Monthly Archives: May 2011

Bert’s brain (#1)



I’m just like you. 





I worry a lot. 





 A lot.






But over the years I’ve realized something.




When all’s said and done, I really have only one problem.














(Need a fuller explanation?  See “Bert is nuts.”)

Want more?

For more on monkey mind, read “How to turn your monkey mind into a pussy cat” at Richard Paterson’s Finding Happiness website.





Steve has been designated an official Health Maven (I kid you not) on the WellSphere website — a huge storehouse of information on just about any health issue you can imagine, in the form of articles, videos, Q&A features and more. 

(Actually Bert will be writing most of the contributions, but don’t tell anyone that.)

Two monkeys (a parable)

(This is a slightly revised repost of a Monkeytraps article originally published last year.

Some readers didn’t quite get it last time around.  But it’s a necessary story, we think, and we like telling it.  So we’re telling it again.

It is dedicated to all our friends out there currently suffering the pain of shame, self-rejection or self-doubt.)

Two monkeys meet in the mountains at sundown.

Each is alone, having been separated from his tribe. Both are tired from trudging for days through the rocks. 

Both are lonely.

But monkeys are wary beasts. So for a long time they stand motionless, eyeing each other suspiciously.

Finally the tireder of the pair gets tired of this too.

“Oh, screw it,” he says. 

He sits down in the dirt.

The other watches him for a moment, then sits down as well.

They look around at the dirt, the rocks, the huge sky, the sinking sun. Finally their eyes meet.

“What’s your name?” asks the first monkey.

The second monkey scowls.

“What’s yours?” he replies.

They fall silent.

The sun’s lower edge touches the horizon. The air chills.

The first monkey reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a cigarette lighter. He scratches together a tiny pile of twigs and pushes the lighter into the center of it. The twigs catch. A small flame appears.

“Got anything to burn?” he asks.

The second money is leaning towards the flame, but the question stops him.

“Do you?” he answers. He places a protective paw on his knapsack.

The first monkey sighs.

The sun sinks below the horizon.

Now it is dark. Dark in the mountains is especially dark.

“Oh, screw it again,” says the first monkey. He reaches into his knapsack and brings out a small lump wrapped in dirty cloth.

“This is a secret,” he tells the other. “I never show it to anyone. It’s pretty embarrassing. But I guess it’s better than freezing to death.”

He unwraps a stinky old fish head.

A rotten smell fills the clearing. First Monkey swallows hard, then lays the fish head carefully atop the pile of twigs like an offering.

It catches fire. Flames leap up.

The smell disappears.

Now Second Monkey looks embarrassed.

“That’s not so bad,” he says finally. “I can beat that.”

He reaches into his knapsack and comes out with a medium-sized lump, also wrapped in dirty cloth.

“Really?” First Monkey smiles.

Second Monkey nods, unwraps his fish head, swallows hard and lays it on the fire.

Again a bad smell fills the clearing. The second head catches fire. Again the smell goes away.

The monkeys inch closer to the flames. They reach out and warm their paws. Overhead the moon starts its climb across the sky.

“You’ve got more of those, I hope,” Second Monkey says.

First Monkey smiles.

“I do if you do,” he replies.

Both giggle.

And so the night passes, hour after hour, fish head after fish head, each one larger and more fragrant than the last, until both knapsacks are empty and the fire burns on without feeding and the sun peeks up over the mountains in the east.

“I’m Sid,” mutters Second Monkey suddenly.

“I’m Barry,” replies First Monkey. “Pleased to meet you.”


Nobody on this bus but us monkeys.


Want more?

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. ~ Dr. Seuss

Read more at Bert recommends: On being yourself.

Control is for kids (part 2)

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. 

That’s Bert at left, or part of him.  He’s just let go of something. 

If you missed part 1 of this post, you can read it here.

Bert speaking:)

So Steve just told his client Ben (the overwhelmed social worker) he should give himself permission to quit his new job.  And Ben’s looking bewildered. 

And I feel like puking.

