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.



5 responses to “What we mean when we talk about control, part 4: The illusion of control

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