Monthly Archives: August 2012
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Tolstoy.
Not in my experience.
In my experience, unhappy families — especially unhappy marriages — are surprisingly similar.
~ Heather wants to marry Ian, who’s scared of commitment. So she pressures him to propose, which scares him, so he backs away. This scares her, so she steps up the pressure (“Why won’t you marry me?”). Which makes him back away further and faster. And so on.
~ “He never talks to me,” is Janet’s main complaint about Kenny, who grew up in a family where no one talked to anyone about anything. The more she begs him to talk, the more inadequate Kenny feels. The more inadequate he feels, the more silent he becomes. Which angers Janet, which makes her beg harder. And so on.
~ Liz is a people pleaser who gets anxious when Mark is unhappy. So she knocks herself out putting his feelings, needs and preferences ahead of her own. Mark – who enjoys this and doesn’t want it to stop – finds he can keep Liz motivated by remaining unhappy. The unhappier he becomes, the harder she tries. The harder she tries, the unhappier he becomes. And so on.
~ Nan: “If you didn’t drink, I wouldn’t nag you.” Olivor: “If you didn’t nag me, I wouldn’t drink.” Rinse and repeat.
~ Patty and Ron both grew up in families that didn’t acknowledge or respect feelings. Hungry for emotional validation, they now seek it from each other. Unfortunately each takes the position, “I’ll validate you after you validate me.” Since neither validates first, no one gets validated. Ever. So their childhood deprivation continues. Indefinitely.
Sensing a pattern?
All five examples (and the variations are infinite) illustrate the Second Paradox of Control:
This is the interpersonal version of the First Paradox of Control (“The more control you need, the less control you have”) explained here last week.
This Second Paradox grows out of an obvious fact of human nature: We all want control, yet we all resent being controlled by others.
That’s just what is being played out in these examples. Each of the ten partners is trying desperately (if unconsciously) to transform the other into the partner they want. And each of the ten is resisting being transformed as hard as they can.
Call it control addiction a deux.
Or you could use the term I sometimes use in my clinical notes — monkeyships, meaning relationships bent out of shape by control issues.
Some of this goes on in all our relationships, because at some point we all turn monkeyish.
We all try to make the relationship and/or our partner into what we want them to be.
It has little to do with how much we love the person we’re with.
It has everything to do with how much control we think we need to feel safe.
And it continues unless and until we learn alternatives to our monkeyish behaviors.
* * *
But here are just three tell-tale signs that your partner is trying to control you:
1. Your partner tells you what to think…
~ From How to tell if you’re in a controlling relationship (3:01) by Donna Marie Thompson, Ph.D. of bouncingbacknow.com.
Once upon a time Steve had a client who made him nervous.
Very very nervous.
Actually, no. Steve’s a trained professional. He never gets very very nervous.
(Believe that, and I have a bridge to sell you.)
No, this client made me very very nervous.
She did it by being very very nervous herself.
Her name (let’s say) was Angie. And Angie was nervous about, well, everything.
She was nervous about money. And her job. And her health. And her kids. And her marriage. And her hair. And her lawn. You name it.
An hour with Angie would leave me a nervous wreck.
Why? Two reasons.
Steve, explain the first.
Anxiety’s contagious. Spend much time with highly nervous people and it’s hard not to start feeling nervous yourself. Like a bad cold, their unsafety infects you. Like an overdose of cheap perfume, their uneasiness saturates your senses.
The second reason, though, had more to do with me than with Angie:
I felt an overwhelming need to fix her anxiety.
Not for her sake. (Steve’s the therapist, not me.) Because it made me uncomfortable. I just wanted to make it go away.
So I pushed Steve to say helpful things and give good advice and communicate acceptance (soothing voice, solid eye contact, all that), all in hopes of calming her down. So maybe I could calm down.
It didn’t work. Angie stayed anxious.
And I began to feel helpless. And I began to hate Angie a little.
But she was doing me a favor. Because she was teaching me about the First Paradox of Control.
Wikipedia defines paradox as “a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition.”
Right. And the First Paradox of Control goes like this:
The more I needed to control Angie’s anxiety, the more out-of-control I felt.
I didn’t get this until the day I finally got sick and tired of feeling helpless and hating her. “Screw it,” I thought, and simply gave up. Sat back. Just watched.
Guess what happened.
I felt better immediately. I found I could watch Angie’s nervousness without taking it personally, without experiencing it as a threat or a challenge. I could relax, and just let her be her usual nervous self.
Oddly enough, not trying to control her it left me feeling in control.
But in part this comes from a confusion of language.
We use the word control to describe two very different things. “Control Angie’s anxiety” refers to something external, to somebody else’s emotional state. “Feel in control” refers to something internal, your own emotional state. Apples and oranges.
But — and here’s the interesting part — this confusion of language leads us into assuming that we need to control something Out There before we can feel calmer In Here.
And it’s not true.
In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true:
Only when we give up controlling Out There do we begin to feel calmer In Here.
So what the First Paradox means is that the more you try to control external stuff the less at ease you feel internally.
