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.   

7 responses to “Control is for kids (part 1)

  • curtis

    Okay, I’m ready to shake off my “blog shyness’ and share what I’m thinking with everyone. Reading ‘control is for children’ I agree statemment Steve. But I had another thought which is another side of the same issue. Sometimes a child can be “persona non-grata” or the “invisible child.” Parents failure to do their job combined with severe corporal punishment for minor rule infractions can lead to the child developing a poor self concept and subsequent low self-esteem that can follow that person into adult hood.

    Steve, the blog is thought provoking.

    “Listening comes before understadning, understanding comes before wisdom”



    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Curtis. I think you’re right that certain childhoods produce “invisible” children. Actually I see nearly all compulsive controlling (aka codependency) as a variation on this theme — as the result of being invalidated by others. Most of the people I know with severe control issues (i.e., most of the people I know) were kids whose needs, feelings and perceptions were treated as unwelcome or unimportant. An invalidated kid has little choice but to go into hiding, bury those very aspects of him- or herself that might trigger more rejection, and wear a mask that manipulates others into providing approval instead. This is, tragically, normal. It’s what we call “socialization.” And I think growing up emotionally means finding some way to reverse the process and come back out of hiding. That’s hard, scary work, which explains why it’s rare to meet an emotionally mature person these days.

  • WG

    Mmm great post. So much of insecure attachment is about the child trying to control, create boundaries where there were none and prevent abandonment in future relationships.

    Also… cute drawings of Bert and Steve. I look forward to seeing more 🙂

  • Control is for kids (part 2) « Monkeytraps

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

  • What we mean when we talk about control, part 3 « Monkeytraps

    […] And children, having no power, are forced to rely on controlling the grownups around them.  (See Control is for kids for a fuller […]

  • What we talk about when we talk about control (part 3): Particularization | Monkey House

    […] And children, having no power, are forced to rely on controlling the grownups around them.  (See Control is for kids for a fuller […]

  • What we talk about when we talk about control (part 3): Particularization | Monkeytraps

    […] And children, having no power, are forced to rely on controlling the grownups around them.  (See Control is for kids for a fuller […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: