What you damned well better know about control

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

That’s Bert at left, explaining control addiction. 

Bert speaking:)

Whenever he meets a new client Steve asks him or her the same question: 

“So what do you know about you and control?”

The answers he gets vary.   But everyone ends up admitting, in one way or another, that control is pretty damned important to them.

Until today.

Today Steve met a new client — I’ll call him Harry — who answered his question with a shrug. 

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing,” Steve echoed.

“Nothing,” Harry repeated.  “I have no problems with control.”

Steve was flabbergasted.  He’s always assumed everyone has at least a sneaking suspicion that control issues figure in their need for therapy.  But Harry disproved that. 

So, in recognition that there may be other Harrys out there who are clueless about the role of control in their emotional lives, he asked me to write this post.

Glad to oblige.   Because this is important stuff.

So here’s what you damned well better know about control:


1. You’re addicted to it.

Yes you are.  Consider: 

Control (as we define it) means the ability to dictate reality — to turn some piece of the world into what we need or want or prefer.  Who doesn’t want that?  And who doesn’t seek it constantly? 

We human beings seek control in a gazillion ways, ranging from huge (starting wars) to tiny (changing channels), from mindful (driving a car) to unconscious (forming expectations), and from dangerous (beating a child) to innocuous (scratching an itch). 

However you explain this urge (and I blame it on our big restless brains), it’s both an elemental part of human nature and the one that most clearly separates us from other animals, who pretty much have to take reality as it comes. 

It’s so familiar we barely notice it.  Most of the controlling we do is habitual, automatic and unconscious.   In fact should we meet someone who is not automatically controlling (think: Dalai Lama) that person would probably strike us as, well, unhuman. 

What makes controlling an addiction?  Several things.  But here’s the most obvious: 

Addictions are famously difficult to give up. 

Try giving up control for a day, and see how you feel.

Hell, try giving up control for ten minutes.    


2. Overcontrolling makes you sick.

We tend to overcontrol two things: our own feelings, and other people. 

Overcontrolling feelings makes us anxious, depressed and addicted.  Overcontrolling other people ruins our relationships.

There.  I’ve just summarized 99% of what Steve talks about in a typical  working day.

He wants to add something. 

The most common problem clients bring to therapy is emotional constipation: the suppression of normal feelings. 

We suppress feelings out of fear.  There are plenty of advantages to living with other people, but its chief curse is that we spend our lives terrified of how they will react if we dare to reveal ourselves emotionally. 

This curse is what makes us sick.  I’m not exaggerating.  To deny feelings is to go to war with your own body, ignoring both its intelligence and its needs.  I once asked a client who was a doctor what practicing medicine had taught him about human beings.  “That no illness is purely physical,” he said. 

When feelings get buried, dis-ease grows. 


3. All controlling is an attempt to control feelings.

We seek control because we’re convinced we’ll feel better with it than without it. 

Controlling reality, we figure, will allow us to avoid all sorts of discomfort:   pain, anxiety, boredom, anger, confusion, embarrassment, fear.

True enough.   Unfortunately most of the time (have you noticed yet?) reality is beyond our control.  

What then?  How handle feelings you cannot avoid?

Having no alternative to control leaves you hopelessly addicted to it — forced to manage your emotional life by compulsively wrestling people, places and things into submission, and condemned to helpless anxiety when you can’t.

Luckily, there are alternatives.

Three, in fact:

~ The first is being able to let go — to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway.   We call this alternative surrender.  It allows you to relax, accept life on life’s terms, to swim with the tide of events instead of against it.   

~ The second is being able to listen to feelings instead of denying or concealing them.  We call this alternative responsibility (as in ability to respond).  It allows you to avoid splitting yourself into two selves —  public and private — and to make healthier choices, ones that take your true needs into account. 

~ The third alternative is the hardest to learn.  It’s being able to be yourself with another person, and to allow them to do the same with you.  We call this alternative intimacy.  It’s the hardest because it combines both surrender and responsibility, and because it demands that we rise above fear.  But it also offers us our only chance to feel truly connected to and accepted by another human being.

None of the alternatives is easy to learn or practice.  If we choose them it’s because we’ve come to realize, like any recovering addict, that being addicted to control is even harder. 


Steve has a last word:

As Bert said, this is important stuff.  Stuff we all need to know.  In an ideal world, we’d teach it more.  Parents would teach their kids.  Kids would teach other kids.  Married people would teach each other.  So would religions.  So would nations.