Weird? I thought so at first.
Then I began paying more attention to my own reactions.
And I noticed that those situations and people that make me most anxious are the very ones over which I’d like more control.
They’re also the ones over which I try to get more control — if not overtly, then covertly. If not in my behavior, then in my head. The ones I fantasize (obsess, even) about changing.
Finally, they’re the situations and people I suddenly feel better about when I shift from trying to control them to just letting them be. From fighting to surrendering. Like I surrendered to Angie’s anxiety.
At the very least, surrendering’s a lot less work.
Hey you, reading this:
Any experiences with the First Paradox? Ever stop controlling and end up feeling more in control?
If so, care to share? I’d really like to hear about it.
* * *
* * *
Where the hell is Matt?
Matt Harding (aka Dancing Matt) travels around the world and gets people — all sorts of people — to dance with him.
He’s made five videos of the results, the most recent being “Where the hell is Matt? 2012”
Text accompanying these videos, under the heading “Happy People Dancing on Planet Earth,” claims that humans worldwide share a common love of dance, stating that “few people are able to watch the above video without smiling.”
Watch “Where the hell is Matt? 2012. You’re welcome.
Last time I mentioned that Steve created me to get control of his emotional life.
I tried to do that by controlling everything and everyone around me.
I call this my Plan A.
It included hiding his feelings, wearing masks to impress other people, and reading their minds – i.e., guessing what they liked or wanted and trying to give it to them.
It also included sending him to social work school.
Social work didn’t interest me. I wanted Steve to be a therapist, and that seemed the fastest way.
Why did I want him to be a therapist?
Therapists know stuff civilians don’t. I saw them as special, something like priests, possessed of secret knowledge and understanding. I liked that idea. I wanted in on that.
I also thought a therapist’s position allowed him to get really close to other people without exposing too much of himself. Since people scared me, I liked that idea too. I liked it a lot.
Finally, I figured if anyone’s in control of their emotional lives and their relationships, it must be therapists.
What did I know? I’m a monkey.
So I sent Steve off to social work school.
And he graduated.
And got hired as a therapist.
And began to work.
And discovered (surprise) that he couldn’t follow Plan A and do his job.
At least, not competently.
Steve, explain why.
Because good therapy is all about healthy relationship. And you can’t create that and seek control at the same time.
You can’t, for example, seek control and have real communication. Real communication means surrendering control, being honest and real and, yes, vulnerable. Therapists have to do all that within professional boundaries, of course. But editing out all realness and vulnerability leaves a relationship cold, unreal, and sterile. Which solves nothing and helps nobody.
Nor, I found, can a therapist overcontrol his own feelings and do good work. It’s feelings that connect us, allow us to understand other people. When I overcontrolled mine I lost touch with my clients. When I lost touch, I did bad therapy.
It quickly became apparent that what therapy demanded from Steve was essentially the reverse of our Plan A. Instead of guarding against feelings, he had to trust them. Instead of handling people, he had to connect with them instead.
This was disturbing. I began to think I’d made a terrible mistake.
Then around this time Steve, suddenly and unexpectedly, burped up a poem.
Steve, describe that.
It came out of nowhere. I was lying in bed one night and heard the thing writing itself.
It began, “The truth is like a bear in the house.”
And it went on to describe how, if you’re trapped in a house with a bear, you have only two choices: run away and wait for the bear to find you, or turn around and hunt the bear.
At first I had no clue what this was about.
It took weeks to realize that my personal bear is the idea of control.
And so you set out to hunt it.
Right. I figured the poem was like a telegram from my unconscious. Part of me sending a message to another part.
And when I brought bear-hunting to my work, I got another surprise.
I discovered that control isn’t just my bear.
I saw that controlling is addictive, its patterns predictable and universal, and that they cause nearly all of the problems people bring to a therapist.
I saw that anxiety, depression, addictions, bad relationships and lousy parenting all stem from someone trying to control something they can’t or shouldn’t control.
And eventually I learned that a day comes — if we’re lucky — when we realize that controlling simply doesn’t work as a life strategy.
That’s the day we shift to Plan B.
Describe that shift.
We start to notice our own controlling, catch ourselves in the act, learn and practice healthy alternatives. We stop trying to control life and find ways to accept and cooperate with it.
And a great relief follows.
That feeling is hard to describe. It’s like you suddenly find yourself sanding with the grain, instead of against.
Or like giving yourself permission to stop swimming against the tide of feelings and events, and letting it carry you along instead.
Friends, consider this an invitation:
Come join the hunt.
* * *
“Love is how we ask for peace”
* * *
Afghanistan seems so far away. Here’s a video (1:34) that brings it closer:
Today someone asked Steve, “Exactly how does a person get addicted to control?”
“We’re born that way,” Steve answered.
“We’re born with this big brain that can’t stop remembering and projecting, which keeps us scared and worried and trying to control everything and everybody. Sort of like a paranoid computer run amuck.”
He was referring to the idea of monkey mind, which I wrote about not long ago. (See Nuts.)
But that’s only half an explanation. Because some people are obviously more controlling than others.
