Monthly Archives: March 2012

Bert’s therapy: Monkey

I have a question.

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Shoot. 

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What’s my single biggest problem? 

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Addiction to control.

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Not depression?

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Well, that’s related to the addiction.

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Not anxiety?

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Related to the addiction.

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My overeating?

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Related.

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My overworking?  Fear of other people?  Fear of my wife?

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Related.  Related.  Related. 

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All my problems are related to control addiction?

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Pretty much.

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I sound pretty screwed up.

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Actually you’re pretty ordinary.

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How so?

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We’re all addicted to control.  And it causes most of our emotional problems.

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Explain.

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There’s a part of each of us that craves control. 

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It’s always awake, usually scared, and constantly trying to control stuff.

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What stuff?

Everything.  External stuff, like people, places and things.  And internal stuff, like our own feelings, thoughts and behavior.

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Because it can’t accept reality as it is, it spends all its time fighting reality.  Which, of course, is a war it can’t win.  Which leaves us depressed, anxious and addicted.

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I call this part the Inner Monkey. 

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Interesting.  But it doesn’t sound like me at all.

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Have you looked in a mirror lately? 

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* * * 

 

 

 

 

Because we are afraid of life, we seek to control or master it.

~ Alexander Lowen, Fear of life .

*

The person who is possessed by fear expects to be hurt. Expecting to be hurt, he works out a way of life that is primarily a way of playing safe; and all his attitudes and actions become progressively expressive of that way.

~ Bonaro W. Overstreet, Understanding fear in ourselves and others.

*

Control, for all its self-assured position of command, relies on a defensive vision, and the traits ennumerated — enorced loyalty, exactitude, suspicion of the hidden, watchfulness — are paranoid traits.

~ James Hillman, Kinds of power: A guide to its intelligent uses.

 *

Each of us has our own silent War With Reality…. Yogis came to call this duhkha. Duhkha means, literally, “suffering,” “pain,” or “distress.”…. 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 state of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things “out there.” By changing the world.

~ Stephen Cope, The wisdom of yoga: A seeker’s guide to extraordinary living.

*

Do you want to improve the world?

I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.

It can’t be improved

If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.

If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

                                    ~ Lao-tzu, Tao te ching.

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Bert’s therapy: Garbage

 

I remember my panic attack on the first day of kindergarten.

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I remember the bully who made me eat ants on the playground.

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I remember dad getting drunk and fighting my uncle on our front lawn.

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I remember running away from summer camp because I was so homesick.

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I remember telling a girl I loved her, and her answering “Thanks.”

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What the hell are you doing?

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Remembering.

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Why?

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I don’t know.  Bad memories just come up when I feel stressed.

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Well, stop chewing on them.

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Why? 

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It’s bad mental hygiene.  You’re like a cat poking through a garbage can.

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So?

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There’s nothing nourishing there.  And you’ll just stink up your present.

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But I’m only…thinking.

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Not really.  Most of what we call thinking isn’t thinking at all.

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What is it, then?

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Random mental activity.  Automatic, aimless, illogical.  Remembering, projecting, ruminating…

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…obsessing, fantasizing, worrying — waste of time, mostly.  Some of it does more harm than good.

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How?

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By triggering bad feelings that have absolutely nothing to do with your current reality.

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Oh.  That.

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It’s the main reason we’re such neurotic monkeys.

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Can I do anything about it?

You can train your mind.  Meditation’s the best long-term solution.  And there are short-term tricks you can learn, like Thought Stopping.  But remember two things.

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What two things?

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Your mind has a mind of its own.  And even the sanest mind is a little nuts.

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So…

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So chew gum, not garbage.

 

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

Brain: An apparatus with which we think we think.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

* * *

Most of us believe that we are always thinking; it’s not true. The bulk of what we consider thought is just the mind going through its normal process, drifting past our consciousness like a river, full of debris that has been dumped there in the past.

From “Thinking that gets in the way of recovery” at the Anxiety Care UK website.

* * *

So when you’re in monkey mind you’re having all these feelings — often painful ones, anxiety and anger and such – that have nothing to do with what’s really happening in your life at the moment. It’s like being trapped in a nightmare, unable to wake up. 

