Monthly Archives: February 2012

Session 32: Selfish

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How was your weekend?

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Lousy.  Felicia and I fought.

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What about?

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I took a nap.

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You fought about that?

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Well, she wanted to go shopping instead.

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Oh.

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She called me selfish.

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Do you think you’re selfish?

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I guess so.  Mom always said I was.

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And Mom thought “selfish” was a bad thing.

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Of course.

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Funny thing about that.

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About what?

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People who call other people selfish.

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What about them?

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They’re usually pretty good at being selfish themselves. 

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What they seem to mean is “Don’t take care of YOUR self.  Take care of MY self instead.”

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Ever notice that?

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Not until now.

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And how are you at taking care of yourself?

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Terrible.

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Scared someone will call you selfish?

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Yeah.

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So you end up not selfish enough?

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Yeah.

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Well, don’t feel bad.  It’s a tough manipulation to defend against.

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bert 

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Then again, if you don’t take care of yourself, who will?

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Probably not Felicia.  Or mom.

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Be my guess.

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Bert

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How are you feeling right now?

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Like I deserve another nap.

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*************** * * *


Session 31: Happy

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Still unhappy, I gather.

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Yeah.

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Why do you think that is?

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I don’t know.  Because I don’t have what I want, I guess.

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 And what do you want?

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Well, a job that pays better.

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A less angry wife.

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A son who can pass Math.

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And a reason to smile occasionally.

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Any suggestions?

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Yes.  Redefine happiness.

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Redefine how?

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Stop thinking of happiness as getting what you want.

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Try thinking of it as having what you need.

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What difference would that make?

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 Would you rather be underpaid or unemployed?

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The former.

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Would you rather have an angry wife or live alone?

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Again, the former.

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Would you rather have a Math dunce for a son, or no son at all?

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I’ll take the dunce.

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Congratulations.  It seems you already have what you need.

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Plus a reason to smile.

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*************** * * *


Session 30: Bert’s rowboat.

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You look stressed.

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I’m unhappy.  My life…hurts

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Sorry to hear it.

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I really hate pain and suffering.

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You know they’re not the same thing, right?

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No.  What’s the difference?

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Pain’s necessary, suffering’s optional.

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I don’t understand.

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I never told you the rowboat story?

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No.

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Guy paints his rowboat.  It’s beautiful, and he’s really proud of it.  So he takes it out on the lake.

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And he’s rowing happily along through the fog when another rowboat suddenly slams into him.

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 So he stands up and screams “You moron!  Are you blind?  Look at what you did to my rowboat!”  And so on.

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Then he looks closer and sees that the other rowboat is empty.

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Which means what?

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Life’s full of empty rowboats.  We all get dented.  Pain’s inevitable. 

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It only becomes suffering when we take it personally.

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I see.

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Do you?

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I don’t know.  Maybe not.

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But for some reason I feel better.

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****************************

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*************** * * *

 


Session 29: Yellow brick road

“If I know I’m crazy, does that mean I’m not?”

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Interesting question.  Why do you ask?

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I’m not asking, I’m quoting.  Just read that in a book.

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Psychology book?

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Mystery novel.  About a Thai cop trying to solve a Silence of the Lambs-type murder and practice Buddhism at the same time.*

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And does your Buddhist cop answer the question?

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Not yet.  Can you?

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Yes.  No.

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No, knowing I’m crazy doesn’t mean that I’m not?

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Right.

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Why not?

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Does finding a hole in your tooth make the cavity disappear?

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No.

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Same thing.  We like to pretend we can think our way out of emotional problems.  But recovery takes work. 

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What kind of work?

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Uncomfortable work, usually.

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But why?

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Emotional problems tend to come from avoiding emotional discomfort.   So discomfort is the price of recovery.    

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Discomfort as in…

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Accepting our limitations.  Taking risks.  Becoming honest.  That sort of thing.

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Like practicing the alternatives to control.

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Exactly.  Those all involve tolerating some new discomfort. 

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I’d rather skip the discomfort.

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Most people feel that way.  Look around you.  Met many healthy people lately?

