How to spot monkeytraps

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

Steve and Bert wrote this together:)

Steve:  Some weeks ago we asked readers to tell us what they most want to learn about control.  One of you replied with this:

I like your blog, but it’s a little scary, since before this I had no idea how controlling I am and how many problems it causes me.  

What I want now is to learn to be more aware of my controlling, to keep the idea of control at the surface of my mind and to understand how wanting to control things drives how I react and what I do and say.  

Got any tips on that?

Bert:  Good question.

Steve:  Yes.  She wants to learn how to spot monkeytraps. 

Bert:  Exactly.

Maybe you should remind everyone what a monkeytrap is.

Steve:  In the East they trap monkeys by placing fruit in a weighted jar or bottle with a narrow neck.   The monkey smells the fruit, reaches in to grab it, and traps himself by refusing to let go.  

A psychological monkeytrap is any situation that triggers you into compulsive controlling — i.e., into holding on when you really should be letting go.

Bert:  And yes, we have tips on how to spot them.

Steve:  Here’s tip #1:

Notice where you’re uncomfortable.

We’re controlling whenever we need or want to change some piece of reality (instead of accepting it as it is).  And we’re most likely to want to change realities that make us uncomfortable.  So it makes sense that our discomfort zones are where we’re most likely to get monkeytrapped. 

Bert:  I, for example, can’t stand rejection.  So it’s with people I think might reject me that I tend to be most controlling.  I do it in all sorts of ways: hide feelings I think will upset them, pretend to agree when I really don’t, laugh at stupid jokes, avoid confronting behavior I dislike, try to read their minds, and so on.      

Steve:  Tip #2: 

Notice where you’re stuck.

Stuck as in not learning, healing or growing — struggling with the same damn problem over and over again.  

Bert:  Same example.  Working hard at controlling people’s reactions to me is a monkeytrap because it (a) stops me from being myself, which (b) prevents me from ever getting accepted as myself, which (c)  keeps me chronically scared of rejection.  In short, a merry-go-round.

Steve:  Right.  You know you’re monkeytrapped whenever you find yourself doing, over and over and over again, what doesn’t work.

And why do you?  That brings us to Tip #3:

Notice where you’re scared.

Unhealthy controlling is driven by anxiety.  We stay monkeytrapped because we’re scared to do anything else.  Often even the thought of giving up control in such situations is enough to scare us silly.

Bert:  Like me telling my mother-in-law her breath stinks.    

Steve:  Uh, yeah.  Good example.

So if you want to spot where you’re compulsively controlling, look for the three clues: discomfort, stuckness, and fear.

Want more?

Check out George A Rickert’s essay “How to spot a monkey trap — and avoid it”  where he uses the metaphor to discuss values, and Marc MacYoung’s article “Monkey trap: Staying human (and rational) in conflict,” which is about conflict resolution.






12 responses to “How to spot monkeytraps

  • jpbauer

    This really great medicine for the soul. Thank you Steve and Bert

  • john

    All good stuff, keeping all of those things in the front of my monkey mind is really hard, but the good new is with hard work and alot of practice practice practice I am able to live a much more peaceful life with less stress, anxiety, and overall pain. I can actually start focusing on what is important to me, its amazing when I let go of the things that I am not able to control I get so much power and satisfaction in my life to do the things I enjoy and accually start living life again, Its been a long year of controlling and manipulating my life, and finally finally finally I am starting to get it again, (well not sure if I ever really had it) amazing how quick life can turn for the better when you just give up and live your life without all the “PLAN A STUFF”. Thanks Bert,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  • Sue B

    Just had the chance to read the post in my quiet time. All I can say once again is WOW!!! Trying to come up with something better than that is just not happening. Thank You Steve & Bert you two are amazing.

  • Barbara O'Neill (@BarbaraONeill19)

    I spent more than a decade trying to control and change the reality of my abusive dysfunctional marriage to a deeply disturbed man who didn’t want to change what I needed him to change about himself in order for our marriage to survive. Now I realize and acknowledge that I could never have changed him; I could only change myself by getting the hell out of a toxic marriage. It took too long for me to do it, but I am finally free.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Control addiction is usually like that. Like any addiction, it takes a while to hit bottom and realize that we’ve been mistaking a problem for a solution. Some of us (many, actually) never get there. Happy to hear that you did. 🙂

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