Steve: A reader recently responded to “Bert’s dog” with questions that left me thinking about my control addiction (not that I ever forget it).
So today I’ve asked Bert, my inner monkey…
Bert: Hey. Recovering inner monkey.
Steve: Beg pardon. My recovering inner monkey…to write about that.
I’ve been addicted to control for as long as I can remember.
That is, for as long as I can remember I been trying to force reality — people, places, things, even myself, my own thoughts and feelings and behavior — to match the pictures in my head of how I want reality to be.
I do this almost constantly.
I also do it mostly unconsciously, which is to say, I usually don’t know I’m doing it.
I also do it compulsively. Which means I get anxious when I can’t get enough control.
I expect to stay an addict until I die.
I mean sure, I’m in recovery and all. But that just means I’m less controlled by my need for control than I used to be, just as recovering alcoholics are less controlled by their need to drink. But they’ll always be alcoholics, and I’ll always be a control addict.
I’ll always feel this urge to control stuff. Even when I know it’s crazy to try.
It’s crazy, I’ve learned, because control is largely an illusion.
Of course it’s not always an illusion. I know if I pour sugar into my coffee that makes my coffee sweeter. If I pull my steering wheel to the right, my car will reliably turn right.
But the world is larger than sugar and steering wheels. And the truth is that, beyond these concrete ways of changing my immediate circumstances, much of my controlling operates more on the level of wishful thinking.
Why? Because most of my controlling is an attempt to control feelings and relationships. And feelings have no steering wheel. And in relationships sugar doesn’t always work.
Let me explain.
Let’s say I have a feeling I don’t want. Say I feel inadequate. But it’s uncomfortable to feel that, and I also worry that if you see how I feel you may agree with me, which would make me feel worse. So I hide my self-doubt, from you and from myself. I work hard at presenting myself as adequate, even superior. (For an example, see “Bert’s mask.”) And let’s say it works: I convince you I’m superior. I’ve successfully controlled your perception of me.
Do I feel better?
Not so much.
At least, not for long. Why? Because I know it’s a performance. I’ve basically fooled you about me, and I can’t forget that. So whatever approval I get from you is essentially meaningless. And I end up feeling both inadequate and phony.
See how that works?
Say I’m mad at you, but scared to show it. Scared you might get mad at me, which would make me unhappy.
So I hide my anger from you. I bury it.
But overcontrolling feelings tends to be bad for me. Recovery has taught me that feelings are meant to be expressed, not contained. Released, not stored up. So burying my anger makes me feel, well, constipated. Pressured. Uneasy. Anxious. And when I do it long and habitually enough, I get depressed. I.e., chronically unhappy.
How’s that for irony?
Why doesn’t control work better in the realms of feeling and relationships?
Because at the heart of this addiction lies a paradox:
The more control I need, the less control I seem to have.
Happy Easter, if you’re Easterish. Happy Sunday, if you’re not.
* * *
If you haven’t already,
take a look at the two short movies that Bert recommends: “Here’s to the crazy ones” (narrated by Richard Dreyfus) and Ernest Cline’s funny/sad/thought-provoking “Dance, monkeys, dance.”