Monthly Archives: July 2012

What do you know about control?

(Bert speaking:)

Whenever he meets a new client Steve asks him or her the same question:

“What do you know about you and control?”

The answers he gets vary widely.  But nearly everyone ends up admitting, in one way or another, that control is pretty important to them.

Until last Tuesday.

Tuesday Steve met a new client — I’ll call him Barry — who answered his question with a shrug.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing,” Steve echoed.

“Nothing,” Barry repeated. “I have no problems with control.”

Steve was flabbergasted.  He’s always assumed everyone has at least a sneaking suspicion that control issues figure in their need for therapy.  But Barry disproved that.

So, suspecting that there may be other Barrys out there just as clueless about the role control plays in their emotional lives, he asked me to write this post.

Glad to oblige. 

Because this is important stuff.

So here’s what you really should know about control:

1. You’re addicted to it.

Yes, you are.  Consider:

Control (as we’re defining it) means the ability to dictate reality — to turn some piece of the world into what we need or want or prefer.

Who doesn’t want that?  Who doesn’t seek it constantly?

Human beings chase control in a gazillion ways, ranging from huge (starting wars) to tiny (changing channels), from mindful (exiting the highway) to unconscious (forming expectations), and from dangerous (beating a child) to innocuous (scratching an itch).

However you explain this urge (we blame it on our big restless brains), it’s both an elemental part of human nature and the one that most clearly separates us from other animals, who pretty much have to take reality as it comes.

It’s so familiar, this urge, that we barely notice it.  Most of the controlling we do is automatic and unconscious.  If you were to meet someone who’s not automatically controlling (think: Dalai Lama) that person would probably strike you as, well, unhuman.

What makes controlling an addiction?  Several things.  But here’s the most obvious:

Addictions are famously difficult to give up.

Try giving up control for a day, and see how you feel.

Hell, try giving it up for ten minutes.

2. Overcontrolling stuff makes you sick.

We tend to overcontrol two things: our own feelings, and other people.

Overcontrolling feelings makes us anxious, depressed and addicted. Overcontrolling other people ruins our relationships.

There.  I just summarized 99% of what Steve talks about in a typical working day.

He wants to add something.

The most common problem clients bring to therapy is emotional constipation: the suppression of normal feelings.

We suppress feelings out of fear.  There are plenty of benefits to living with other people, but its chief curse is that we spend our lives terrified of how they’ll react if we dare to reveal ourselves emotionally.

It’s this curse that makes us sick.  I’m not exaggerating.  To deny feelings is to go to war with your own body, ignoring both its intelligence and its needs. 

One of my clients was an MD, and I asked him what practicing medicine had taught him about human beings. “That no illness is purely physical,” he said.

When you bury feelings, dis-ease grows.

3. Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.

We seek control because we believe we’ll feel better with it than without it.

We assume controlling reality will enable us to avoid all sorts of discomfort: pain, anxiety, boredom, embarrassment, anger, confusion, frustration, fear.

We all believe this, without exception.

And it’s true enough, as far as it goes.  Unfortunately most of the time (have you noticed?) reality is beyond our control.

What then?  How handle feelings you cannot avoid?

Having no alternative to control leaves you hopelessly addicted to it — forced to manage your emotional life by compulsively wrestling people, places and things into submission, and condemned to helpless anxiety when you can’t.

Luckily, there are alternatives.

4. There are better ways to handle feelings than control.

In fact, there are three:

~ The first is the ability to let go — to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway.  This allows you to relax, accept life on life’s terms, and to swim with the tide of events instead of against it.  We call this alternative surrender

~ The second is the ability to listen to feelings instead of ignoring or concealing them.  This allows you to avoid splitting yourself into two selves — public and private — and to make healthier choices, ones that take your true needs into account.  We call this alternative responsibility (as in ability to respond).

~ The third alternative is the ability to be yourself with another person, and to allow them to do the same with you.   This is the hardest to master, because it combines both surrender and responsibility, and because it demands that we rise above fear.  But it also offers us our only chance to feel truly connected to and accepted by another human being.  We call this alternative intimacy.

None of these is easy to learn or practice.  If we choose them it’s because we’ve come to realize, like any recovering addict, that being addicted to control is even harder.

Steve has a last word:

As Bert said, this is important stuff.  Stuff we all need to know. 

In an ideal world, we’d teach it more.  Parents would teach kids.  Kids would teach other kids.  Partners would teach each other.  So would religions.  So would nations.

Control is too important to leave to therapists.

* * *

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Addict

(Bert speaking.)

I’ve been addicted to control for as long as I can remember.

That is, for as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to force reality — people, places, things, even myself — to match the pictures in my head of how I want reality to be.

I do this constantly.