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Not many, no.  But when does it end?

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Recovery work?

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Yeah.

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If you’re doing it right, never.  You just keep growing until you die.

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Never?  There’s no graduation, no Nirvana to attain, no Emerald City you reach?

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Nope.  Just the yellow brick road.

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Great.  So what now?

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You choose, basically.  Keep trying to avoid life’s discomfort, like most people do, or…

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Learn to love the yellow brick road.

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Right.

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Can I get back to you on this?

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therapist (16)

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* * * * * 3* * * * * ** * *

*The mystery Bert’s reading is The Godfather of Kathmandu by John Burdett (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

*                               * * *

 


Session 28: Ten big ones

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You look tired.

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I ‘m not sleeping.

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Insomnia?

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Yeah.

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How long?

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Three nights.

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That’s awful.  What’s causing it?

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I just can’t stop thinking at night.

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 Anything you want to talk about?

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Nothing in particular.  Just monkey mind* crap.  You know.

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Yeah.  Listening to monkey mind is like eating junk food: unhealthy and irresistable.

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Any suggestions?

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Yes.  Yawn.

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Come again?

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Yawn ten times.  It helps.

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I don’t get it.

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There’s this neuroscientist who claims that yawning is one of the best things you can do for your brain.  It relaxes your whole body, lowers your stress level, improves cognition and memory, even increases your empathy for other people.

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Get out.

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Really.  I’ll send you the article.  But try it now.  Go ahead, yawn.

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Here?  Now?

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Sure.  Go on.  Big yawn.

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That’s not a big yawn.  Try again.

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Better.  Once more.  Make like a lion. 

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Beautiful.  Now repeat.  Ten big ones. 

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Good.  How do you feel now?

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Bert?  How do you feel?

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Zz.

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I really should raise my rates.

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*Forget what monkey mind is?  See “Bert is nuts”:

https://monkeytraps.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/bert-is-nuts/

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Bert on surrender

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

For this post,  Steve interviewed Bert.)

Steve:  So I’ve been writing about peace of mind and how control addiction makes it impossible, and how practicing alternatives to control make it easier to find.  And I wanted to ask you about surrender.

Bert:  What about surrender?

Steve:  How you practice it, mainly.

Bert:  Oh.  Sure this is a good idea?

Steve:  Why not?

Bert:   People will know how lousy I am at it.

Steve:  That’s okay.  They know it isn’t easy.

Bert:  I never use that word, by the way.

Steve:  No?

Bert:  No, that’s one of your writer’s words.

Steve:  You don’t like it.

Bert:  Not really.  Sounds too much like helplessness.

Steve:  That’s not what it means.  It….

Bert:  I know, I know.  Surrender means winning, not losing.  Letting go of what you can’t control represents the victory of awareness over denial, growth over habit, and faith over fear.  Right?

Steve:  Something like that.  What word do you prefer?

Bert:   Depends.  Sometimes I think of surrender as detaching.  

Steve:  Meaning?

Bert:  Taking a step back emotionally.  Like when that client cursed at us in session yesterday.

Steve:  And I told you to not take it personally. 

Bert:  Right.  That it was just transference.  And then other times I think of surrender as accepting. 

Steve:  “It is what it is.”

Bert:  Yes.  Though I hate that expression.

Steve:  Why?

Bert:  It’s like Have a nice day.  Everyone says it, then go right back to being raging control freaks. 

Steve:  Any other words for surrender?

Bert:  Let’s see.  Sometimes I do it by consciously reframing a situation instead of trying to control it.  Remember how mad I used to get at little old lady drivers?

Steve:  Anyone driving at the speed limit, you mean.   

Bert:  Right.  Well, now when I find myself behind one I just tell myself This is God reminding you to slow the fuck down.  And I slow down, and I’m okay with it.

Steve:  Very spiritual of you.

Bert:  I think so.  I use slogans too.

Steve:  Which slogans?

Bert:  Well, there’s the one you wrote on a Post-it and taped to your PC monitor:

99% of what we worry about never happens. 

That got us through some rough times.