I mean, I think I know where Steve’s going with all this control-is-the-kid’s-tool stuff.  But it still feels dangerous to tell someone to quit his job.  In this economy?

And I know how Ben feels.  I remember all the times I felt trapped — in jobs, in school, in relationships.  I remember the cold knot of panic that comes with believing there’s no alternative to feeling helpless and scared.  The knot that comes with feeling like a kid trapped in an adult body. 

Ben frowns at Steve.  “You think I should quit my job?”

Steve shakes his head.

“I didn’t say that.  I said I think you should give yourself permission to quit your job.”

“Same thing.”

“No, it’s not,” Steve says.  “I’m talking about a mental shift.  One that allows you to feel less trapped.  You feel trapped, right?”

“Yes.  Like I can’t do the job, and I can’t leave it,” he says dismally.  “What would everyone think?”

“But you’re not trapped.  You can leave the job.”

Ben shakes his head.  “I can’t.”

“I know you believe that,” Steve tells him.  “You’re wrong.”

He pauses.  “Look at it this way.  Say a doctor diagnosed you with cancer and said you had to quit this job to save your life.  Could you quit then?”

“I guess,” Ben nods.  “But I don’t have cancer.’

“Wait.  If a doctor diagnosed your mother with cancer and said you had to quit to save her life, could you?”


“If your wife told you she’d leave you unless you quit this job, could you?”

Ben nods again.  Starting to get it.

“So you can quit.  You just need a good enough reason.  A reason that allows you to give yourself permission.”

“Okay,” Ben says.  “But feeling anxious isn’t a good enough reason to quit my first social work job.”

“If you say so.  Good enough is in the eye of the beholder.  My point is that, at the moment, you’ve convinced yourself of  something that’s just not true.  You feel trapped not because you can’t quit, but because you won’t.  And I suspect that much of your anxiety comes from believing there’s no escape.”

Ben is listening closely.

“On the other hand, if escape is possible, and you stay, it changes the meaning of staying.  Now it’s a choice.  Follow?”

Ben nods.

“Can you think of any good reason to choose to stay?  Despite how crappy you feel now?”

Ben thinks. 

“Well,” he says, “it might teach me something about handling crappy feelings.” 

“Managing anxiety, you mean.”

“That’s right.”  He pauses. 

“And then,” he goes on, “If I stay when I can leave, I’d probably feel better about myself.   Like maybe I’m more than a helpless kid.  Like maybe I  have some…courage.”

Steve’s smiling.  My nausea, I notice, is gone.

Ben looks different now.  Still stressed and worried.  But his eyes look less squinty, and his shoulders a bit straighter.

He looks at Steve.

“Feeling like you have a choice makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”

Steve, describe what happened here.

My goal was to help Ben shift his focus from control to power.  

He’d essentially built himself a jail cell and locked himself inside.  The cell was his obsession with what others would think of him if he quit.  His need for their approval was the lock on the door. 

All I did was suggest a way to place his own need for relief ahead of his need for approval.   To stop controlling how other people saw him and take care of himself instead.

That’s what I mean by switching from control to power.

Just a mental shift.  Nothing in Ben’s situation changed as a result of our talking.  But letting go of control left him able to stop feeling like a trapped child and start feeling like an adult with choices.  

Just a mental shift.

Feeling like you have choices makes all the difference. 


Want more?

Writing this post reminded us both of that part of The Power of Myth where Joe Campbell summarizes Nietzsche’s “three transformations of the spirit” — or, as we think of them, the three stages of growing up. 

We like it so much we’ve included it in its entirety on its own Bert recommends page.  Read it here

Then (if you like) write and tell us how you relate to it.


And get this:

The e-Buffet — “An electronic magazine serving gourmet subject matter to inquisitive minds” — where Bert & Steve expect to be regular contributors.  

Click here to check it out.  And let us know what you think.

Control is for kids (part 1)

 (If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.

That’s neither Steve nor Bert in the photo at left.  We don’t know who he is, actually, but the picture of a startled-looking kid in a monkey mask seemed appropriate to illustrate this post.