I do it unconsciously.  Which means I usually don’t know when I’m doing it.

And I do it compulsively.  Which means I get really really anxious when I can’t get control.

I expect to stay an addict until I die.

Yes, I’m in recovery.  But that just means I’m less controlled by my need for control than I used to be, just as recovering alcoholics are less controlled by their need to drink.  They’ll always be alcoholics, though, and I’ll always be a control addict.

I’ll always feel this urge to control stuff.  Even when I know it’s crazy to try.

It’s crazy, I’ve learned, because control is largely an illusion.

Sure,  it’s not always an illusion.  If I pour sugar in my coffee the coffee gets sweeter.  If I pull the steering wheel to the right my car will reliably turn right.

But the world is larger than sugar and steering wheels.  And the truth is that, beyond these concrete ways of changing my immediate circumstances, much of my controlling operates more on the level of wishful thinking.

Why?  Because most of my controlling is an attempt to control feelings and relationships.

And feelings have no steering wheel.  And in relationships sugar doesn’t always work.

Let me explain.

Say I have a feeling I don’t want.  Say I feel inadequate.  But it’s uncomfortable to feel that, and I also worry that if you see that I feel inadequate you may agree with me, which would make me feel worse.  So I hide my feeling, from you and from myself.  I work hard at presenting myself as adequate, even superior. (For an example, see “Bert’s mask.”)  And let’s say it works: I convince you I’m superior.  I have successfully controlled your perception of me.

Do I feel better?

Not so much.

At least, not for long.  Why?  Because I know it’s an act, a pretense.  I’ve basically fooled you about me, and I can’t forget that.  So whatever approval I get from you is essentially meaningless.  And I end up feeling both inadequate and phony.

See how that works?

Another example:

Say I’m mad at you, but afraid to show it.  I’m scared you might get mad back at me, which would make me unhappy.

So I hide my anger from you.  I bury it.

But overcontrolling feelings tends to be bad for me.  Feelings are meant to be expressed, not contained.  Released, not stored up.  So burying my anger makes me uncomfortable.  Constipated.  Pressured.  Uneasy.  Anxious.  And when I do it long and habitually enough, I get depressed.  I.e., chronically unhappy.

How’s that for irony?

Why doesn’t control work better in the realms of feeling and relationships?

Because at the heart of this addiction lies an annoying but inescapable paradox:

The more control I need, the less in control I feel.

* * *

 


Nuts

(Bert speaking:)

I’m nuts.

Yes, you heard me right.

I’m nuts.

Not embarrassed to admit it, either.

Why?

Because I know a secret.

You’re nuts, too.

How do I know this?

Because you’re human. (Unless, of course, you’re one of the many dogs or cats who enjoy this blog.)

And, being human, you’re a victim of what has been called monkey mind.

What’s monkey mind?

It’s what you hear in your head when your attention isn’t distracted.

It’s the sound of a brain which over millennia has evolved into a sort of top-heavy computer, built for problem-solving, and devoted to finding new problems to solve.

It’s the whispering, worrying, fretting, scolding and mocking that keeps you unhappy and on guard against life.

It’s the sound of a normal human mind at work.

In other words, the most human part of you.

Still not sure what I mean?

Experiment. Take a moment now (when you finish reading this sentence) to sit without thinking for, oh, a minute or so. Just sixty seconds.

(Pause.)

Hear that?

Yep. Monkey mind.

The nuts part.

Steve wants to add something.

What makes it nuts is that it’s so detached from reality. Like a monkey swings from tree to tree to tree, monkey mind swings from past to future and back again, over and over, ceaselessly remembering, anticipating and fantasizing. It’s never still, never focused on the here-and-now — which may actually be fine, perfectly safe and okay. 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.

Speaking as a recovering inner monkey, I would add that there’s one other thing that makes monkey mind nuts.

It really, really believes in control.

It operates on the assumption that if we think and analyze and strategize long and well enough we can solve every problem and bring life under control. That if we could just figure things out, life could be perfect. Perfectly safe, perfectly comfortable, perfectly happy.

I remember a Little Rascals episode in which the kids got their mule to walk in a circle by extending a pole out over his nose with an apple dangling from the end. The donkey kept plodding after the apple endlessly, never getting closer, and apparently never noticing.

Yes. We all chase that apple.

Well, I for one am sick of it.

That’s why I’m a recovering monkey. I’m sick and tired of feeling victimized by my own mind.

Tired of fighting reality instead of accepting it.

Tired of trying to control everything.

Tired of this never-ending plod towards an apple I can never reach.

Tired — so, so tired — of being nuts.

.

* * *

All of humanity’s problems stem

from man’s inability to sit quietly

in a room alone.  

