone.

Having no idea which definition to offer my workshop, I cleverly decided to present them all.

So here I am, having just done that.  I’ve distributed a handout with the five definitions on it, and read them aloud, and am now looking at a roomful of blank faces.

“So what the hell is codependency?” asks Corduroy.

Everyone giggles.

I giggle too.  (Inside I’m thinking Shoot me now.)

Then something happens.

Something clicks in some back room of my head.

And I relax, and I hear myself answer,

“Addiction to control.”

I have surprised myself.  I’ve never thought of it this way before.

But Corduroy starts asking questions, and I find answers bubbling out of me, and suddenly it’s all making a new sort of sense.

I tell him I see codependents as traumatized people, convinced their survival depends on controlling “their” alcoholic’s illness.  So they do things like hide booze and avoid dad at certain times of the day and lie to his boss about why he missed work or to the neighbors about why he fell asleep in the driveway.  And from all these experiences they come to see control as a way of coping generally, and set about applying it to everything and everyone in their lives, to the point where it makes them sick.

“Sick how?” Corduroy frowns.

Anxious and depressed, I tell him.  But also worried and tense and irritable, and unable to relax or have fun, or identify and express feelings, or trust anyone, or like themselves.  Also self-medicating with food or work or rescuing other people or whatever else they can think of.

And now Corduroy is nodding thoughtfully, and so are others in the room.

And I know I’m onto something.

*

After the workshop I go back to doing therapy with clinic clients.  Mine is a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the sorts of problems every therapist faces: anxiety, depression, addictions, bad relationships, parenting problems.

But now something’s changed.

Have you ever bought a new car — a new Honda, say — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas?  Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.

This is happening to me.  Suddenly my caseload is filled with control addicts.

The clients haven’t changed, I have.  It’s like I’m wearing new eyeglasses.  My vision has refocused or sharpened or something, and now I can’t help seeing how relentlessly, compulsively and self-destructively controlling they all are.

They? I mean We. Everyone.

Controlling, I find, is the universal addiction.  It’s everywhere I look.  Not just in codependent clients, but all of them.  Not just in clients, but in my colleagues and friends and family.  And on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watch on tv or in the movies.  And of in myself.

Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snakes through every problem, every motive, every personality, every emotional life.

Why is this?

I had always assumed that dysfunctional families created codependency.  But now I find the red thread running everywhere, which must mean either that (a) all families are dysfunctional (an arguable premise) or (b) the urge to control is hardwired into us, rooted in some deep part of our brain that can’t help rejecting what life hands us and trying to replace it with what we prefer.  Or (c) both.  Or (d) something else entirely.  I don’t know.

I spend the next fifteen years studying the idea of control.

I hunt for books on control (there aren’t many), then for books on related ideas like desire and power and addiction.  I buy lots of books.  I start reading everything with a highlighter in my hand, scribbling big yellow Cs alongside the parts that relate to control.  Half my books start to look pee-stained.  I buy more books.  I start typing out control-related passages I like and collect them in a computer file which as of today runs to 200 pages.

I discover Buddhism, which turns out to be all about control addiction (except Buddhists call it attachment).  I try meditating.  I hate it.  Well, not hate it exactly, but resist it like hell, to the point I’m unable to sustain a regular practice.  Apparently the control addict in me just can’t stand to sit and listen to my own thoughts, to that anxious internal chatter Buddhists call monkeymind.

I begin reshaping my approach to therapy around the idea of control.  I teach my clients to notice when they’re monkeytrapped – i.e., caught in situations which tempt them to control what they cannot control, to hold on when they should let go.

I start a blog called Monkeytraps.  I write posts about control addiction and ways to recover from it.  I write posts about my own addiction, and the part I think of as my inner monkey, whom I name Bert.

People read the blog and write comments.  “You’re writing about me,” is a familiar reply.

And the new therapy seems to work.  I am struck by how many clients tell me, as they become less controlling, “It’s so much easier.” 

I decide to write a book.

*

Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop was published in December 2015.

It’s based on four lessons I learned from my study and clinical work:

(1) We are all addicted to control.

(2) This addiction causes most emotional problems.

(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.

(4) There are better ways to handle feelings than control.

I call these lessons the Four Laws of control, since they seem true of everyone I meet and seem to operate pretty invariably.

We can’t help but follow these laws, whether we realize it or not.

Just as, whether we realize it or not, we can’t avoid living lives shaped by the universal addiction.

.

This post previously appeared on Lisa Fredericksen’s Breaking the Cycles (http://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/)

_______________________________________

[1] Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, ChoiceMaking: For co-dependents, adult children and spirituality seekers (Health Communications, 1985).

[2] Robert Subby, Lost in the shuffle: The co-dependent reality, quoted in Whitfield (see below).

[3] Charles Whitfield, Co-dependence: Healing the human condition (Health Communications, 1991).

[4] Timmen Cermak, Diagnosing and treating co-dependence (Johnson Institute, 1986).

 [5] Melody Beattie, Codependent no more (Harper/Hazelden, 1987).


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