The Talk

(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, giving The Talk.

Bert speaking:)

Alas, I am cursed.

Well, not me so much.  The other me.  The shrinky part.

In the past two weeks Steve met with three new clients and gave each of them his latest version of The Talk.

The Talk is what I call his attempt to compress the theory he’s been developing for two decades into a five-minute sound bite. 

He’s been doing this for years now, editing and reshaping and tweaking The Talk along the way.  But I get nervous whenever he gives it. 

I’m afraid he’s confusing people. 

And that’s because I suspect all his explanations are fatally afflicted by the so-called Curse of Knowledge.

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it,” write Chip and Dan Heath.*  “Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.  And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

Steve’s theory is about the idea of control.   And control is an idea he’s has been immersed in for so long — reading and writing and thinking and talking and even, god help us, dreaming about it — that I fear it’s impaired his ability to communicate with normal people.

So, dear reader, I have a favor to ask you.

Read The Talk below.   It’s short, just 269 words. 

Then write back and tell me your reaction.  

Which parts are clear?  Which parts are confusing?  Which parts do you need to have explained more?

Be honest. 



* * *

(The Talk)


Control means the ability to dictate reality —

to make people, places and things

behave the way we want them to.


We each carry around in our heads

a picture of the reality we want.

And we constantly compare that picture

to the reality we have.


Anything we do to bring those two closer together

— to change what we have into what we want —

I call controlling.


Studying this phenomenon

has led me to four conclusions:


(1) We’re all addicted to control.


(2) This addiction causes most

(maybe all) emotional problems.


(3) Behind all controlling is

the wish to control feelings.


(4) There are better ways to handle feelings

than control.


Now, this view of control can be confusing,

because so often control is so clearly

a good and necessary thing.


I won’t willingly surrender control

when I’m driving my car on wet pavement,

or my kid gets sick and needs a doctor,

or garbage piles up in my kitchen,

or a mosquito tries to bite me,

or in any of a million other

daily situations.



there are two areas where

controlling tends to cause

more problems than it solves:








~ Overcontrolling feelings

tends to make us sick — 

anxious, depressed, addicted;


~ Overcontrolling other people

tends to annoy, scare,

and alienate them.


So each of us

needs to examine the role

control plays in our lives.


Which means we need to learn how to

(a) notice when we’re controlling,

(b) decide if our controlling is healthy or not,


(c) learn alternatives to

the unhealthy sort.




 * * *

Want more?

What is the Curse of Knowledge, and how does it apply to science education, persuasion, and communication? No, it’s not a reference to the Garden of Eden story. I’m referring to a particular psychological phenomenon that can make our messages backfire if we’re not careful.

From Overcoming the curse of knowledge. by Jesse Galef. 



*Chip & Dan Health, Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die

28 responses to “The Talk

  • Lisa Frederiksen -

    Any suggestions for “learn alternatives to the unhealthy sort?”
    Thanks for another though-provoking post!

  • Charles

    I think it is very well written and clear, but perhaps I’m also afflicted with the Curse of Knowledge as I’ve been reading your posts for a while now.

    The part that I think could use more explanation is (2) addiction causes most emotional problems. I think most people view control as a method for coping with emotional problems, rather than the cause of them.

    Thanks for your posts.

    • fritzfreud

      You’re right: most of us see control more as a solution than a problem. And in the short term it certainly seems to be. Say my boss is a moron. I’d tell him so, but he’d fire me. So I hold my tongue and keep my job. I’ve essentially controlled his reaction to me by concealing the truth of what I think and feel. Short-term solution, certainly. if I work for the same moron for twenty years, though, and the unexpressed truth starts to back up in me and cause symptoms like anxiety or depression or the need to get drunk every night when I get home from work — long-term problem.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    “(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.”

    a) Feelings _in_ _whom_? Feelings within the person doing the
    controlling or feelings within _other_ people the person doing
    the controlling interacts with?
    b) “I won’t willingly surrender control
    when I’m driving my car on wet pavement,”
    is a nice counterexample to the “all” in your claim in
    “(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.”
    Behind the desire to control a car on wet pavement is the
    desire to control a car on wet pavement.

