Monthly Archives: October 2012

Oak-people and birch-people

Hurricane Sandy’s descending on us as I write this, which reminds me of something I wrote last year just after Hurricane Irene.  So I thought I’d tweak and repost it before the lights go out.

Stay safe, everyone.

* * *

Hurricane Irene swept through here the other day, reminding me of a conversation I’ve had with many clients over many years.

“Let’s say you’re a tree and a hurricane is coming,” I say.  “Which would you rather be, an oak or a birch?”

I sit back and watch them do a mental comparison:


versus Birch:

“Oak,” they usually say.

Then I remind them what can happen to a rigid oak in a high wind:

All this tree-talk is metaphorical, of course.  We’re really talking about people and how they cope.

Specifically, how they view the idea of control.

Oak-people see control as essential to their sense of security.  They have a picture in their minds of How Things Should Be, and deviations from that picture make them uncomfortable.

This leaves them uncomfortable much of the time.

It also leaves them rigid and unbending, resistant to change, and likely to confuse strength with inflexibility.

Birch-people see control as essential in some situations and dangerous in others.  They’ve learned to learn to recognize their own preferences as that — preferences — and to become less insistent on forcing life to meet their expectations.

This makes them more elastic, more able to accept change and weather adversity. When life blows them over they bounce back up.

They go with the blow.

Me, I’m an old oak, trying to become a birch.

Not easy work, psychologically speaking.  But I prefer it to being repeatedly uprooted by all the stuff I cannot control.

And you?

Which kind of tree are you?

And which kind of tree would you like to be?

* * *

Man bites monkey

(New to Monkeytraps?

Then this post won’t make much sense to you.

You’d need to know that (a) Monkeytraps’ author is a therapist named Steve who specializes in control issues, and that (b) its coauthor is Steve’s hopelessly control-addicted inner monkey, named Bert.

That’s Bert above, post-bite.

Bert speaking:)

I had to write this.  I need to vent.

I’m so pissed.

At what?  At that moron.

Which moron?


Do you know what the moron plans to do on November 1st?

He’s going to start writing a novel.

A 50,000-word novel.

Fifty thousand words.

And he plans to finish it in thirty days.

He’s been considering this for years, ever since he heard about this NaNoWriMo nonsense.  But each year I’ve been able to talk him out of it.

NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s this weird project where people commit to, well, writing a novel in a month.

Even if they’ve never written a novel before.  Even if they’ve no clue what they’re doing.  Especially if they’re clueless.

It’s the brainchild of a writer named Chris Baty (thanks a load, Chris), who created it in 1999 and later wrote a book about it titled No Plot? No Problem.  

Baty’s got some strange ideas.  One is that

Literature is not merely a spectator sport…  Fiction writing can be a blast when you set aside debilitating notions of perfection and just dive headlong into the creative process.

Another is that

The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions is not a lack of talent.  It’s the lack of a deadline.  Give someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen.

So he created this organization and set up this website where people go and sign up (god help me, Steve registered last night) and get tips about writing and support each other in forums and all that communal crap.

Damned stupid idea, if you ask me.

Hey, I’m already busy.  I can barely keep up with the shit Steve makes me do now.

The practice.  The blog.  The slideshow series he’s developing.  The book about control he’s been wanting to write.

And then there’s the house (falling apart) and the lawns (full of leaves and pine needles) and the cars (both on death’s doorstep).

What’s worse — now get this — Steve’s daughter is about to have a baby.

Due on Election Day.  I mean, I’m happy about that and all (though being called Grandpa is a bit unnerving.)

But it’s got to complicate my life further, right?  Having a grandchild will change my life in ways I can’t even imagine now.

But let’s face it.  The real problem here is,

I’m a control addict.

Doesn’t he know how much pressure this puts on me?

How many things this forces me to not control?

Like the time and energy this will cost me.

Or how the family feels about my being MIA.

Or what readers think of what I write.  (I don’t have to show it to anyone, Steve says.  Like that ever stopped me from worrying before.)

Or whether I can even write at all.  What if I get blocked?  


Or my mental state.  (I’m already obsessing about how to start the damned story.)

Or my physical condition.  (I get tired just thinking about it.)

Or my emotional health.  (What if I get depressed?)

This whole idea scares me shitless.

I feel like he’s just taken a enormous bite out of my peace of mind.


The moron’s made up his mind.

What’s can I do?