Steve:  It did.

Bert:  And the one you kept in the little plastic frame in your office.  The one that made clients think you’re a little nuts: 

Everything’s perfect.

Steve:  I can’t count the times I tried to explain that.

Bert:  Anyone ever buy it?

Steve:  No.  Easier to sell Everything happens for a reason.

But back to you.  It sounds like you do a lot of surrendering, in one way or another.  Why do you say you’re lousy at it?

Bert:  Because of all the times I can’t.

Steve:  Explain.

Bert:  You know how we live.  Rushing from chore to chore, worry to worry.  Working down the To Do list with no end in sight.  Feeling like everything is urgent.  Lying in bed at night and trying to decide if you got enough stuff done to feel okay about yourself.

Then there’s the problem of people.  All the times I just can’t be myself. 

Steve:  Can’t tell the truth, you mean?

Bert:  Yes, but more than that.  All the times I can’t just relax and stop worrying about how someone’s going to react to me.   

But it’s more than that, too. 

It’s all the times I can’t just relax.  Can’t take, even, a really deep breath.  

You know?

Steve:  I know.  Can’t relax if you can’t surrender.  It’s a stubborn addiction. 

Bert:  Sometimes I’m sorry you told me I’m addicted.

Steve:  Do you mean that?

Bert:  No.  No, I guess not.

Steve:  What’s good about knowing?

Bert:  Well, it does clarify things.  When I feel angry or frustrated or crazy it’s usually because I’m trying to control something I shouldn’t.  Calms me down, just seeing that. 

Steve:  Another surrender?

Bert:  I suppose it is.  And then, remembering I’m addicted gives me more choices than I used to have. 

Steve:  More choices?

Bert:  Sure.  Before I knew, I never even thought of surrender as an option.  Now I know, even when I can’t do it.  It’s something to work towards.  Something to practice and get better at.  And that gives me hope.    

Steve:  Hope’s good.

Bert:  It is.  It even lets you breathe a little bit deeper.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 


What we mean when we talk about control, part 5: Peace

 

(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:)

So what do we mean when we talk about control? 

Like when someone says something like I want to feel more in control — what are they asking for, really?

I think it’s

5. Peace

Peace of mind, that is.

“Peace of mind.”  Consider that phrase, and what it suggests.  

Calm.  Safety.  Blessed relaxation.  The absence of pain, stress and fear.  Connection to our selves, to others, to the world.  Serenity.

And where does peace of mind come from?

Not fighting. 

Peace of mind is rare because our minds are usually at war.

We fight reality itself, we fight ourselves, and we fight each other.

And we do it almost constantly.

 “Each of us has our own silent War With Reality,” writes Stephen Cope.

This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior. We reach for the pleasant. We hate the unpleasant. We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones. We try to get rid of this pervasive sense of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things ‘”out there.”  By changing the world.

Think about it.   Think of how often the reality you want matches the reality you have. 

Think of the time you spend wishing that things (or you yourself, or your partner) were different. 

Think of the energy you spend plotting or actually trying to make things the way you’d prefer.

Like all addictions, the search for control is a problem disguised as a solution.   It seems to offer a way out of discomfort and discontent.  In fact, it offers the opposite.  

“The life of addiction is one of perpetual longing,” writes William Alexander in his Still Waters:

“I want, I want, I want” is the chant of the discontented self.  This longing is reckless and insistent.  It will never be fulfilled.  There is not one thing, one feeling, or one idea that will satisfy it.  “I want” is always followed by “more.”  It gets worse.

Sure, you can fight reality.  You just can’t ever win.

Is there an alternative to fighting?

Three, actually. 

We can practice surrender, responsibility and intimacy instead.

I’ve written about these alternatives before.   Surrender means not controlling what we can’t control anyway.  Responsibility means listening to feelings — however inconvenient or unbecoming — and allowing them a voice when we make choices.  And intimacy means taking the (often terrifying) risk of being ourselves with another person and allowing that person to do the same.

As I said, I’ve written about these before, and expect to continue for a while.  The rest of my life, probably.

