What we mean when we talk about control, part 3: Particularization


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

No, that’s not them at left.

Steve speaking:)


“So, what d’you want to work on?” he asks.


“Well, you’re here.  It’s your money, so to speak.  What d’you want to change?”

He thinks, then, of his father; of their struggle to keep between them a screen of calm and order. 

“I’d like to be more in control, I guess.”

                                   ~ From Ordinary People by Judith Guest.

Gentle reader, a question for you:

What does it mean to be in control?

(Author pauses while reader considers.)

Well, when we talk about being in control we usually mean one of two things: (a)  being able to rearrange the world around us, or (b) being able to rearrange how we’re feeling inside.

But as in the dialogue above, it’s not always clear which is which.

Does (b) depend on (a)?  Must I have actual control, out there in the world, in order to feel emotionally in control

Often we assume so.  If I control the world, we assume, I can control how I feel.

We may even doubt there’s any other way to reach (b).  How can I feel okay when what’s happening around me is not-okay?  we ask ourselves.  Isn’t that like swimming in water without getting wet?

A reasonable conclusion.  Logical. 

And wrong. 

Worse, a dangerous conclusion to reach, because of how it leads us to cope with a complex world filled with not-okayness.

This form of confusion even has its own name (which no one ever uses):

3. Particularization

Particularization means mistaking some specific way of satisfying a need with the need itself.

It means confusing ends with means — mistaking what we want with one particular way of getting it.

“The genesis of particularization is habit, or conditioned response,” write two sociologists:

 A person who has satisfied a need in one particular way since childhood is likely to have only a vague awareness of the need; his vivid consciousness will be of the familiar means of satisfaction. When feeling needful, he thinks instantly of the usual mode of fulfillment, bypassing recognition of the need itself….

But if for any reason the habitual behaviors are not very effective — as in many case they are not — particularization renders it difficult for the individual to recognize this fact….  Habit prevails, and he tends simply to try again in the familiar way. 

The result is analogous to bailing a boat with a sieve.

~ From The adjusted American: Normal neuroses in the individual and society by Snell & Gail Putney.

I see this all the time in people who grow up in alcoholic, abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional families. 

Early on they learn to see  life as unpredictable and dangerous (Will Dad drink or be sober?  Will Mom hug me or hit me?  Will everyone get along, or fight until bedtime?)  and blame their inner anxiety on events in their immediate environment.  

Inevitably, they try to reduce their anxiety by controlling that environment (hide Dad’s beer, clean Mom’s kitchen, keep everyone amused or distracted). 

And there it is: particularization.  As kids they equate something they need (feeling safe) with one particular way of getting it (controlling people, places and/or things).

They grow up convinced If I can’t have control, I can’t ever feel safe.  Which leaves them no choice but to keep trying and trying to rearrange the world around them. 

And that, gentle reader, is how you create a control addict.

This happens to all of us, regardless of what our family was like.  Why?  Because we all start out as children.  And children, having no power, are forced to rely on controlling the grownups around them.  (See Control is for kids for a fuller discussion.)

“When the only tool you have is a hammer,” Abraham Maslow once noted,  “everything looks like a nail.” 

So we’re all adult children.  We’re all control addicts.  Because we all enter adulthood with the same hammer in hand.

The question for those of us tired of secretly feeling and functioning like kids is: 

Isn’t there another way to rearrange how we’re feeling inside? 

(To be continued.)

* * *

Want more?

1. We are people who hit age 28 or 39 or 47 and suddenly find that something is wrong that we can no longer fix by ourselves.

2. We are people who gaze at our peers on the street or at a party and say to ourselves, “I wish I could be like her or him.”

3. Or we say, “If only he know what was really going on inside of me, he’d be appalled.”

4. We are people who love our spouses and care deeply for our children, but find ourselves growing distant, detached and fearful in these relationships.

5. Or we feel that everything in our lives is perfect until our sons or daughters become chemically dependent, bulimic, run away from home or attempt suicide.

~ From Adult children: The secrets of of dysfunctional families by John and Linda Friel.

Click here to read the rest of the laundry list begun above.  (Scroll down to chapter 3, titled “Who Are We?  What Are Our Symptoms?”)

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