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.)

11 responses to “Control is a boomerang

  • walter

    Thanks for these thoughts on control, Steve They really resonate with current events in my life, and I am grateful for the reminder that letting go of trying to control other people is an option.

  • Marie

    Hi Steve, great blog. Unfortunately, I could relate in some way to each story. But, I am getting better. (I think) Love the story about chasing your dog, I think that one says it all.(Wish I could have seen it!) Now, when I think about control, I think about feeling like a hamster on an excercise wheel. You go and go and go, but you really don’t “go” anywhere. I hope you are enjoying this beautiful day.

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, Marie. Glad you liked the dog story. It tells better than it lived. 🙂 No, I haven’t started enjoying the day yet. I’ve been sitting here staring at a computer screen and trying to get control over Life via my keyboard. (It’s not working.) Thanks for reminding me there’s a world out there.

  • Gigi

    I absolutely love this! I have no idea how you were able to obtain my picture ( to use as Bert) but even that matches how many of us feel inside. As a believer in Being and Non- Being ( i.e. Philosopher by birth, existentialist by choice) I agree wholeheartedly with the message that you send. The more we Chase the illusion of what we think we need, the less we are able to enjoy what we have.( I am so going to Twitter that) Awesome blog. I will read and comment more.

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Gigi. I once had a therapist who liked to tell me, whenever I was struggling with something or other I couldn’t accept or detach from or make peace with, “Just be.” What kind of advice is that? Made me want to punch her, sometimes. But (to paraphrase Mark Twain) the older I’ve gotten, the wiser’s she’s become.

  • Linda

    Wow! Everything you say relating to each example is so true. It really does work! I was just watching a special on cats; and one particular cat who was very fearful every time the owner went to pick him up (control) the cat became aggressive. When they ignored the cat; he started to become more friendly and trusting. Giving him that freedom to be himself. Great reminder; thank you. I too loved the story of your dog.

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Linda. Few people know this, but many cats subscribe to this blog. (Most of them are Bert’s friends, however. I’m a dog person myself.)

  • Tracey Berry

    There are aspects of my life I am trying very hard to control right now … and possibilities of fulfillment and freedom that are very daunting because i can’t control that path at all right now (should I choose it) Very insightful and thought provoking … my monkey is no longer invisible to me!

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, Tracey. Hey, I feel for you. The times I most needed control (or thought I did) were probably the hardest times of my life. One way I got through them was to stare at this Ojibwe saying I have framed over my desk:
    “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself,
    and all the while,
    a great wind carries me
    across the sky.”
    May you feel carried.

  • Tracey Berry

    Thank you, Steve. Powerful words … I know in the past I have at times turned to this power, this ‘great wind’and it has carried me over the tumult. Thank you for reminding me of it. Sometimes all we can do is to (TRY) surrender and let what is to be unfold …

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