    • fritzfreud

      Not really. I want to control the car so I won’t crash. It would probably hurt to crash, and it’s scary to think about. Hurt and fear are feelings.
      Question for you: Can you think of a sort of controlling that doesn’t have some feeling-related motive behind it?

      • Pete

        This reminds me of the argument about the existence of altruism.

        Can a situation exist that does not cause some feeling in an individual, which would then influence that individual’s actions with regard to the situation?

        On the surface, it would seem that a situation that fails to elicit an emotional response would also fall beneath this hypothetical person’s notice, and not spur any other kind of response, either.

        In which case, the non-response is an unconscious mechanism for control, telling others involved in the situation to make it more interesting if they want attention. Or does that count as feeling boredom?

        • fritzfreud

          Thanks, Pete. As a practical matter I don’t spend much time talking with people about situations that don’t impact them emotionally. But I do spend a lot of time exploring stuff that impacts them unconsciously — ie, below their awareness. That stuff, in fact, is what usually turns out to be the most powerful, since it shapes our feelings and behaviors in ways we don’t realize. (My next Monkeytraps post is about that, in fact. It’s a “Bert’s therapy” installment about why so many couples tend to have the same fights over and over and over.) I guess I’m saying it’s not always immediately clear to me when something has impacted me or shaped my responses, and I assume most people are like that. We are a largely unconscious race, unconscious even of our unconsciousness.

          • Pete

            I’ve found this to be particularly true for events in childhood- the things that happen before we develop the intellectual and emotional maturity to recognize the impact of things happening around us frequently have profound, far-reaching consequences throughout our lives, and can be difficult to recognize retrospectively because, hey, that’s how life has always been.

            • Martha Love

              I like the word “impact”, Pete, as it relates to feelings, as this is what we carry with us, not the details of the experience and is, I think the key to understanding my emotions. When I am being controlling of others, my outer environment, if I stop and reflect on how I am feeling inside, I can find fear, anxiety of the future. It is like I am trying to get everything in place because if I don’t do something then a negative experience will repeat itself, something from my past. And down in my gut, there is emptiness and a feeling of being out of control of my own responses to life, a need of freedom that is lacking. My experience is that this is the feeling I need to center my consciousness upon and trace back to its source to clear my perspective and feel in control of my own life responses. They may not make sense to anyone else, I was rambling in my gut awareness.

              • Pete

                I’d love to hear Steve’s opinion, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with trying to avoid repeating negative experiences or with trying to simulate positive ones. The key (for me) is being able to accept that some situations are completely beyond our ability to control, instead of driving ourselves crazy over it.

                • fritzfreud

                  Sure, that makes sense to me. But I think Martha was suggesting that sometimes we have to uncover a feeling’s roots (“trace back to its source to clear my perspective”) in order to know whether we’re reacting to something in the past or the present. Personally, I regularly confuse the two.

  • Pete

    I agree with Charles, that this transcript of ‘The Talk’ is well-written and clear; I have also read all of your posts (which have all been interesting and frequently thought- and discussing-provoking). Having had my own background education and experiences, rather than yours, I’m not entirely certain I agree with the third point- or perhaps that the second and third are transposed. An addiction to control, applied to feelings, will certainly result in psychoemotional instability.

    Then again, I may just be misinterpreting the whole thing and attempting to insert (*cough* control *cough*) a cause-effect relationship where none was intended.

    • fritzfreud

      With regard to control, the cause-effect relationships I see most commonly take the form of what I call the two paradoxes.

      The First Paradox is “The more control you need, the less control you have.”

      The Second Paradox is “The more you try to control other people, the more you force them to control you back.”

      The First Paradox is the less obvious, because it stems from the fact that controlling externals (people, places and things) tends to be an impractical — even self-destructive — way of controlling internals (i.e., our own emotional reactions).