Do my best.  Let go of the rest.

Go with the flow.

Like he always tells me (and everyone else) to do.


That moron.


* * *

The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health, as the expression of normal people in the act of actualizing themselves.

~ Rollo May

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating.  It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence.  It is life at its most free.

~ Annie Dillard

New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. 

Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.

~ Rumi

As an improvising musician, I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. 

To the extent that we feel sure of what will happen, we lock in the future and insulate ourselves against those essential surprises.  Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing.

~ Stephen Nachmanovich


* * *

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel.

In 2011, we had 256,618 participants and 36,843 of them crossed the 50K finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

~ From About NaNoWriMo.




* * *

Self-care is something I preach to all my clients.

Most of them have trouble with self-care.

Most of them don’t love themselves enough to stop working and rest and relax.

Most of them put the needs of their job or their family or their house or their spouse ahead of their own.

And I have this thing I say to the most stubborn clients.

“You remind me,” I tell them, “of a guy I know who wants to drive from New York to California. 

“Except he says, ‘Gas is too expensive, so I won’t buy gas here. 

“I’ll wait to buy gas when I get out to the coast.’”

~ From Gas in California

* * *

Compassion really involves three basic components:

noticing suffering,

being kind and caring in response to that suffering,

and remembering that imperfection is part of the human experience, something we all share.


And is this the same for self-compassion?


Exactly the same.

With self-compassion the most important step, actually, is to notice your own suffering.

And a lot of people say, “Isn’t that blindingly obvious?”

But in fact it’s not.

Especially when your suffering comes from your own self-judgment and self-criticism….


~ From

Self-compassion, part 1

by Kristin Neff

To stop fighting


My last cartoon carried this caption:


To need control is to go to war with reality

 — with people, places and things as they are, 

and with yourself, your own thoughts, 

feelings and behavior.


The war’s endless.  And guess what usually wins?

Better to find a way to stop fighting.


To which my reader Julie replied, “The big question is, ‘How to stop fighting?'”

That’s the question, all right.

How do you stop fighting reality?

How accept life on life’s terms? 

Is it even possible?

Yes, I think so.

I’ve found three ways.

They’re not new.  They’re not complicated.  They’re not mysterious, either.  We all know them.

We just don’t practice them much.


Surrender means giving up control over what you can’t control anyway.

For me that usually means finding a way to accept some smelly lump of reality that life has dropped in my lap.

Some lumps are easier to accept than others.  Bad weather, I’m okay with that.   I can handle slow drivers too.  Also long bank lines.  Also crabgrass.  Even the occasional indoor gift left by Loki.

Other stuff’s harder.  Like the rising poll numbers of politicians whose guts I despise. And reality tv.  And Rush Limbaugh.  And Cialis commercials.

Not to mention whether you’ll like what I’m writing.

Then there’s stuff  I really want to control, stuff that feels essential to my peace of mind or happiness.  Like my income.  Or my weight.  Or my wife’s mood.  Or how other people see me.  That last one especially.

This stuff forces me to practice surrender almost constantly.

Practice how?

I  imagine three boxes.  (See above.)  I sort the realities I’m facing into them.  Then I work on moving items from right to left.

Item by item.  Slowly and patiently.  Over and over.


Responsibility means being able to respond — that is, answer reality — appropriately and effectively.

For me that usually means listening to my feelings and making choices based on what I hear.

I’ve been trained not to do this.  Like you, I learned early to ignore such internal cues and focus on external ones instead — rules, conventions, the expectations of others.  I also learned that ignoring external cues gets you punished.

Called socialization, this process begins with toilet training and continues right through grad school.

What am I saying?  It starts at birth, and continues forever.

So it takes courage to detach from externals, risk disapproval or rejection, and listen to myself anyway.

Responding is hard, too, because a lifetime of ignoring feelings leaves them hard to hear.   I buried mine so deep I lost touch with them for decades.   When anyone asked me “How are you feeling?” I’d answer with what I thought.  Years of this left me so confused and depressed that I had to go into therapy and excavate the parts of me I’d buried.

So living an emotionally responsible life, one based on listening to oneself…

Well, look around.  How many people do you see doing that?


Intimacy is both the scariest way of not-fighting and the most rewarding.

It means being yourself with another person, and letting them do the same with you.

It’s hard because it combines responsibility and surrender — showing who you are and letting go of how someone else will react to it.

It’s scary, because we need love and acceptance so desperately.