Bert speaking:)

All this control-isn’t-power stuff came up for me big time recently during a conversation with one of Steve’s clients.

The client’s name is Ben.  He’s a newly-minted social worker, fresh out of grad school and just starting his first social work job.  

Bright guy, Ben.  Straight A’s in grad school, and impressive enough in the field to have been offered a position by the school where he interned.

“So how’s the job?” Steve asks him.

“I want to quit,” Ben answers.

Steve looks at him.  Ben means it.

“Tell me why,” Steve says.

Ben wakes up anxious each morning, and his anxiety reaches panic-attack level by the time he gets to work.  “I feel horribly inadequate,” he tells Steve.  “Everyone expects me to know what I’m doing, and I don’t.  My principal likes me, and so does my supervisor, and so do the kids I work with.  But I’m afraid to ask questions because then they’ll know how ignorant I am. Everyone tells me, ‘You can do this,’ and part of me knows that I can.  But when I get in there I’m just overwhelmed.  I feel crazy.  I can’t quit, and I can’t stand feeling this.  I’m…”  He shrugs helplessly.  “Trapped.”

“What should I do?”  he asks Steve. 

By now I’m feeling pretty anxious myself.  Nauseous, even.  I remember that trapped feeling only too well.

I also can’t wait to hear what Steve is going to tell him.

Steve thinks for a moment. Then replies,

“I think you should give yourself permission to quit.”       

Ben blinks.  Not what he expected.

Steve, explain why you said that.

 Here’s my thinking:

 Control is the child’s basic tool.  We have no power as kids, no ability to take care of ourselves.  We have to depend on others (parents, mainly) to take care of  us.  And we have to use control to make sure they do their job. 

We learn this early on, even before we have language.  We 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.”

And the urge to control is born.

We spend childhood learning thousands of ways to control other people.  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.  There’s no other way, for a kid.

At some point, though, kids are supposed to grow up and develop some power — that is, the ability able to stand up for and take care of themselves.

But many of us don’t.  Many of us (especially those who’ve been abused or traumatized somehow) 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.

And that’s Ben’s problem.  He’s using kid tools to cope with an adult situation.  And they’re inadequate.

He badly needs a Plan B.

(To be continued.)

Want more?

A client asked me recently to recommend a good book on parenting.  I suggested Your Child’s Self-Esteem by Dorothy Corkille Briggs (Doubleday, 1975). 

A valuable book, not just for parents but for all former children.  Briggs writes:

Whenever a person says, “I’m inadequate,” he is actually telling us nothing about his person. 

He thinks he is commenting on his personal value (his self).  Instead he is commenting on the quality of his relationships with others — from which he has constructed his self-image. 

In terms of how any person lives his life, there is validity in the statement, “It is not so important who you are as who you think you are.” 

And get this:

Panel 1 of a new cartoon, titled “Tug-o-war” and inspired by this blog, by my new friend WG over at Therapy Tales.   

Control isn’t power (part 2)

 (If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s an early photo of Bert at left, feeling powerful.

If you missed Part 1 of this post, you can read it here. 

Bert still speaking:)

Last time we called control a train you can chase but never catch, and power a muscle that grows stronger as you exercise it.

So how do you build that muscle? How does a person become more powerful?

My adventures in recovery have taught me seven ways:

(1) Refocus. You begin by shifting your focus from outside — people, places and things — to inside — your own needs, thoughts and feelings. Happiness is an inside job, and most of the answers you need are in there.

(2) Detach. Then you let go of what you can’t control anyway. It may be a situation, or a person, or that person’s behavior. Ask yourself, “Can I really control this?  Have I ever been able to before?”  If the answer is No,  let go of it.  If it’s a person you care about, you can detach with love, as they say in Al-Anon. Detaching doesn’t mean you stop caring about them. It just means you acknowledge your limitations. And when you do that, an enormous relief often follows.