Partly because I’m convinced they’re the only chance we have of achieving peace. 

And partly because Bert still has so damned much to learn about them.

Next: Bert’s notes on the alternatives.

 

* * *

Want more?

 

Supposing you have been very much in love with a man or a woman.  And you want them to love you.

And if you say “You must love me,” love dries up. 

But on the other hand if you say, “Look, please, have it your way….  You don’t have to meet me tomorrow.  Please, you choose….” 

They always come back if you do it that way.  (Laughs.) 

Let it go, and it returns to you.  But dominate it and say, “You must be mine,” and you’ll lose it.

…And this is, finally, the only sane attitude.

~ From Let it go by Alan Watts.

  

 


What we mean when we talk about control, part 4: The illusion of control

 

 

 

 

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 one together:)

 

 

Steve:  Our last post (How to spot monkeytraps) explained where we got this blog’s title:

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.

One reader replied,

Why didn’t the monkeys just break the jar or bottle? I get that it was weighted down, but monkeys use tools. Were there no rocks laying around?  

Bert:  Shit.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Steve:  Just the comment I’d expect from a control addict.

 

4. The illusion of control

Bert:  Why?  What’s wrong with what I said?

Steve:  You misread the problem.

Bert:  How?

Steve:  You think the jar is what traps the monkey.   

Bert:  Of course. 

Steve:  But he could escape that just by opening his paw.   

Bert:  Oh.  Yeah.

Steve:  But he won’t.  He wants the banana.  More than anything. 

Bert:  And that’s what traps him. 

Steve:  Exactly.  Just as control addicts get trapped by their need for control.

Bert:  Why’d I miss that?

Steve:  Because you’re addicted.  Control addicts usually respond to loss of control by thinking, But I want control.  I need control.  There must be some way to get it.  Their craving distorts their thinking.

Bert:  So instead of letting go we try breaking the jar.

Steve:  Right.  Breaking the jar is a metaphor for imagining life as something we can control if we try hard enough.  And that’s a dangerous illusion.

Bert:  Tell me again.  It’s an illusion because…

Steve:  Because there are some bananas we’re not meant to have.

Bert:  Such as?

Steve:  Well, immortality, for example.  Much as we want to live forever, we can’t.

Control of emotions is another.  As determined as we are to feel only happy, safe and contented, life forces us to feel sad, scared and needy.

And then, of course, relationships.  Relationships never go as planned. 

Bert:  I noticed.  Why is that?

Steve:  Because relationships involve people.  And people tend to be uncontrollable. 

Bert:  So there’s no breaking the jar.   

Steve:  Right.  Life is what it is.  Messy, and unpredictable, and painful, and inconvenient, and unless we want to suffer endlessly we have to find some way of making peace with all that.

Bert:  To accept life on life’s terms.

Steve:  And let go of the banana.

Bert:  Okay.  Fine.  I get it.   Actual control’s an illusion. 

Now what?

Steve:  What do you mean?

Bert:  At the start of this series you told that story about seniors and house plants, and said having a sense of control is essential to both mental and physical health.  Right?

Steve:  Right.

Bert:  Well, if actual control is an illusion, how do I get a sense of control?

Steve:  Feel okay inside, you mean.

Bert:  Exactly.

Steve:  There are three ways.  I’ll explain them next time.

Bert:  Explain them now.

Steve:  I can’t.  It would take too long. 

Bert:  But I want it now.  I need it now.  There must be some way to get it now.

Steve:  Very funny. 

 

Art by Brian Bartley, of bartsartny.com, the only artist Bert ever posed for.

 

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How to spot monkeytraps

A note from Bert:

Steve has a cold, and is being a big old baby about it, so instead of writing a new post he told me to republish an old one.

(Personally, I consider it a sign of weakness to give in to cold symptoms.  Buck up, man.  What will people think?) 

Part 4 of “What we mean when we talk about control” will appear next Sunday.

Stay away from germmy people,

love,

Bert

 

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 Marc MacYoung’s article “Monkey trap: Staying human (and rational) in conflict,” which is about conflict resolution.


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