Bert’s addiction


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?

Another example: 

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.”

20 responses to “Bert’s addiction

  • Phyllis

    Good Morning Steve, Happy Easter. I really like what you and Bert are doing. Always brings a smile to my face. As for the dog… Well, my dog, Ella, (she is a real dog) is upset that you used the dog analogy.. She asked me about the unconditional love thing that dogs are most famous for. I told her that I will mention it to you and Bert. Ella thinks you should have used a cat for this. But other than that, Ella and I enjoy the blog very much. Thanks. Phyllis

    • fritzfreud

      My apologies to Ella, but please tell her it’s not my fault. She should blame Fritz Perls. Bad Fritz. Bad.

      • Kelly

        Hi! I came across this and I am compelled to share regarding another way that dogs are used to represent the psyche. This is reply is meant in a playful way, I love learning about different perspectives and how historical theorists view things and what we all can learn. So the following is from Clarissa Pinkola Estes who had Jungian training: “the little dog….shows exactly how psychic tenacity works. Dogs are magicians of the universe. By their prescence alone, they transform grumpy people into grinning people, sad people into less sad people; they engender relationship……the dog is one entire side of man’s dualistic nature. He is the woods nature, the one who can track, who knows by sensing what is what…..the feminine (archetype) readily understands and accepts the instinctual nature of the dog. Dogs represent, among other things, he (or she) who loves from the heart easily and long, who forgives effortessly, who can run long, and fight, if necessary, to the death…” Pg 120 “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” Clarissa Pinkola Estes
        Take that Fritz Perls…hee hee. 😉

        • fritzfreud

          That’s all true, Kelly, and it really screws up the Top Dog metaphor, thanks very much. 🙂 But I’ll share a secret: On the days I’m when feeling particularly monkey-minded (i.e., neurotic) I’ll look to my dog for cues about how to handle it. Because he’s a bloody genius at being thoroughly, effortlessly, and joyfully himself.

    • Cindy the GODpillow Lady

      I totally understand the illusion of control. And I believe that most everyone (if I can make that assumption) uses this “illusion of control” as a defense mechanism; to protect the ego. I always thought I was suppose to know..whatever it was. And now I sit with not knowing, trusting in God’s plans..still not knowing – AND THAT is uncomfortable..still! One thing that does help me is that I have a big blank canvas in my dining room and it reminds me that everyday is a blank page that I never know how the days will picture itself, but GOD has the plan, I just move forward for it to be revealed.

  • robk

    WOW bert really is quit a inner monkey to have, I am always able to understand and identify with him, I just realized something while I am sitting here, Im wishing that bert would go away and leave steve alone forever,,, But then it hit me,,, I have heard alcoholics say that they were glad they have there disease, and I would say what are you people crazy why would anyone want to be an alcoholic, why would someone wish they had a disease like alcoholism, and they have told me that without there disease they would not have been able to grow and learn how to recover and be productive people in the world, and that made alot of sense to me, so the point I am trying to make is,,,, thanks bert,, without you I probably wouldnt be reading this blog,

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Rob. The advice columnist Ann Landers was famous for telling her readers, “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” Corny, sure, but also excellent advice, especially when one’s life turns especially fruity.

  • Linda

    I think many of us know all about burying feelings; I know I do from past experience. Our body definitely gives us messages letting us know we are out of balance. It forces us to pay attention.
    It takes a lot of energy to hide those feelings; and if they are hidden too long; ouch!
    Thank you Steve for another great blog! This helps me to share my thoughts and feelings; it feels good.
    Happy Easter to you and your family!

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, Linda. Actually I think we all know how to bury feelings; it’s how society trains us, and the inevitable cost of living with other people. But it’s nice — liberating, even miraculous — when we can unlearn enough of our conditioning to get even some of our natural balance back. Happy Easter to you too.

  • Lee Evans

    Makes absolute sense steve. The more clients I see the more I realise that in western society, people think that feeling anxious, fearful, frightened, stressed, angry……….. is normal, natural and part of human nature rather than programming by society.

    Take care,


    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Lee. Yeah, occasionally I ask a new client what they want out of therapy, and they answer “I just want to feel normal.” And I’ll suggest that, no, if they’re anxious or depressed or confused they already feel normal. What they want is to feel healthy, and that’s a very different thing.

      • Marie

        I look at it as “average”. The average person in our society today feels anxious, fearful etc etc. It is the result of what is going on in our world and the way it all affects our lives.

        • fritzfreud

          Yes, the words mean roughly the same, but they carry different emotional weights. Someone (especially if they’re in pain) may well aspire to be “normal.” But I don’t know anyone who wants to be “average.” We all want to be “above average,” which I see as one of the downsides of a culture that celebrates individuality at the expense of connection. Hell, we’re all just monkeys on this bus.

          • Kelly

            I’m totally free associating now as I had a jr high flashback of a Wierd Al Yankovic song–a parody of Queen’s Another one Bites the Dust-anyway here goes:

            Another comes on and another comes on
            Another one rides the bus
            Hey, who’s gonna sit by you
            Another one rides the bus

            But on a serious note, I read this post yesterday morning and it resonated so deeply and rang so true that I couldn’t even respond, I needed to sit and reflect. Thank you!

          • Marie

            I don’t think we All want to be above average. Some of us are happy with average; an average day is one of my best days. I had this great therapist who once taught me that it was o.k. not to over achieve. I have been a happier person now that I don’t try to be above average. Some of the kids I work with are very happy when they can just get an average grade. They are the ones that taught me to look at average and normal as meaning different things to different people I guess we should think more like kids. In the end isn’t it really a matter of being happy, functional individuals who can co-exist without hurting each other and respecting each other’s differences?

  • Linda

    Hi Steve,

    A very enjoyable read 🙂 I think your initial thinking about matching life events/people to the pictures in your mind fits very nicely into William Glassers Reality Therapy model. The issue of control is I believe one that all of us struggle with, even those who are not in recovery. So often we portray an image of self to others that we believe is the “right” way to be even when our insides are screaming “NOOOOO”. I look forward to reading more from you, Linda

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Linda. I’ve had Glasser’s book CONTROL THEORY sitting on my Books-To-Read-Before-I-Die pile for some time now. Maybe now I’ll actually open it. 🙂

  • Goofy « Monkeytraps

    […] for me the worst part of being a control addict has always been fear of other people.  Convinced of my own inadequacy, I expect criticism, […]

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