From “Bert is nuts” by Bert.

* * * 

From Joko Beck I learned to label thoughts when they come up (eg, thinking how much I hate meditating), which lets me to detach from my own thinking and go back to breath-following.  Another writer (can’t remember who) taught me to half-close my eyes and defocus my vision so I retain some connection to the outside world. And I think it was Philip Kapleau who taught me to keep a half-smile on my face, as a sort of secret reminder that the scary noise in my head is not to be taken too seriously.

From “Why I hate meditating, why I do it anyway,” also by Bert.

* * *

One effective and quick technique to help you with the intrusive negative thoughts and worry that often accompany panic disorder, anxiety and agoraphobia is called “thought stopping.” The basis of this technique is that you consciously issue the command, “Stop!” when you experience repeated negative, unnecessary or distorted thoughts. You then replace the negative thought with something more positive and realistic. 

From “What is thought stopping and how does it work?” by Sheryl Ankrom.

 


Bert’s therapy: Balls

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How are you?

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Overwhelmed.

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By what?

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The usual.  Work.  Bills.

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The marriage.  The kids.  The house.

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Plus a hundred other things.

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The leak under my sink.  The hole in my roof.  The racoon in my attic.

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My car needs a tuneup.  My lawn needs reseeding.  My dog needs a vet. 

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I’m fat and should exercise.  I’m anxious and should meditate.  I eat crap and not enough vegetables.

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And on and on and…

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You do seem to be juggling a lot right now.

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How have you handled this is the past?

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I try to keep all the balls in the air.

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How’s that work? 

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I exhaust myself.  The balls drop.  I get depressed.

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I see.  Want a suggestion?

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Please.

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Drop the balls now.

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Deliberately?

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Yes.  For today.  Drop all but two.

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Which two?

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First, get more rest.  Second, lean on someone. 

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Lean how?  On who?

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Someone who’ll give you permission to be selfish.  

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Isn’t selfish bad?

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No, selfish is essential.  Selfless is bad.  Depression’s worse.

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Can I lean on you?

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Sure.  

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bert

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Now go take a nap.

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* * *

Relax much? 

A body is not a machine

It can’t chug along endlessly. 

It needs down time. 

So relaxation is essential to self-care.

Luckily, relaxation is a skill that can be learned.

Here’s one way — simple and effective — to learn it.

 

A deep muscle relaxation drill

1. Find a quiet environment.  Lie on your back or sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.

2. If you’re right handed, begin by tensing your right hand for a count of ten.  (If you’re a lefty, tense your left hand.)  Tell it to be heavy and warm. 

3. Then continue up the right side of your body, focusing in turn on each part and telling it the same thing, as follows:

~ Wrist:   Heavy and warm.

~ Forearm: Heavy and warm.

~ Elbow: Heavy and warm.

~ Upper arm: Heavy and warm.

~ Shoulder: Heavy and warm.

4. Then move down to your foot and continue:

~ Foot: Heavy and warm.

~ Ankle: Heavy and warm.

~ Lower leg: Heavy and warm.

~ Knee: Heavy and warm.

~ Upper leg: Heavy and warm.

The entire right side of your body should now feel heavy and warm.  Wait for these feelings.  

5. Now repeat steps 2-4 on the opposite side of your body.

6. Next relax the muscles of your hips.  Let a wave of relaxation move up from your stomach to your chest.  Tell these muscles to be heavy and warm.  Your breathing should slow and start to come from your diaphragm.  Wait for this breathing change.

7. Next let the wave of relaxation move into your shoulders, neck, jaw and face.   Pay special attention to the muscles controlling your eyes and forehead.  Tell all these muscles to be heavy and warm.

8. Finish by telling your forehead to feel cool.

Practice this drill twice daily.   Fifteen to twenty minutes is ideal, but even three minutes is better than nothing if that’s all you have time for.   With practice you should be able to attain deep muscle relaxation in as short a time as two minutes.

~ Adapted from Burnout: The cost of caring by Christina Maslach (Prentice-Hall, 1982).