On the other hand, avoiding intimacy — or worse, being incapable of it — is the hardest and scariest fate of all.

Because being stuck in hiding is the ultimate disconnection, the worst loneliness.

And because, paradoxically, control addiction leads to feeling utterly out of control.


* * *


* * *

To some people, surrender may have negative connotations, implying defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic, and so on.


True surrender, however, is something entirely different.


It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it.


Nor does it mean to cease making plans, or initiating positive action.


Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to, rather than opposing, the flow of life….


It is to relinquish inner resistance to what is.


~ From

The wisdom of surrender

 by Eckhart Tolle (9:33).

So scared


* * *


To laugh is to risk

appearing the fool.


To weep is to risk

appearing sentimental.


To reach out to another

is to risk involvement.


To expose feelings

is to risk exposing your

true self.


To place your ideas

and dreams before a crowd

is to risk their loss.


To love is to risk

not being loved in return.


To hope is to risk



To try is to risk



But risks must be taken.


 Because the greatest

risk in life is

to risk nothing.


The person who risks nothing

does nothing, has nothing,

is nothing.


He may avoid

suffering and sorrow,

but he cannot learn,

feel, change, grow,

or live.


Chained by his certitude,

he is a slave who has forfeited

all freedom.


Only the person who risks

is free.


   ~ William Arthur Ward


* * *



Dismissed from drama school with a note that said “Wasting her time.  She’s too shy to put her best foot forward.”



Cut from the high school basketball team, he went home, locked himself in his room, and cried.



A teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything, and he should go into a field where he might succeed by virtue of his pleasant pesonality.



His fiancee died, he failed in business twice, he had a nervous breakdown, and he was defeated in eight elections.


~ From Life = risk (1:19).

Control addicts


* * *



Here are the three things you need to know about shame:

We all have it.

We’re all terrified to talk about it.

The less we talk about it the more we have it.

~ From Part 1 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (4:56).


Q: You say that shame leads to disconection.  So how do we reconnect?

A:  You know, it’s funny.

One of the ironies is that shame fills us with this fear of disconnection.

But it is our imperfection that connects us to each other.  It is the fact that our shared humanity is imperfect.

I think if we can find the courage to talk about our lives honestly, and our struggles, not only does that free us, it gives other people the freedom to be more authentic and real as well.

I don’t think connection is possible without authenticity.

~ From Part 2 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (5:31).

Necessary fictions

Willie’s talking about his job, which he hates.  I ask if he’s thought about doing something else.

He scowls.

“I’m forty-six years old,” he mutters.  “I have a wife, two kids and a 30-year mortgage.  What the hell else am I doing to do?”

“I don’t know.  What would you like to do?”

This pushes a button.  Now he’s angry.

“Shit,” he says.  “I’m so tired of hearing You can be whatever you want to be.  I get sick to my stomach when I hear that.  It’s such bullshit.”

I say nothing.

“You disagree?” he says.

“Yes,” I say.  “I don’t think it’s bullshit.”

“Oh come on,” he says.  “You can’t believe anyone can be anything they want just because they want it.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.  But I don’t think believing it is bullshit.”

“Why not?”

“It’s what’s called a necessary fiction,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Ever read Monkeytraps?” I ask.


“Good,” I say.  “Read it tomorrow.  I’ll answer there.”


* * *.

A necessary fiction is a story we tell ourselves to help us get through life.

It’s not a lie, exactly.  Nor is it entirely the truth.

It’s more like an aspiration — a way of reaching towards what we need or want.

It makes us feel good about ourselves, or life, or the future.  It makes pain and disappointment more bearable.   Gives us courage.  Gives us hope.  Helps us cope.

We all live by necessary fictions.  We all tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we’re doing and where it will all lead.

For example,

Everything will be okay.

We’ll live happily ever after.

I’ll never die.

The people I love will never die.

I’ll never get old and sick.

Money buys happiness.

Driving is perfectly safe.

If I vote for X, it will make a difference.

Tomorrow’s another day.

I can get control of how I feel.

That last one is my favorite, of course, since the idea of control is the necessary fiction Monkeytraps is all about.

Why do I call these fictions necessary?

Because of our big brains.

Like oversized computers run amuck, our big brains are dominated by the process Buddhists call monkey mind — an incessant stream of remembering and projecting, interpreting and analyzing, worrying and agonizing.

Ever stop to listen?  It’s a nuthouse in there.