(3) Take care of yourself. This one’s important:  You stop treating yourself like a machine. Listen to your body instead, and start respecting the messages it sends you. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sit down. Maybe take a nap. (Naps are great.) Lonely? Seek out safe people. (More on this below.) Angry? Scream (into a pillow, maybe, so you don’t scare the neighbors). Sad? Let yourself cry. It’s how the body naturally relieves tension, and it helps.

(4) Educate yourself. You’re not crazy.  Your pain, whatever it is, means something. Your job is to figure out what it’s trying to tell you. Education takes many forms, from Googling codependency to reading self-help books (start with Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More or Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz — even if you don’t think of yourself as “codependent” or as coming from an alcoholic family), or listening to tapes (try the library), or talking to a friend, or finding a good therapist, or attending a self-help meeting. After his first Al-Anon meeting one client told me, “It was like a light coming on in a dark room, and suddenly I could see all the furniture I’ve been tripping over.” Why live in the dark any longer than you have to?

(5) Get some support. No one gets through life alone. (Even if you could, why would you want to?) Seriously consider checking out a self-help program, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CODA. You’re probably scared of that first meeting. That’s okay.  Everyone is. Go anyway. It won’t kill you, and you can’t know beforehand what you’ll hear. A good meeting can save your life, not to mention your sanity.

(6) Listen to feelings. This is another big one. Most of us hide our feelings, even from ourselves. But feelings are essential. You need to reclaim them. Find people who are trying to recover their feelings, and who can support you while you’re trying to recover yours.  Who’s the person you feel most free to be yourself with?  Spend time with them.  If there’s no one like that in your life, see it as the problem it is.  Then correct it.  Hire a therapist, visit CODA or Al-Anon, or at the very least find a chat room online where you can listen to feelings and begin to express some yourself. 

(7) Have faith. Develop your spiritual life. No, you don’t need to join a church. You don’t even need to believe in God. You do need to believe in something bigger than you, some truth you trust even when you don’t understand it. Call it Nature. Call it The Force. Al-Anon calls it Higher Power, but you can call it what you like. Steve wants to add something here.

When I hit adolescence I rejected the idea of God, whom I’d always visualized as some huge version of Charlton Heston in a bathrobe riding a cloud.  But I always believed in psychology. Then I heard Scott Peck suggest on a tape that it’s not unreasonable to replace the word God with the word unconscious.That permanently reframed the idea of God for me. I realized there was some intelligence inside that I could listen for and which could guide me if I let it. I might doubt the existence of a God, but who can doubt the existence of that voice? That part that Knows Better?  And if that intelligence could exist inside me, why not in the world at large? 

Hey, we all need some invisible support.  We all need to carry around inside us some version of that experience described by the Ojibwe poet who wrote,

Sometimes I go about in  pity for myself,

 and all the while

a great wind carries me across the sky.


Okay, your turn.  Talk back to us. 

What do you think of the distinction between control and power as we’ve described it? 

Do you see yourself as mainly controlling or powerful

Where’s your power come from?

And what sorts of power would you like to develop? 

Control isn’t power (part 1)

 (If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at the left, looking powerful.

What follows is an expansion of the article “Seven Kinds of Power,” which appeared previously in several places. 

Bert speaking:)

Maybe because Steve’s been working hard and feeling a bit crispy — almost burnt out, but not quite — he’s been thinking a lot lately about the difference between control and power. 

So he asked me (his control-addicted-but-working-his-butt-off-in-recovery inner monkey), to share what I’ve learned about that difference. 

No, they’re not the same thing. 

In some ways, they’re opposites.

One difference is: power is possible, but control is usually an illusion.

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

Let me explain.

Control means the ability to dictate reality. To get life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.

But power (as we here at Monkeytraps define it)  means being able to get your needs met.

To take care of yourself.

To not just survive, but to heal, and grow, and be happy.

I think it’s power we all want and need.  But because we never really think about how power and control differ, we end up confusing the two. And then we chase the wrong one.   Which can be disastrous.

Steve, give an example of the difference.

Well, notice how we hear the words differently.