Why is that so, if we’re all dominated by monkey mind?
The other half of the answer has to do with Plan A.
Steve has a little speech he gives to new clients about why people enter therapy. Steve, please summarize.
In the end there’s only one reason anyone goes to a therapist:
Plan A has broken down.
Plan A is my label for everything we learn as kids about life and how to cope with it.
We each have a Plan A. We learn it mainly as kids, mainly from our parents, and mainly unconsciously. I mean, nobody sits us down at the kitchen table and says, “Now listen up, kid. Here’s how you do Life.” No, they just do Life themselves, and we watch and listen and soak it all up like little sponges. That’s why our Plan A tends to look so much like others in our family.
And it works okay for a while. Especially while we’re still living in the family. It’s like we’re all following the same unwritten rule book.
But Plan A always breaks down.
Because eventually we move beyond the family into the larger world, filled with new people and new problems. And we discover that what worked at home doesn’t always work out there.
At which point we have a choice, at least in theory. We can decide, “Oh, I see. I guess I need a Plan B.”
Or we can keep trying to make Plan A work in every situation.
Guess which we choose?
Right. Plan A. Always Plan A.
Why? First of all, we may not even know there’s such a thing as Plan B. Childhood has trained us to see Plan A as normal. (Why would anyone want to do Life in any other way?)
Second, even when we realize there are other options, we cling to Plan A because…it’s familiar. We know how to do it. And change is scary. So we keep following Plan A even after we suspect it no longer works.
And that’s when we begin to develop symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, communication problems, lousy relationships.
And those symptoms are what drive us into therapy.
Seeking a Plan B.
In our case — Steve’s and mine — Plan A was shaped by growing up in an alcoholic family.
Steve’s dad was alcoholic, and his mom was depressed. Together they taught him two important lessons he’s spent his adult life trying to unlearn.
The first lesson was, “Feelings are at best inconvenient, and at worst dangerous.” The implication of this lesson? So you’d damned well better keep them to yourself.
The second lesson was, “You’re responsible for other people’s feelings.” The implication: So you damned well better be careful about what you say and do around other people.
These two lessons were the foundation stones, so to speak, of our Plan A.
They’re also what called me, Bert, his inner monkey, into being.
Steve created me to take control of what was a fairly chaotic emotional life. I set out to do that by doing things like burying his feelings, developing an impressive image (see “Bert’s mask”) and becoming exquisitely oversensitive to the feelings, perceptions and opinions of others.
I also convinced him to become a therapist. It seemed a natural fit to our original Plan.
How was I to know that becoming a healthy therapist (not to mention a healthy adult) meant I’d need to grow a Plan B?
* * *
It plays like background music while I rise, use the bathroom, pull on shorts, walk to the kitchen, kiss my wife, pour a cup of coffee.
Today for some reason it reminds me of a calliope echoing over a fairground. I hear the thumping of its mechanical drum while I sip coffee and my wife and I chat.
“Loose Ends” is my title for this particular agenda. (It’s a title I’ve used before.) Nothing dramatic on it. Mow the lawn. Sweep the driveway. Clear brush from the side yard and bundle it for pickup. Clean my desk. Clean my office. Make a library run. Write this blog post.
The drumbeat continues when I sit down in my desk chair to meditate. For ten minutes I watch the pinball of my attention bounce off each of the agenda items (thump, thump) in turn.
Then something happens.
It’s something that happens occasionally during zazen. How to describe it?
It’s like a part of my mind suddenly detaches itself, takes a giant step back, hears what I’m thinking, and laughs.
It laughs now because it’s heard me fantasizing about There.
You know, There. That place where the agenda is completed. Where all chores are done, all loose ends tied off. Where you’re finally done doing stuff. Where you can relax. Totally, guiltlessly relax.
You know. There.
And the stepped-back part of me chuckles and mutters, You know better than that.
And phrases I’ve read about this mythical There float into my mind.
We must make our fictions conscious.
Ideas we have, and don’t know we have, have us.
When we remember we are all mad, all the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
And suddenly every muscle in my body goes slack.
Because I’m remembering what I already know:
There’s no There there.
And if so, there’s nothing to strain after.
Just this dreamlike pursuit of There we laughably call consciousness.
No There there.
There’s only here.
And for one brief blessed moment, here’s where I am too.
* * *
We must make our fictions…. ~ James Hollis, Creating a life: Finding your individual path
Ideas we have, and don’t know we have…. ~ James Hillman, Kinds of power: A guide to its intelligent uses
When we remember we are all mad…. ~ Mark Twain, Notebook
Steve: One reader writes,
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: She wants to learn how to spot monkeytraps.
Bert: Yeah. 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 the first:
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 might upset them, pretend to agree when I really don’t, laugh at their stupid jokes, avoid confronting behavior I dislike, try to read their minds, and so on.
Steve: Tip #2:
Stuck as in not learning, or 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 dysfunctional 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:
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. Great example.
So if you want to spot where you’re compulsively controlling, look for the three clues: discomfort, stuckness, and fear.