~ Blaise Pascal


Monkeythoughts

 

Twenty years ago,

when we began

studying the idea

of control,

we also began

collecting thoughts

on the subject,

from thinkers both

famous and obscure.

 

Below are a few of them,

arranged as a slideshow

(4:00).

 

Take a look.

Maybe you’ll find one

that changes how

you see things.

 

(To pause, move your cursor over the picture and click the || button that appears.) 
 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(c) Steve Hauptman, 2012.  All rights reserved.

Goofy

Recently Beth Wilson of B Here Today recommended Monkeytraps to her readers with this comment:

I confess that I haven’t been a regular follower of Steve Hauptman’s work. Until this post: Three rules for recovering from anything.

Normally, this blog is kind of goofy.  I like it, but it’s kind of goofy.  Steve, who is a therapist who specializes in control issues, co-writes Monkeytraps with Bert, his control-addicted inner monkey.  It’s a recipe for goofiness.

This particular post touched me because it addresses the issue of presence as it relates to paying attention to our thoughts, our monkey minds, if you will.  Check it out.

It’s always nice to be recommended.  But I had a surprisingly strong  reaction to Beth’s second paragraph. 

I’m 62 now, and have grown used to certain descriptions of myself.  Serious usually heads the list.  Followed by intense.   And, for many years, trailed closely by angry.

And then there’s always right.   My wife’s favorite.  In fact, I once wrote her a poem summarizing her view of  me:

you’re right

you’re right

you’re always right

you’re right all day

you’re right all night

I get so mad

I want to bite

because you’re

always

always

right 

Can’t remember what inspired that burst of self-awareness, but it was atypical.   During most of our marriage I was too busy being serious, intense or angry.

Never before has anyone called me goofy.

Initially I went back and forth with it.

First I was puzzled.  Why that particular word? 

So, like any seriously serious person, I looked it up.

goofy. Adjective. (goo-fey.)  Ludicrous, foolish.

Then I looked up ludicrous.

ludicrous. Adjective. (loo-du-krus.) Broadly or extravagantly humorous; resembling farce

“Not bad,” I thought.  “Humorous is good.”  I decided to stop looking shit up.

Then I found myself wondering: what in Monkeytraps might strike someone as goofy?

This answer came more easily.  I remembered the photo I used to illustrate various uses of the Bert Mug:

THE BERT MUG.
(Contents not included.)

 And some of the Bert cartoons:

*

*

*

*

*

“Wow,” I thought.  “I am goofy.” 

And, unexpectedly, felt proud.

See, for me the worst part of being a control addict has always been fear of other people.  Convinced of my own inadequacy, I expect criticism, rejection and humiliation if I come out of hiding.  So I spent decades trying to protect myself by impressing people and concealing what I really thought and felt.

But goofy doesn’t care about any of that. 

Goofy isn’t scared to be itself.   

Goofy can relax.  Goofy can play. 

Goofy is free. 

“If I’ve attained goofiness,” I thought, “I must be getting healthier.”

I decided to celebrate.

How? 

Do something goofy, of course. 

So I concocted a plan.  It’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone.

I lead a therapy group that meets weekly.  Five members.  Seriously serious people, all of them. 

My plan:

1. Visit the Family Dollar near where I live.  Buy each group member a plastic bottle of bubbles.  You know, the kind with the wand with the circle at the end.

2. Arrange the bottles on a tray in a circle.  In the center of the circle place a dollar bill. 

3. Present the tray to the group.  Tell them: “Blow the biggest bubble, and the dollar is yours.”

4. Watch what happens.

I’m telling you this as a way of committing to it.  I may get cold feet (i.e., relapse into Seriousness) before the next group rolls around. 

But I want to go ahead with it anyway.  I think it would be good for them.  Goofy is therapeutic.  For me too.

And I have a reputation to uphold.

*

* * *

 

My friend Joe knows how to acknowledge his inner little boy. 

When I saw him the other day, he was standing outside the building where we were both attending a meeting.  He reached into the front pocket of his bib overalls and pulled out a small clear tube containing a bluish color liquid.

I watched in amazement as he took the top off the tube, which–you guessed it, was a plastic stick with a tiny oval on the end–and began blowing bubbles.

”Ah,” he said. ”This is a good batch.”

I looked around to see if anyone was watching.

Joe was unfazed.  ”Haven’t you seen me with these? I carry a tube of homemade bubbles around with me most all the time.” 

My question, of course, was “Why?”  To which he answered, “It helps me when I get a case of red-ass.”

Now I looked around to see if anyone overheard. 

“And what is red-ass?” Big Me questioned.

“Red-ass,” Joe said in a matter-of-fact tone, “is when I get so mad that my face turns red and I want to kick somebody’s ass. So I blow bubbles instead.”

~ From B here like a child by Beth Wilson. 
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