Monthly Archives: July 2010

The illusion of control

The heat’s back today, and it’s too hot to walk. 

But there’s good news too. The aging AC in my building finally expired, transforming my office into a sauna with sofas.  So I had to stay home. 

Like a snow day, but with sweat.

Anyway, I’m sitting here at my desk with a fan at my elbow, reading chirpy blogs filled with excellent advice about how to transform my neuroses and finances, when I hear footsteps. 

Guess who? Bert growls.


Oh, please.  Take the day off, can’t you?

I want to chat. 

What about?

 About the other day.  After we talked I felt better.

Great.  You’re welcome.  Go take a nap.

Planning on it.  First I have a question.

Of course you do.

Patience, please.  Your monkey’s your monkey.

(Sigh.)  What’s your question?

Why did I feel better?

Come again?

Nothing changed.  All the stuff I was complaining about stayed exactly the same.  I felt better anyway.  Why?  What did you do?

I helped you detach from the illusion of control.

Oh.  (Pause.)  What the hell does that mean?

You were attached to an idea that was making you unhappy.  I just helped you move your attention elsewhere.

What idea was I attached to?

That you had to solve your problems.

But I did have to.  I still do.

Not in order to feel better.   For that you had to detach. 

“Detach,” meaning…

Let go of. 

How does that help?

How does it help to put down any load you’re carrying?

Oh.  Okay.  But the problems are still there.

Right.  So?

I still have to solve them.

Let’s say you do that.  What then?

I don’t follow.

You’ve solved all your problems.  What do you do now?

That’s silly.  Nobody can solve all their problems.

Exactly.  At best we exchange old ones for new ones.  And to believe anything else is an illusion.

The illusion of control. 


And you believe that?  Control is an illusion?

Most of the time, yes.

But wait.  Some problems are solvable, right?


So we can have some control. 

I’d say it differently.  I’d say there are times when we’re able to stop chasing control.  That’s not the same as actually having it. 

You lost me.

Yes, that happens.

(Pause.)  Let me ask it another way.  Why do you believe control is an illusion? 

Why do you think?

I don’t know.  Anyway, I’m not convinced it is.

Oh?  Have enough control, do you?

No.  Of course not.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Right.  You just have to try a bit harder.


Do you know anybody who has enough control?

I’ve never asked.  But I doubt it.

Me too.  So why assume control is possible?

Well, it must be. 



Look.  The idea of control is what might be called a necessary fiction.  It’s a myth, a story we tell ourselves in order to go on. 

Go on living.

Yes.  It gives us a sense of security and a sense of direction.  And it really is necessary, because facing our lack of control is terrifying for most people.  But it really is a fiction too. 

But why?  Why can’t I ever have control? 

Do you remember the four laws?

Yes and no.   I mean I do, but I keep forgetting them.

Yes, that’s normal.  The third law is

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

Yes, I remember now.

And that’s why control is mostly an illusion. 


Because feelings are mostly uncontrollable. 

Wait.   That’s not true.  If it were, we’d all run amuck.   I’d punch out everyone that makes me angry, or seduce every woman I find attractive, or…

You’re confusing feelings with behavior.  

Sure, behavior is controllable.  Sure, we can choose to express our feelings or hold them in.  We can split ourselves into controller and controlled. 

What I’m saying is, ultimately feelings are stronger.  Ultimately emotional life is beyond our control.  No one stays in control of their emotional life. 

But you know this.  You sit with me in that consulting room every day.  You know what happens to people who rely on control. 

They get sick.

Right.  Anxious, depressed, addicted. 


That too.

So what’s the alternative?  

To controlling your emotional life?


You know that too.

Remind me.

Can you control the weather?

Of course not.

Is that a problem?


Why not?

Because I can handle the weather.  I know how to respond to it.  It rains, I wear a raincoat.  It snows, I wear galoshes.  It’s hot and the office AC crashes, I stay home with a fan in my face. 

Exactly.  Feelings are like weather.  Not a problem when you learn how to respond to them.

Respond to.  Not control.


Which means…

Well, it starts with listening to them.  Listening for instructions, I call it.   Which I’m about to do.


By ending this conversation.   We just passed 800 words. 

Oh.  Crap.   Lost some readers, I imagine.

That’s okay.  The ones who are interested will come back. 

Can I come back?

I expect you will, whether or not I give you permission.

(To be continued.)





Bert’s therapy

Finally the heat broke, so I went out for a walk. 

It was the sort of day that reminds you of summers in childhood, of how life felt without the permanently clenched fist in your midsection.  Lawns bright with sunlight.  A solid blue sky you want to swim in.  Breeze like a kiss.

So I’m walking along, enjoying all this, listening to the Corrs through my earphones, and I feel a tap on my shoulder. 

Bert sidles up next to me.

I need some therapy, he mutters.

I sigh.  For just one hour I’d have liked to have skip the whole neurotic thing.

But your monkey’s your monkey.

“Sure,” I tell him.  “Walk along with me,” and I pull out my earphones. 

* * *

What’s up?

I’m discouraged.  Depressed, maybe. 

How come?

You know.

Tell me anyway.  Part of the therapy.

Well, I’m really tired.  That heat wore away at me like sandpaper. 

I know.

And I’m sick to death of this insurance audit.  What’s it now, six months?      

Something like that. 

I’m sick of not having money.  Or a vacation.  It really hurt to skip Vermont again this year.

I know.  For a day or so I thought you might lose it.

Me too.

What else.

The house is a mess.

As usual.

Still bothers me.

I know.  What else.

The block’s back.

Yeah, I noticed.   What’s up with that? 

I got discouraged by the lack of comments.


What’s that mean?

Nothing.  I’m listening.   Go on.   Is there more?



I’m sixty.  (Sighs.) 

Yes, we are.

Sixty fucking years old.

I know.

Thought it’d be easier by now.

I hear you.  I feel you, as the kids say. 

So.  What would you tell a client like me?

Good question.  Let me think.

You get people like me?

All the time. 

So what do you tell them?

Well, first I guess I try to reframe things.  Help them see what they’re not seeing.

And what am I not seeing?

How lucky you are.

Excuse me?

Your marriage works.  Your kids love you.  You’re a pretty good therapist. 

Am I?

You help most of the people who come to you.  

I guess.

You like what you do for a living.  You own your own home.  You’re not sick, or crippled, or divorced, or in Afghanistan.


You worry about money, but your bills get paid. 


Right.  The house embarrasses you, but it’s your house.  Remember what renting was like? 


And you have options.  Writing is still an option.  You’re a step closer to writing for money than you’ve ever been.    And you managed to start Monkeytraps in the face of all this other crap.

That’s true too.  So why don’t I feel better?

Oh, that’s easy.  You’re tired.

That’s it?

It’s important.   “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

You and your quotes.  Who said that?

Vince Lombardi. 

So what do I do?


How?  I have work to do.

Find a way.

That’s what you’d tell a client?

Pretty much, yes. 

Sounds too simple.

Simple, yes.  Easy, no.  For one thing, it takes courage.   You’d have to give up controlling all the crap you just mentioned.


You’d have to let go of the bills and the practice and the house and the blog.  In your head, I mean.  And have faith that the sky won’t cave in.   

(More silence.)

And you’d have to act like you deserve a rest.  Which you’re not at all sure that you do. 

No, I’m not. 

I know you’re not.  Do it anyway.

How can I?

No choice.  You have to save yourself.  If you don’t, who will? 


Too late to get parented.  It’s all your job now.

(He frowns.  I wait.  He scratches his head.  I wait some more.  Now his eyes open.  He looks at me.)

Hey.  I know why I hate this.


It’s an AFGO.

Yes, it is.

Another fucking growth opportunity.


I hate them.

Yeah.  Me too.  Anything else?    

(He squints at me, like he suspects a trick question.  Shakes his head.  Leaves.)

(I put on my earphones, turn up the Corrs, and resume trying to swim up into the solid blue sky.)

Paranoid? Moi?

Bert replies to “War with what is”:

Didn’t like that last post.


Too long.  Too many quotations.

Yeah.  I tried to shorten it.  Ran out of time.

And I’m afraid you may have pissed people off.

How so?

Are you kidding?  You called them crazy.

I did?

Look at your freakin’ last line.

“Because everyone you know is just as crazy as you.”  Oh.  Well, I didn’t mean that literally.   Figure of speech.   

Really.  Do you tell your clients they’re crazy?  Even when they are?

