The tradeoff

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

Steve speaking:)

Last night an insight came to me in a dream:

I’m the ex-husband of a woman who’s remarried twice since our divorce.  Somehow I’ve gotten re-entangled in her current life and agreed to take time each day to ferry her kids to school or appointments or something.

Her other ex-husband — a good-natured working man, played by Kevin Costner — has gotten himself similarly entangled.  Wife’s current husband is a stuffy businessman (let’s call him George) that both Kevin and I dislike.

One day we’re commiserating about how much we dislike George.  I decide I’m sick and tired of my entanglement and suggest to Kevin that we both just end it.  But Kevin’s scared of Wife.  He declines.

Then later I’m sitting with Wife and George and Kevin and suddenly feel free of my fear of consequences.  I tell Wife and George I’m ending our arrangement.  I tell Wife it’s been good to see her again, and that I really like one of her ex-husbands, and then, turning to George, say “But I really can’t stand you.”

Wife and George immediately begin to bicker.  I sit and watch them for a moment, feeling liberated. 

Then I get up and leave.

I wake up.  The dream fascinates me.  I have no idea what it means.

I roll out of bed and take a walk to think about it.

Gestalt dreamwork usually involves role-playing, but I’m not awake enough for that.  So I look for another way to understand it.

“A dream is an existential snapshot,” I remember Fritz saying.

What’s this a snapshot of?

What’s the situation it depicts?

What lesson is it trying to teach?

Let’s see.  In the dream I freed myself from an uncomfortable situation by telling the truth.

I regained control (of my life and time) by giving up control (of Wife’s and George’s reaction to me).


There’s the lesson:

To get control of something, you must surrender control of something else.

This feels important. For years I’ve been trying to understand control and surrender and to find some neat way of summarizing their relationship.

Now my unconscious has kindly offered one.  

(Thank you, Thing.)

So this business of controlling boils down to a tradeoff.  To get control of something, you must surrender control of something else.

Like the original, literal monkey trap.  To hold on to the banana, the monkey gives up his freedom.  To regain his freedom, he must let the banana go.

To get control of something, you must surrender control of something else.

It also explains all garden-variety codependent interactions.  To control you (that is, get you to like or love or accept me) I must surrender control of something else (like my ability to be honest or spontaneous or emotionally expressive). 

Conversely, regaining control of my emotional life — especially how I feel about myself — means giving up control of how you react to me.

To get control of something, you must surrender control of something else.

And the New Year’s resolutions and goal-setting I blogged about last week.  It applies there too:

To reach a particular goal (writing my book, say) I must surrender control of others (like spending time with my family, or on chores that absorb my energy and attention).

To control of my weight I must surrender control (i.e., limit my choices) of what I put in my mouth.

To control my social anxiety I must surrender control of how other people judge me and practice being authentically myself instead.

And so on.

So obvious.

Why did I never see this before?

Control and surrender are two sides of the same coin.

And getting control of anything means accepting a tradeoff.

To get control in one place, you must give it up in another.

To win something, you must lose something else.

Holding on here means letting go over there.  And vice versa.





Thank you, Thing.

Want more?


If you surrender completely to the moments as they pass, you live more richly those moments.

~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh







The greatness of a man’s power is the measure of his surrender. 

~ William Booth








Love is an attempt at penetrating another being, but it can only succeed if the surrender is mutual.

~ Octavio Paz








Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.

~ Gail Sheehy








The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.

~ Julia Cameron







Man is not logical, and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis.   

~ John Dewey






My friends, no matter how rough the road may be, we can and we will, never, never surrender to what is right.

~ Dan Quayle








Sorry for that last quote.  I found it, I was tempted, and I surrendered.

~ Bert 


2 responses to “The tradeoff

  • jon

    I like all the tradeoffs at the end, it helped me understand better, just yesterday on my 2nd favorite Dr. show, Dr Oz had someone on talking about breaking bad habits and he was saying in order to break one habit I will need to replace it with a better habit he was saying the same as you I think, that everthing is like a trade off, You described this as Cool and it is very Cool, Thanks FYI Dr Phil is my first favorite Dr show, BUT by far my second favorite therapist,

  • Bryan

    My problem is that my attempts at surrender are just control in disguise. Surrender just becomes another tool of control that I try to use. I understand that a controlling attempt at surrender isn’t necessarily surrender at all, but that begs the question, what’s the difference and how can I tell the difference? For me it all come down to intent and the heart. The ideas of control and surrender are useful constructs, but for them to remain useful, we must be aware of our intent, of where are hearts are. I’ve done some shit that looked crazy controlling on the outside (and in fact was controlling in many ways) but was actually a huge act of surrender. And I’ve “surrendered” in ways that have been nothing more than magnificent attempts at control.

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