The birth of Bert

(Steve speaking:)

Not long ago a new Monkeytraps reader sent me an email asking, “So where did Bert come from, anyway?” 

I took that as an invitation to repost Bert’s story of his own birth, which originally appeared here in 2011 in two parts under the clever title “Bert’s born.” 

It’s a little long.  But Bert likes to tell it because, well, it’s about him.  And as we say,  scratch a codependent, find a narcissist.

*

Steve was born in 1950.

Me, I’ve no idea when I was born. I do, however, remember my first public appearance.

It was on Steve’s first day of kindergarten.

Actually no, it was Visiting Day, the spring before kindergarten started, when kids visited for half a day to get their first taste of public education.

Steve has vague memories of the classroom — bright banks of windows, colored plastic chairs, fingerpaintings on a corkboard, voices rattling off the walls — but no clear memory of how he felt. Not hard to deduce, though, given what happened.

He panicked.

Walked in, froze up. Stood rooted to the tile floor like a stump in a stream, while the other kids bustled and flowed around him.

After a few moments the teacher called the kids over to her desk, and they clumped and moved obediently in that direction. Except Steve, who stayed rooted.

He was shy kid, inexperienced, insecure, especially in new situations. This was certainly one of those, and he found himself flooded with feelings he had not expected and could not begin to control.

At which point, Ta Da, I took over.

“Go to the corner,” I whispered.

He did.

Piled there beside the coat rack was a stack of oversized building blocks, hollow wooden cubes painted bright colors.

“Take down on the blue one,” I told him.

He did.

“Put it on the floor.”

He did.

“Sit on it,” I said.

He did.

“Now don’t move,” I said.

He did, staring blindly ahead.

The teacher came over. Nice lady, print dress. Soft voice. Steve never saw her face because he was staring at her shoes, which were brown.

She said something to him. He shook his head. She said something else. He shook his head again. She waited a moment, then walked away.

We spent the rest of the morning together there in the corner. First we sat perfectly still and tried to be invisible, convinced that if we moved or even breathed loudly someone would notice. After thirty minutes it became clear the nice teacher was content to ignore us, and we began to relax. The roaring in our ears died away. Our hands warmed up. We looked around at the room. We watched the teacher playing with the kids. We watched the kids playing with each other.

After another hour this got boring.

I noticed him eyeing a triangular block, off to one side. It was yellow.

“If you put that behind you,” I whispered, “you could lean back on it.”

The idea of reaching for the block and becoming visible scared him all over again, so we argued about it for a while.

I can’t remember how I changed his mind. But eventually he bent his upper body sideways, grabbed the yellow block and slipped it behind him. Then he leaned back and waited for someone to notice.

Nobody did.

He found this interesting.

Maybe this place was more tolerable than he thought.

Ten more minutes passed.

“You could put your feet up,” I whispered.

He stood and reached for another block.

                                   *

The next block Steve reached for was red. He placed it on the floor in front of the blue one, sat down and put his feet up on it. Feeling highly visible, even daring, he waited for the room to react.

The room ignored him.

“More,” I muttered.

He found a yellow block next, and put it beside the red one. Then he found a green one and put it on the other side.

He made a line of blocks, a little wall. Then sat nervously down to await developments.

None developed.

No one in the classroom noticed, or if they did, they didn’t let on.

He went on building. He made a second tier of blocks, and then a third. When he was done the little multicolored wall rose to his waist and enclosed a small triangular space that felt oddly safe and protected. He sat back down and examined the wall happily. It felt like some sort of achievement.

I think Steve wants to add something here.

Coming to mind is a passage from a Hemingway story. It’s about a traumatized war veteran making camp in the Michigan woods. “Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.”

Yes. It was that sort of achievement. No small thing, creating safety for yourself in a dangerous world.

That’s about it for my story. Nothing else interesting happened. We stayed behind the wall until we went home.

So why did I tell you this?

Well, I’m introducing myself. As I told you last week, I’m Steve’s inner monkey. The part that seeks control. The part that tries to protect him by changing reality, transforming it into something more like what he wants, or needs, or prefers. You just saw me at work.