Control is too important, really, to leave to just therapists.   


20 responses to “What you damned well better know about control

  • jepollabauer

    Hello Steve and Bert

    Yet another truly excellent article on the topic of control and one which I am in entire agreement with, especially about the teaching of this “stuff” to children etc.

    You mentioned that control is a form of addiction for some people.

    I hope in future articles that Bert and Steve will address ways and provide exercises and suggestions on how to better cope and deal with such an addiction. I am all eyes and ears.

    I personally want to thank you for sharing this wonderful information. It is truly a God send.

  • fritzfreud

    Thanks, John. Glad you like what we’re doing.

    And yes, we do hope to get more deeply into the tools of recovery — i.e., the three alternatives to control described above. The main problem we face is that, while those alternatives can be explained in a blog post, they don’t really work unless they’re practiced. And practicing is difficult without ongoing emotional support. So we’re trying to think of ways to provide that support through Monkeytraps.

    Bert (who loves attention) wants to set up some sort of chat room where people can ask him questions. Or maybe where control addicts interested in recovery can connect. with each other. Not sure yet, though.

    Suggestions welcome from anyone reading this.

    ~ Steve

  • john

    Hey Bert great post this week, the one thing that jumped off the page to me was the unconcious way we try and control, “forming expectations” realizing that I am setting expectations all around me and I am setting myself up for a more problems that I will have to deal with, Bert you have given me plenty to focus and work on this week.

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, John. Yes, I think we do a lot of controlling unconsciously — a lot. Much of it is harmless. But some of it really screws us up.

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  • billcontiphd

    Great insights. This kind of control can be such an intrinsic part of our conditioning from family, school, the culture, etc. As others noted, it can be so hardwired as to be unconscious. As regards the need for therapy/help with opening up some awareness of our control issues/patterns, like any other “skill” or aspect of functioning, we are often clumsy when practicing different ways of approaching levels of letting go. I’m reminded of those movies where family members meet on the occasion of a death, usually a parent or sibling, and feelings that have been held in for years, a lifetime,come bursting out all at once.

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Bill. At first I too saw compulsive controlling as a product of conditioning, first by dysfunctional family dynamics, then by education and culture and so on. But my view has changed over time. Nowadays I see control addiction as a response to the functioning of normal human consciousness, what Eastern philosophies call “monkey mind.” Our oversized, hyperactive brains dwell on the past, project into the future, and in so doing keep us worried and anxious, and our need for control is largely a response to all that. I wrote a post on this subject titled “Bert is nuts,” which you can find here: https://monkeytraps.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/bert-is-nuts/

  • Lee Ann

    I look forward to reading more, i.e. more insights or anecdotes about how we control. There are superficial blogs posts about control, but it has taken some work to find a blog that unpacks it.
    I shared your blog with this comment/preface:
    “Human nature is to maintain a death grip on control. To control what we feel and who we protect. This is our sin nature: we want to take God’s place and decide what’s right and wrong, and… to control our corner of the world.”

    • Lee Ann

      If you have insights about how control relates to chronic trauma, -or rather how overcoming control is different with this, please share!

      • Steve Hauptman

        My view of how control relates to trauma is summarized here by Peter Levine:

        “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ‘triggering’ event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits.” (From Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, North Atlantic Books, 1997.)

        In other words, we get traumatized not by what happens to us, but by how we react to it. Or rather, how we fail to react.
        We don’t react naturally and spontaneously, as an animal would. We don’t fight back or flee, rage or scream or cry. Instead we edit our reactions, bury them inside. And all that emotional energy gets trapped as “frozen residue.”

        What’s all this to do with control?

        We bury our feelings because we’re been socialized to do so.
        We’re trained to control ourselves in order to control how other people respond to us. We hide feelings that might cause conflict, provoke rejection, or even make others uncomfortable. This is necessary, of course, in order to live peacefully with other people. But it also limits our ability to create healthy emotional lives. It causes anxiety, depression, and addiction, screws up communication, destroys love and intimacy. And it essentially cripples our ability to react healthily to traumatic events.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, Lee Ann. I like that quotation. Is it yours? If not, who said it?

      • Lee Ann

        The human nature quote is mine, and is my experience, but it is biblical, so it is not *really* mine!
        Thanks: for trauma healing, can you give a resource/reference?

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