Not directly, no.

Be diplomatic, moron.  You’re a social worker.

I’ll try to remember.

(Pause).  You don’t think I’m paranoid, do you?

Well, sure. 

You do?

A little.

I’m not paranoid.  I’m careful.

That’s what they all say.

All my controlling is absolutely necessary.

They all say that, too.

How is it not necessary?

Most of what you’re scared of isn’t real. 


Like just now.  You were worrying I pissed people off.


People you don’t even know.   You act like you can read their minds.

I know some of them.

Not the point.  The point is you have no evidence that they’re pissed off, outside your fevered imagination.   You’re projecting all over the place.

It feels real.

Projections do.  Doesn’t mean they are.

Another example.

Friday night, at the wedding.

I was fine at the wedding. 

You didn’t dance.  Cait wanted you to, but you avoided it.

But I don’t dance.  

I know.  Why not?

 I look silly.

The family says you look fine.  They like it when you dance.

I’m still afraid I’ll look silly.

Why is that?

People will judge me.

How do you know?  Has anyone ever said you look silly when you dance?


Has anyone ever watched you dance and laughed at you?


Mocked you?  Threw food?


Then how can you be sure anyone has ever thought that? 

I just know.

No, you don’t.  You can’t, unless you ask them.  You can’t even be sure they would notice you.  But let’s take it a step further.  What if you did ask, and they did say you looked silly.  “Yes, Steve, I watched you dance, and yes, you looked like a jerk.”  What then?

I don’t follow.

Why would it matter?  Ninety percent of the people at that wedding were total strangers.  You’ll never see them again in your whole life.  If  they notice you dancing, and if they think you look silly, who gives a crap? 

(No answer.  His brow is furrowed in pain.  This means he’s thinking.)

So as I see it there are two problems here.  One is, you scare yourself with your own projections, which are pure fantasy.  Remember: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” 

Again with the quotations.  Who said that?

Anais Nin.

Was she at the wedding?

No.  The other problem is you think you need to control other people in order to feel good about yourself.   Emerson had a good line about that.

I’ll bet he did.

“Why should the way I feel depend on the thoughts in someone else’s head?” 

Good question.  Why should it?

It shouldn’t.  But it does.  Because we’re monkeytrapped.  All of us, control addicts.  It’s just how we’re wired.

Yes, but:  Remember that button people wore back in the sixties?  “Even paranoids have real enemies.”

True enough.  But it’s a problem when you can’t distinguish real enemies from imaginary ones. 



War with what is

Previously I compared control to an elephant, a large one with many parts, and myself to a blind man.   

I’m still trying to braille my way to a grasp of control, one wrinkly body part at a time.   

Here’s another piece of the beast:   

(3) Control is paranoid.

Control comes from the Latin: contra rotullus.   

This I learned from the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who in his book Kinds of Power  implies the term originally referred to fighting gravity.   

“Control is agency, yes, but of a  restrictive kind,” Hillman writes.  “The word comes from contra rotullus, against the roll.  Since the free flow of inertia follows the path of least resistance, the easy path downhill is controlled by restraints.”  

Against the roll.  I found myself imagining the first “control” as some sort of wheel block, some lump of wood or stone used to stop ox carts from rolling downhill.   

I really liked this idea.   

I liked seeing control as rooted in the idea of prevention.  It confirmed my sense of how controlling functions in me and the people I know: as a bulwark against surprise and misfortune.   

Control, I realized, is defensive.  We control not to make things happen, but to stop them from happening.    

Hillman writes,   

When we look closely at what we want when we want to be in control, we find mainly preventive desires.  We want not to be bugged, not to be demeaned, not to be blocked and criticized.  We want obstacles removed that compete, like other divisions in the company and other gangs in the ‘hood.  Control means preventing interference.  It has a conservative effect.    

The most controlling people I know are obsessed with conserving, protecting and preventing.  They expect bad things to happen.  (Usually because bad things have already happened to them.  Abuse and trauma victims, for example, are famously controlling.  As is anyone who grew up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family.  Which aside from Beaver and the other Cleavers pretty much covers everyone else.)  So they fear the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned.  They rely on control to fend off danger and discomfort.  They live, whether they admit it or even realize it, like frightened people.  