But I’m also introducing the subject of this blog, which is not a simple one. Control is a slippery fish.

I’ll let Steve have the last word on that:

For a long time after I began examining control I didn’t distinguish between the simple impulse to control and the addiction to controlling. I saw it as a problem, not a solution. A confused attempt to avoid discomfort or pain. Trying to change realities beyond their control seemed to be the main way people made themselves (and others) sick, exhausted and miserable.

But it’s more complicated than that. Controlling is defensive, sure. But it’s adaptive too. Building that block wall may have cut little Steve off from the class, but it also gave him a way to stay in the room.

So controlling can be both irrational and necessary, avoidant and creative. A problem and a solution.

As Bert says, a slippery fish.

* * *


The meaning of control

“A blog about control,” it says at the top of this page.

So what are we talking about here?

What is control, anyway?

What does the word mean? What does the idea mean?

We must think we know. We use it often enough.

This morning, for the hell of it, I Googled “control.” Google replied with 225,000,000 items. That’s million.

I tried the same thing at Amazon.com. Amazon coughed up 168,459 books with control in their titles.

So what is this thing that so fascinates us?

Good question.

There’s an old story about blind men brailling an elephant. One feels the elephant’s side and says, “Ah, I get it. An elephant is just like a wall.” Another feels the elephant’s leg and says “Ah, I get it. An elephant is just like a tree.” Another feels the trunk and decides an elephant is just like a snake. Another feels the tail and decides an elephant is like a rope. And so on.

Control is an elephant. Big, big elephant. Many parts, many contradictions. After fifteen years of studying it I sometimes still feel like a blind man, groping my way towards the truth, one wrinkly body part at a time.

Join me.

                                                                              ***

control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain.     ~ Judith Viorst

That’s fairly broad, as definitions go. My definition, which you won’t find in any dictionary but stands behind everything I write here, is broader:

                    The ability to dictate reality.

Dictate as in  direct, determine or define. 

Reality as in, well, everything. Everything under the sun. All the nuts and bolts of the world as we experience it, both the external world (of other people, places, and things) and the internal world (of our own thoughts, feelings and behavior).

By control, then, I mean nothing less than the ability to edit reality, transform it into whatever we need or want or prefer.

And by controlling I mean everything we do towards that end, whether or not what we do is effective, or healthy, or if we even know that we’re doing it.

First question: Is control the best word for what I’m describing?

I don’t know. But I’ve tried and can’t think of a better one.

The Buddhist term attachment probably comes closest to what I mean. As does a Tibetan word Pema Chrodron writes about, shenpa. But control is so much more important in English (Google lists only 16 million items for attachment) it seems the best label for what I’m interested in describing here.

Next question:

What are the most important parts of this elephant?

Well, the first two things you notice about control are

(1) It’s enormous.

and

(2) It’s invisible.

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny,” Robert Pirsig writes. “But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.”

Control is one of those invisible huge things.

The urge to control explains a ridiculously wide range of behaviors. Often we think of controlling as bossing, bullying or nagging, or a controlling person as someone like Hitler, Donald Trump or Mom. But that’s like mistaking the trunk for the whole elephant.

We’re controlling whenever we scratch an itch. Comb our hair. Mow our lawn. Salt our soup. Spank our child. Balance our checkbook. Change channels. Stop at a red light. Vote. Punch someone’s nose. Flatter someone. Seduce someone. Lie. Disguise our true feelings. Get drunk. Worry. Dream.

You get the idea.

We’re all controlling, and we’re controlling all the time.

We chase control all our lives, waking and sleeping, out in public and deep in the secretest crannies of our mind. We chase it consciously and unconsciously, creatively and destructively, wisely and stupidly, from birth until death.

We can’t help it. Control-seeking is the default position of our species.

At the same time, because it’s such a given of human experience, we barely notice we’re doing it.

Control isn’t like a tool we pick up and put down. It’s more like breathing, or blinking, or the way your knee jerks when the doctor taps your patellar tendon. Constant, automatic, involuntary.

Nor is the wish for control like a faucet we can turn on and off. The need to control flows through us continuously, saturates all our behavior and feelings, infuses everything we desire and fear.