Imagine you have a daughter of marrying age.  She comes home and reports she’s engaged to a man you don’t know.  “What’s he like?” you ask.

Scenario A: “Oh, he’s very powerful,” she replies. 

How do you feel? 

Scenario B: “Oh, he’s very controlling.”

How do you feel now?

If you’re anything like me, Scenario A leaves you intrigued (powerful has several connotations), while  Scenario B leaves you pretty damned nervous.  Who wants a controlling son-in-law?

Steve, another example.

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

Interesting, no?

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.  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. 

~ Control works paradoxically. (See Bert meets the First Paradox  and Control is a boomerang.)  People who depend on having control to feel safe and happy don’t feel safe or happy most of the time.  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, can’t help but grow stronger over time.

(To be continued.)

Want more?

Watch the short, wordless film “Bodhisattva in Metro.”  Oh, go ahead.   You can spare the time.  It’s just over six and a half minutes, it should make you smile, and it offers one example of what we here at Monkeytraps think of as a powerful person.   

(Bert says, “I so want to be this guy when I grow up.”)

Control is a boomerang

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.  That’s Bert at the left, looking addicted.

Steve speaking:)

In our last post, “Bert meets the First Paradox,”  Bert introduced the curious idea that

The more control you need, the less control you have.

Which is to say that needing control has a sort of boomerang effect.  When you try to get more of it you end up feeling controlled.  You feel controlled by — surprise — your need for control.

And this happens with weird regularity.

Still, it’s easy to overlook if you’re not looking for it.  So I thought some stories might help illustrate this stubbornly reliable principle.

The actors in each of these (except the last) are heavily disguised, but the events are  based in fact.


Annie’s depressed, in part because she’s overweight.  So she eats cookies to make the depression go away.  Which makes her more overweight.  Which makes her more depressed.  Which makes her eat more cookies.   The more control you need, the less you have.


Barry’s wife drinks.  This panics Barry, so he does everything he can think of to stop her.  He reasons, begs, nags, yells, makes nasty comments, threatens divorce, hides her wine or pours it down the toilet.  His wife, stressed by Barry’s reaction, drinks more.   The more control you need, the less you have.


Carol’s daughter fails a Math test and lies about it.  This infuriates Carol, who can’t stand to be lied to.  So she confiscates her daughter’s cell phone and warns her of worse punishments if she lies again.  This scares her daughter, who starts keeping more secrets and lying about more stuff.   Which leads to more punishments.  Which lead to more fear and more lies.  The more control you need, the less you have.


Dennis is an anxious man whose last wife cheated on him.  Now he worries that his new wife might do the same.  So he carefully monitors her comings and goings, and makes sure he knows where she is and who she’s with.  Then he listens in on her phone calls.  Then he intercepts and examines her cell phone records.  Then he starts following her on errands.  All this yields two results: Dennis’s anxiety rises to panic-attack levels, and his wife finds a boyfriend with whom she can relax.  The more control you need, the less you have.


Eve’s boyfriend is abusive.  He doesn’t hit her, but yells and criticizes and threatens her constantly.  Friends beg Eve to dump him, but she’s afraid that will make him angrier.  So she does her best to pacify and appease him.  Since the boyfriend likes this result, he continues to yell, criticize and threaten.  Then one day he hits her.  The more control you need, the less you have.


Fred and Ginger are married.  It’s the second marriage for each, and each brings to it a history of disappointed relationships.  Both want the marriage to work and are scared that it won’t, which makes them hypersensitive to any and all relationship problems.  They monitor each other closely for signs of dissatisfaction or anger.  They repeatedly seek reassurance that their partner still loves them.  They discuss their problems constantly.  All this leaves them chronically uneasy in each other’s presence.  The distance between them grows, which increases their uneasiness.   They begin to bicker, then to fight.  When they finally come to me for couples counseling the marriage is, in Fred’s words, “Circling the drain.”   The more control you need, the less you have.