Control, for all its self-assured position of command, relies on a defensive vision, and [its] traits — enforced loyalty, exactitude, suspicion of the hidden watchfulness — are paranoid traits.   

Paranoia, of course, is an extreme form of craziness.  Paranoids imagine the world’s out to get them.  I’ve worked with paranoids.  They were scared most of the time, unable to trust anyone, led lives of confusion, uncertainty and occasionally panic.   

But so do control addicts.   

They experience the world as dangerous, people as unreliable, relationships as competitive, emotions as scary, honesty as risky, and control as their shield against wounding by all of the above.  They hate change, especially change they haven’t asked for.  In therapy they’re almost always expressing resistance to something — some unfolding of events, some anticipated consequence, some expression of the innate tendencies of people around them.  Often they’re anxious or angry without knowing why.   

Yoga teacher Stephen Cope:  

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.   

Alexander Lowen points out, “Because we are afraid of life, we seek to control or master it.”  Logical, maybe.  Effective?  Not so much.   

No, worse than that.  Self-destructive.  Because the War With What Is is actually a problem disguised as a solution.    

Why?  Three reasons.   

First:  Fighting reality is hard work.  (Try swimming against the tide of a stream or a river.  Fight the flow, and see how long you last.)  So control addicts end up stressed, strained and exhausted.   

Second:  The war is unwinnable.  It’s not that control addicts don’t try hard enough.  What they’re trying to do simply can’t be done.   So they end up feeling depressed and inadequate.     

Third (and this is a big one):  Control addiction is self-perpetuating.  Think about it.  To be scared of reality is to organize your life around fear.  You tense up, go into defense mode and stay there.  “As long as we are defensive, we are going to be frightened” (Lowen).  So fear makes you defensive, which makes you more frightened, which makes you more defensive, and so on.  Like any addiction.  The more you control, the more you need to.    

Control addiction, then, is a sort of garden-variety paranoia.   A form of everyday craziness you don’t notice much.  

Because everyone you know is just as crazy as you.    














A gazillion dandelions

Bert’s on my case about the blog. 

“Too theoretical,” he sniffs.   “Too metaphorical.  You should write about real life.”

“I’m doing the best I can,” I reply.

“I know,” he sighs. 

Then brightens. 

“Hey, give me a turn.  I could tell stories.”

“Not sure I’m ready for that.”

“Come on.”


“Who’s the coward here, anyway?”

“Not yet.”

“Okay,” he sighs.  “But if you’re not careful you’ll lose them.”

“Shut up, Bert.”

“I’m just saying.”

Then this morning something happened and I decided maybe he was right and I should give him his chance.

So here it is, Bert’s first post: 

It’s 94 today and humid.  Went walking anyway.  Have to, heat index notwithstanding.   I need to get my weight under control.

So I’m walking down the street, heat rising off it in waves, and a cop car passes and pulls to the curb fifty yards ahead of me.  Then a second cop car arrives from the opposite direction and does the same thing.

Two cops get out in their blue uniforms and their heavy black belts.

Poor guys, I think.  In this heat.

They cross the street to where a couple stands on a lawn, arguing.

The guy is yelling at the woman.  The woman yells back, waving her arms.  Two little girls stand under a tree in pink sleeveless tops, holding hands and crying. 

Inside me thoughts and impulses spring up, boink boink boink, like cartoon dandelions invading a summer lawn:

(1) I want to about-face and walk back down the street.  Avoid upset.  Reduce anxiety. 

(2) I can’t about-face.  What if someone notices.  What’s his problem?  

(3) I want to go to the two kids.  Sit on the grass.  Calm or distract them somehow.  They stop crying, I’ll feel better.

(4) Can’t do that either.  Dad might punch me.  Mom might scream.  Cops might whip out their handcuffs.   

 (5) I hear my own thoughts.  I get mad.  Handcuffs?  Steve.  Chickenshit.  Seriously.

(6) I get mad at whoever called the cops.  (In full projection mode now.)  Mind your own business, Sir or Madam.  Leave these people alone.  Also, I’m trying to take a walk here.

(7) It occurs to me Sir or Madam is probably scared too.  Why they called.  Calling’s just their version of the about-face I wanted to make.  Officers, please remove this.  Now I regret I got mad at them.