It not only drives our behavior, it structures our thinking. What is most of our thinking, if not an attempt to somehow change some circumstance, shift some piece of reality closer to what we’d prefer? What else do you call problem-solving, planning, analyzing, fantasizing, worrying, obsessing?

The idea of control makes up the psychological sea in which each of us swims.

And most of the time we barely notice we’re wet.


Bert’s therapy: Stuck

I’m stuck.

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How so?

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I don’t like myself.  I really want to change.

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But as hard as I try, I can’t seem to.

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Change yourself?

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Right.  Any advice on that?

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Yes.  But you won’t like it.

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How do you know?

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Nobody likes it.  Nobody listens.

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Why not?

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It’s counterintuitive.  Contradicts what they want to believe. 

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Well, I’m desperate.   Try me.

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If you insist.

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Bert 8

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The way to change yourself is:

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Stop trying.

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Stop trying what?

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Stop trying to change.  That’s how you change.

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You’re confusing me.

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It’s called the Paradoxical Theory of Change.  “The more you try to change yourself,” it says, “the more stuck you become.”

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“But the moment you accept yourself as you are, change happens by itself.”

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That makes no sense.

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Didn’t you just say that pushing yourself to change has gotten you nowhere?  

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Yeah.

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There’s a reason for that. 

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bert

Force yourself to change, and another part of you rises up in resistance.  An internal war starts.  Neither part wins.  You end up still stuck, just more tired.

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That does sound familiar.

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On the other hand, accepting yourself frees up all sorts of energy.  You feel stronger. Braver.  Hopeful.  Creative.  Growth follows.

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That makes sense, I guess.

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But I like believing in will power.

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therapist.

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I like thinking I can chart my own course.

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That I’m the master of my fate.

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That I’m the captain of my…

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See? Nobody listens.

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………………. * * *

 
Dear reader,

I need a hand here. 

This guy’s an okay therapist, I guess.  But as you can tell, sometimes we just doesn’t get each other. 

Maybe feedback from you would help. 

What’s your view of personal change? 

Do you believe in  willpower, or self-acceptance?

Or, put another way:  Below are two poems and two poets.  Which view appeals to you more?

Thanks,

~ Bert

PS: If you ever need help with your therapist, let me know.  

   

211111111111111 * * *

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 ~ William Ernest Henley 

 

 

 2

 

When the tides of life turn against you

And the current upsets your boat

Don’t waste those tears on what might have been

Just lie on your back and float.

 
~ Ed Norton 
 
 
 

 

 

 


Bert’s therapy: Holes

Bert 1

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What’s with the hat?

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I just felt like wearing it.

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“Hole”?

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It’s how I’m feeling lately.

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Like something’s missing.

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Something in you?

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Yes.

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What triggered this?

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Remembering my childhood.

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Oh.

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Dad’s drinking.  Mom’s depression.  How they fought.

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How they weren’t really there.

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And the hole that left in you.

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Right.

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Well, I have a present.

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A present?

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Yes.  See that box by your foot?

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Yes.

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Open it.  It’s yours.

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Thanks.  Not sure it fits.

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Just listen for a moment. 

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Bert 13

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We all have holes.  All of us. 

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bert

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But you’re nobody’s kid now.  Your parents are gone. This is your life. 

 

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Bert 14

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And you can wear any hat you want to.

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Really?

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Really.

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I don’t know.  This still feels a little large.

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You’ll grow into it.

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……………….  * * *

 

Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.

 ~ Andy Warhol

 

All of us start out weak in the hands of the strong, and a parent inclined to exploit that discrepancy can teach a child that any transgression of rules will yield pain and humiliation. Such an early education can bring it about that in later life, long after the tyrant is dead, any tentative reaching for power will be aborted by anxiety.

 ~ Allen Wheelis

 

Are we driven by fear or by joy? Are we driven by a terror of the magnitude of life and an attempt to make our lives small enough that we feel safe? Or are we driven by a longing to become big enough and strong enough to endure the larger life that is possible for us?