Steve’s dog, a pit bull named Loki, runs away from home.  Steve chases him across front lawns and through backyards, up and down streets.  Panting and bracing himself for his first heart attack, Steve suddenly remembers the First Paradox.  He stops running.  He sits down in the street.  Loki glances back at him over his shoulder.  Steve flops over sideways.  Closes his eyes.  Waits.  Hears nails clicking on pavement.   Feels a long tongue flick his nose.  Reaches out and grab’s the dog’s collar.  

The more control…

Oh, you know.

Want more?

Read the Tao te Ching, if you haven’t.  (If you have, read it again). 

“Do you want to improve the world?” asks Lao-tzu in that wise little book.  “I don’t think it can be done.”  How, then, does the enlightened human being respond to the First Paradox?   “The Master sees things as they are / without trying to control them. / She lets them go their own way / and resides at the center of the circle.”

(Tao te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Perennial Classics, 1988.)

Bert meets the First Paradox

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at the left, looking puzzled.

Bert speaking:)

Once upon a time Steve had a client who made him very very nervous.

Actually, no.  Steve’s a trained professional.  He never gets very very nervous.

(Believe that, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to bid on.)

No, this client made me very very nervous.

She did it by being very very nervous herself.

Her name (let’s say) was Adele. And Adele was nervous about, well, everything. She was nervous about money, and her job, and her health, and her kids, and her marriage. And her hair.  You name it.

And by the end of an hour with Adele I was usually a nervous wreck myself.

Why? Two reasons. Steve, explain the first one.

Anxiety can be contagious. Spend much time with highly nervous people and it’s hard not to start feeling nervous yourself. Like a bad cold, their sense of unsafety infects you. Like an overdose of cheap perfume, their uneasiness comes to saturate your senses.

True. But the other reason Adele made me anxious had more to do with me than with her.

I really wanted to fix her anxiety.

Not for her sake.  (Steve’s the therapist, not me.)  It made me uncomfortable, so I wanted to make it go away. So I pushed Steve to say helpful things and give good advice and communicate acceptance (soothing voice, solid eye contact, all that), all in hopes of calming her down.

So I could calm down.

It didn’t work. Adele stayed anxious.

And I began to feel helpless. 

And I began to hate Adele a little.

But Adele was actually doing me a favor.  Because she was teaching me about the First Paradox of Control.

For the record: Wikipedia defines paradox as “a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition.”

Right.  And the First Paradox of Control goes like this:

The more control you need,

the less control you have.

Or in this case, the more I needed to control Adele’s anxiety, the more out-of-control I felt.

Which I didn’t get, really, until one day when I finally got sick and tired of feeling helpless and hating her, and simply gave up trying to fix her anxiety.

Guess what happened.

I felt better immediately.  I found I could watch Adele’s nervousness without taking it personally, without experiencing it as a threat or a challenge. I found I could relax, and just let her be her anxious self. 

And — surprise — not trying to control her it left me feeling, well, in control.

Confusing, no?

Yes, confusing.

But in part this comes from a confusion of language.

We use the same word to describe two very different things. “Control Adele’s anxiety” means the ability to change another person’s feelings, while “feeling in control” describes an emotional state of  security or self-possession. Apples and oranges.

But — and here’s the interesting part — the confusion leads us naturally into assuming that we need to control something Out There before we can feel calmer In Here.

It’s not true.  In fact, the opposite is more often true: we need to give up controlling Out There in order to feel calmer In Here.


And yet, when I think about it, not so weird.

Because I notice that those situations and people that make me most anxious are the very ones over which I’d like more control.

They’re also the ones over which I try to get more control — if not overtly, then covertly. If not in my behavior, then in my head.  The ones I fantasize (even obsess) about changing.

Finally, they’re the situations and people I suddenly feel better about when I shift from trying to control them to just letting them beFrom fighting to surrendering, you might say.  Like I surrendered to Adele’s anxiety.

At the very least, surrendering’s a whole lot less work.

You said it.

Hey, reader:

Any experiences with the First Paradox?  Where you stopped controlling and ended up feeling more in control? 