  • John McCann

    First if this is close to vebatim what you share with every new can it!Ive read past writings and while not a fan of the style ive come to appreciate the/your theory that control or lack there of or any combo can be the cause or cure for many clients. id be much more brief clear and set them up for future talks with less technical jargon upfront..while stating the same theory ie.”where all on the road driving ..some dont have there hands on the wheel others grip too hard..if your life is heading in the direction you want..other wise steer the rig where you want to go”Unless you have some control on the streering you going to crash!” well that sort of thing..its not a seminar on control..if you feel its needed then hand them a print out.Ive trained counseled and served many students parents clients as a life long Karate teacher and professional investigator.The way forward is to listen! can buy a book else where.If more explanation is asked for, they need to keep listening and coming,applying what they have learned in there own lives..

    • fritzfreud

      I can see how you’d think that; it does sound like a load to drop on someone. In actuality The Talk usually gets delivered over several sessions, and then only in the context of personalized discussions — eg, about how a particular client defines “control” and his/her awareness of where he/she is overcontrolling. I reduced it to one page here to see how it all hangs together.

    • Phyllis

      Hi John, Marie and I like your direct approach.. However, we do have a soft spot for Bert.. How would Steve get along without him??

  • sthumm

    As always your writtings are amazing…it took alot to get thru to be at first but once it did my life has been soooo very different.

  • Cathy | Treatment Talk


    Enjoyed The Talk, and I can relate to your thought that control is a problem in the area of feelings and relationships. I would like more information on how to handle people who are controlling, as it is annoying, especially when you need to continue to the relationship. On number 2, as well I would like to know more about how it the root of all emotional problems. The only part I’m not sure I agree with is that we are addicted to control. I agree in the sense that we all want to control our environment, but I’m not sure everyone is addicted to controlling our relationships and feelings, if that is what you meant.

    Control can be an emotionally draining effort that does not benefit anyone. It only adds to the family members frustration when trying to control someone who is “out of control.” When we finally let go (assuming the person is an adult) and let everyone work out their own problems in their own way, it seems to go a little better.

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks for your feedback, Cathy. Yes, I do think we’re all addicted to controlling feelings and relationships, in the sense that we do so compulsively, unconsciously and in a zillion tiny ways we usually don’t think of as “controlling.” I comb my hair, avoid belching in public, and usually don’t tell others when I think they’re stupid, for example, because I want to control the impression I make on people.

      As for its role in creating emotional problems, most of the problems clients bring to therapy stem from their fear that if they express themselves honestly they will be attacked or rejected by people they want to love or accept them. This leads to the chronic self-editing (ie, holding in feelings that want and need to be expressed) that lies at the root of neurosis and leads to anxiety, depression and other symptoms. We self-edit, in short, as a way of controlling others’ reactions to us. Again, this is so common most of us don’t think of it as a control issue. But it certainly is, and the symptoms are reduced or eliminated when the client becomes less addicted to this sort of controlling.

  • Nd

    Control seems like a word for inert objects. Manipulate seems like a better word or persuade is even better. You can’t control feelings or people. You can influence them.though

  • heatherkorn

    I think it makes a lot of sense. My ex was always trying to get me to control my feelings and probably his own. He was so concerned with whether or not I’m reacting the appropriate amount to things (his infidelities, his accusations, etc) and then he’d also check himself to see if he’s reacting the appropriate amount. And then he would decide what he thought was the appropriate amount to react to a situation and he’d show me how I’m supposed to react.
    And it did alienate me.

  • The alternatives « Monkeytraps

    […] the end of a recent post (The Talk) I […]

  • Welcome to Monkey House « Monkey House

    […] (What’s a control issue? “We each carry around in our heads a picture of the reality we want. And we constantly compare that picture to the reality we have. Anything we do to bring those two closer together — to change what we have into what we want — I call controlling.” From “The Talk,” which you can read here: […]

  • Al

    What comes to my mind when I read a The Talk is firstly, clear and user friendly. Secondly I have been in CODA for 2 years and The Talk really sums it up…. Thirdly, my essence of your Talk that I can say in my head to remind me (I so need reminding) is the Serenity Prayer….God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference. The wisdom but us what I need…and of course, you cannot GET it, it comes all by itself especially when you stop trying to get it!
    Very supportive blog Steve. Al

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