 

~ Donna Farhi

 

A bit of advice
Given to a young Native American
At the time of his initiation:

“As you go the way of life,
You will see a great chasm.
Jump.
It is not as wide as you think.”

Joseph Campbell

………………. * * *


Bert’s therapy: Irritated

Bert 1

1

2

3

What’s wrong?

1

2

3

Nothing.  I’m fine.

1

2

3

You don’t seem fine.

1

2

3

What do you mean?

1

2

3

You seem irritated.

1

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3

I’m not.  I’m fine.

1

2

3

Okay.

1

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3

Bert 5

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3

If you say so.

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3

Bert 6

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3

therapist 6

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3

What?

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therapist 7

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3

Jeez, let it go, will you?

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3

therapist 8

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3

Okay.  Okay.  I’m irritated.

1

2

3

How come?

1

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3

Hell, I don’t know.  I’ve felt irritable for two days.

1

2

What are you doing about it?

1

2

3

Nothing.  Ignoring it. 

1

2

3

So I gathered.  You own a car?

1

2

 

Sure.

1

2

 You know the red light on your dashboard?

1

2

 

The one that lights when my engine overheats?

1

Yes.  What do you think of a driver who covers that light with duct tape?

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3

Stupid.

1

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3

For ignoring the warning, right?

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2

3

Sure.

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2

Well, irritability is your body’s red light.

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3

 

What’s it mean?

1

2

Something wrong under the hood.  Some imbalance.

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3

bert

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2

My point is, don’t tape over the damn light. 

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2

 

bert

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2

Don’t mask it with work, or food, or alcohol, sleep, or tv, or giving to other people.  

 

1

 1

 

1

 

2

Pay attention to yourself.

 

3

Or end up on a lift or something?

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3

You wouldn’t be the first.

1

 

 

                              * * *

Want more?

Being a friend to yourself might be the hardest work you ever do.

For a time, it might feel like you are turning your back on your family, being selfish, sacrilegious and unfriendly.  You won’t get kudos from your support groups.  You won’t be noticed or hear thank-you very often….

Being a friend to yourself means caring for the specifics of your body, your simple needs that lead to complex outcomes. Your exercise, your sleep, your diet, water and air are all worth fighting for.

These things you do for yourself become your currency. You find that the better friend you are to yourself, the better you become for others.

At this new place of safety for you, where you give less, you give more to those you love. You discover the mystery that no one can give what she doesn’t have.

Just like any bank, we deposit and withdraw and must protect our basic assets before we are taken over and lose the freedoms because we were poor managers of this one body that God gave us.

 ~ From Self-Care Works You, Pushes You, Tires You Out Until You Are Happily Spent On Your Friend – You by Sana Johnson-Quijada MD

  do. Fo

                              * * *

 

What self-care is not

Self-care is not self-pampering — not that there’s anything wrong with self-pampering — pedicures, dark chocolates, and other luxuries.  That is, as long as you can afford luxuries.  Spending money that you don’t have is self-indulgence.

Self-care is not self-indulgence.  Popularly, the terms self-care and self-indulgence are used interchangeably, as in “Oh, go ahead, indulge. You deserve it.”  We tell ourselves that we are practicing self-care when, in fact, we are engaging in self-indulgence.

Self-indulgence is characterized by avoidance of the effortful and substitution of quick and easy antidotes.  We tell ourselves that the stresses of the day have drained our energy and that vegging on the sofa with a quart of ice cream or a six-pack of beer is all we can expect of ourselves.  Rather than shouldering the hard work of self-care, we settle for temporary and largely symbolic fixes — some of which actually stress our systems further

How to practice self-care

Self-care means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors: exercising, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, practicing yoga or meditation or relaxation techniques, abstaining from substance abuse, pursuing creative outlets, engaging in psychotherapy.

Also essential to self-care is learning to self-soothe or calm our physical and emotional distress. Remember your mother teaching you to blow on the scrape on your knee? This was an early lesson in self-soothing but the majority of adults haven’t the foggiest notion how to constructively soothe themselves.

From “Self-care may not be what you think it is” by Christine Meinecke, Ph.D. in Everybody Marries the Wrong Personback on your family, being seWhether the 


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