(8) I think of the cops.   What’s it like, standing there, trying to calm angry people in this heat?  Are they trained for this?   How?  Instruction manual?  Rehearsal in a steam room?  And are they screened adequately?  Do more people get shot by police in the summer? 

(9) I notice I’m writing all this down in my head.  Make them see what a control addict sees.

(10) I about-face, walk home to type it out before the heat melts what I’m thinking.

Moment to moment control issues bloom, boink boink boink, like a gazillion dandelions.

PS: The ice underneath

Last time I wrote about how the idea of control simultaneously (a) plays a huge role in our lives and (b) is invisible to most of us.  Later I realized that one of my favorite metaphors perfectly captures this weird duality.   Here:  

Peary relates that on his polar trip he traveled one whole day toward the north, making his sleigh dogs run briskly.  At night he checked his bearings to determine his latitude and noticed with great surprise that he was much further south than in the morning.  He had been toiling all day toward the north on an immense iceberg drawn southwards by an ocean current.   ~ Jose Ortega y Gassett

Here’s why the idea of control fascinates me.   It’s an emotional iceberg,  constantly carrying each of us southwards — away from where we want to go or think we’re headed.  Its size and invisibility make it easy to overlook.   But ignoring it is dangerous.   Hardly matters how hard you mush towards your goal when the iceberg is moving you in the opposite direction. Conclusion:  Lost?  Stuck?  Exhausted?  Stop mushing.  Examine the ice underneath.


Elephant parts

“A blog about control,” it says at the top of this page.

So what are we talking about here? 

What is control, anyway? 

What does the word mean? What does the idea mean? 

We must think we know.  We use it often enough. 

This morning, for the hell of it, I Googled “control.”  Google replied with 225,000,000 items.  That’s million. 

I tried the same thing at  Amazon coughed up 168,459 books with control in their titles. 

So what is this thing that so fascinates us? 

Good question. 

There’s an old story about blind men brailling an elephant.  One feels the elephant’s side and says, “Ah, I get it.  An elephant is just like a wall.”  Another feels the elephant’s leg and says “Ah, I get it.  An elephant is just like a tree.”  Another feels the trunk and decides an elephant is just like a snake. Another feels the tail and decides an elephant is like a rope.  And so on. 

Control is an elephant.  Big, big elephant.  Many parts, many contradictions.  After fifteen years of studying it I sometimes still feel like a blind man, groping my way towards the truth, one wrinkly body part at a time. 

Join me? 


control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain. ~ Judith Viorst

That’s fairly broad, as definitions go.  My definition, which you won’t find in any dictionary but stands behind everything I write here, is broader: 

The ability to dictate circumstances. 

Dictate as in direct, determine or define.  Circumstances as in, well, everything.  Everything under the sun.  All the nuts and bolts of reality, both external (the world of other people, places, and things) and internal (the world of our own thoughts, feelings and behavior). 

By control, then, I mean nothing less than the ability to edit reality,  transform it into whatever we need, or want, or prefer. 

And by controlling I mean everything we do towards that end, whether or not what we do is effective, or healthy, or if we even know that we’re doing it.

First question: Is control the best word for what I’m describing? 

I don’t know.  But I’ve tried and can’t think of a better one. 

The Buddhist term attachment probably comes closest to what I mean.  As does a Tibetan word Pema Chrodron writes about, shenpa.   But control is so much more important in English (Google lists only 16 million items for attachment) it seems the best label for what I’m interested in describing here. 

Next question:

What are the most important parts of this elephant? 

Well, the first two things you notice about control are 

(1) It’s enormous. 


(2) It’s 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 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’s nose.  Flatter someone.  Seduce someone.   Lie.   Disguise our true feelings.  Get drunk.  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 secretest crannies of our mind.  We chase it consciously and unconsciously, creatively and destructively, wisely and stupidly, from birth until death. 

We can’t help it.  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.   The need to control flows through us continuously, saturates all our behavior and feelings, infuses everything we desire and fear. 

It not only drives behavior, it structures thinking.  What is most of our thinking anyway, if not an attempt to somehow change some circumstance, shift some piece of reality closer to what we’d prefer?  What else could you call problem-solving, planning, analyzing, fantasizing, worrying, obsessing?

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

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

(To be continued.)

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