If so, care to share?  We’d love to hear about it.

Want more?

Read the post my new friend Lori Landau just published, titled Can You Really Help Someone You Love Develop Healthy Habits?, on her blog Calm and Sense for Healthy Digestion.  PS: It’s not about digestion.  It’s about calming yourself in the face of another person’s pain.

Bert’s Plan B

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. 


Continued from Bert’s Plan A.   Bert speaking:)

So Steve created me to get control of his emotional life.  And I set out to do that by trying to control everything and everyone around me. 

I did this mainly by teaching him to hide his feelings, create a mask that would impress other people, and to read other people’s minds — that is, guess what they wanted from him and provide it. 

I also convinced Steve to go to social work school.

I said last time I convinced him to become a social worker.  That’s inaccurate.  What I really did was convince him to become a psychotherapist.  Social work school just seemed the fastest way to do that.

Why did I want him to be a therapist?  Because I imagined therapists know stuff the rest of us don’t.  I saw them as something like priests, connected to some source of secret knowledge and understanding.  I liked that idea. 

I also saw them (hey, what did I know?  I’m a monkey) as being in control of both their emotional lives and their relationships.  Their special knowledge seemed to permit them to get close to other people while not exposing too much of themselves.  I liked that idea, too.  I liked it a lot.

So Steve went to social work school. 

He graduated. 

He got hired. 

He began to work as a therapist. 

And he discovered — surprise — that he couldn’t follow our Plan A and do this job.  

At least, not do it competently. 

Why?  Because, it turns out, being a good therapist is all about creating healthy relationships.  And apparently you can’t have control and healthy relationships at the same time.

You can’t, for example, have control and real communication, because real communication requires surrendering control, being honest, emotionally real, even vulnerable.  Therapists have to do all that within professional boundaries, of course.  But it you edit it out completely (like I wanted Steve to) the relationship feels dead, unreal, sterile.  And that solves nothing and helps nobody.

Nor can a therapist overcontrol feelings and do therapy well.  It seems feelings are what connect us to and enable us to understand other people.  When Steve overcontrolled his, he lost touch with his clients.  When he lost touch, he did bad therapy.

We began to realize that what therapy demanded from Steve was essentially the inverse of our Plan A.  Instead of seeing feelings as dangerous, he had to learn to trust them.  Instead of handling people, he had to find ways to communicate and connect with them instead.

This was, well, disturbing.  To both of us.

It was around this time that Steve, suddenly and unexpectedly, produced a poem.

Steve, please describe that.

It came out of nowhere.   I was lying in bed one night and heard the thing writing itself in my head.  I’m no poet, so I’ll spare you the poem itself.  But the first line was “The truth is like a bear in the house,” and the gist was that, when you’re trapped in a house with a bear, you have only two choices: run away and wait for the bear to eat its way through the walls to you, or stop running, turn around and hunt the damned bear.  

I didn’t know what it was about at first. 

Only later did I realize that the bear in my life was control. 

So we decided to hunt it. 


Doing therapy had taught me that control isn’t just my Plan A, it’s everyone’s.  That controlling is addictive, that its patterns are universal and predictable, and that they cause most of the problems people bring to a therapist.  That anxiety, and depression, and addictions, and bad parenting, and lousy relationships all stem from someone trying to control something they either cannot or should not control. 

And that — if we’re lucky — a day comes when we realize that  controlling doesn’t work as a life strategy.  It’s on that day that we shift into Plan B.  We begin to watch our own controlling, try to catch ourselves in the act, try to practice healthy alternatives.  We stop trying to control life, and start cooperating with it. 

We invite you, dear friends and readers, to join the hunt.

* * *

Want more?

For a nice example of Plan B thinking, read Leo Barbauta’s recent Zen Life post “38 Life Lessons I Learned in 38 Years.”

Feeling control-deprived?

Check out our friend The Subservient Chicken.  And no, playing with him does not count as a relapse.


don’t forget to add your two cents (or more, if you feel generous) to The Bert Poll.  We need you to educate us.

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