Necessary fictions act as a sedative.  They appease monkey mind, quiet it down.

Imagine, for a moment, living without that sedative.

Imagine living day to day, hour to hour if you cannot forget that someday you must die.  I’ll never die fends off death anxiety.

Imagine getting in your car and running to the store for milk if you can’t forget that someone dies in a car accident every 13 minutes.  Driving is perfectly safe is the necessary antidote.     


There’s a difference between relying on necessary fictions and being lived by them.

We must remember that our fictions are fictions.  To do that means being self-aware and self-supporting.

To forget that they’re fictions — that this is a story we believe, not a literal truth — is to lose touch with reality.

Religious bigots are a good example.  They’re convinced themselves the story they believe is The Truth.  It’s a short step from that conviction to seeing everyone who doesn’t share it as deluded, even evil.  (Even deserving extinction.  Read the papers.)

Control addicts are another example.  They’ve convinced themselves — despite all evidence to the contrary — that control is both possible and necessary.  So they spend their lives chasing it, like a hapless commuter ten steps behind a train he can never catch.

Which leads to lives of frustration and misery.  Control addicts make other people pretty miserable too.

In therapy I try to help them see control as a necessary fiction, a story they tell themselves about the way they want things to be.  It’s a very human story.   One that’s sometimes necessary, and sometimes necessary to give up.

Because when you can’t give it up, you’ve made a problem out of a solution.


* * *


Speaking of illusions:

Less necessary,

more fun.

~ From the video The chalk guy (2:15).

(For best effect,

watch it full screen.)




* * *


We wake up one day

at the age of forty

dreading going to work

because we were forced

to pick a career

before we could

legally buy a beer.


Why does this happen?


It’s because so many of us

in our younger years

think that a means goal

is really an end goal.


We confuse the two.


And these things are

really, really different.




From The three most important questions to ask yourself by Vishen Lakhiani (13:15), who writes,


Over the years I’ve come to stop believing in goal setting.


Because goal setting, or at least the way most of us are trained to do it, actually gets us to be obsessed about the how of attaining our goals, rather than the passion, the vision, and the beauty of the goal itself.

In short, we get obsessed with the “means,” rather than the “end.”

In this video, we are going to change the way you think about goal setting. We are going to present to you the 3 most important questions to ask yourself. If everyone asked themselves these questions at the age of 18, we believe the world would be a much happier place.

But no matter how old you are, it’s not too late.

This exercise will change the way you plan your life and see your goals. It’ll change the way you see your career, mission, and life purpose unfolding. The intro to the exercise takes no more than 5 minutes, and the exercise itself takes 7 minutes.

This could be one of the most important 12 minutes of your life.


* * *

Now playing

over at

Mental Health Talk:

“Monkeytraps 101 ~

Bert’s Crash Course

in Control,”

Lesson 2:

Good therapy



* * *

Being authentic means risking finding out

what we truly feel deep inside

— not just living out ideas and expectations

of who we are or who we should be — 

and even being willing to be surprised

by ourselves.


We need to be able to tolerate

the bodily experience of vulnerability

that arises when we risk being real…. 


We are not able to force others

or the world

to meet us with warmth and interest

when we show up in our genuine selves. 

And that is vulnerable.

We need to be able to stay

with ourselves

to feel and deal with the discomfort

of that in our bodies,

if we are to live an authentic life.


~ From Authenticity

by Dr. Sandra Parker



The Monkeyship Theory

(Bert speaking:)

Came across this old post recently, which Steve and I wrote together more than a year ago.  I was surprised how true it remains for me/us today.  So I’m running it again, with some tweaks.

* * *

Lately Steve’s seeing more and more couples.

Not sure why.  He never trained as a couples therapist, and he doesn’t advertise himself as one.

But couples apparently like his approach, because they keep sending him new couples to work with.

Which at one time would have pissed me off.

Because I hated couples work.

It scared me.

It scared me for two reasons.  First, there was too damned much going on in the room.

Steve, explain.

Well, couples work means paying attention to many levels and variables at once.  Like,

~ what the partners say, and what they don’t say;

~ which feelings they express, and which they hide;

~ which of their motives they’re aware of, and which are unconscious; and

~ what’s happening between them here and now, as opposed to whatever past experiences (often buried, usually painful) are getting triggered.

Right.  All that felt overwhelming.  It was just too much.

Too much for you to control, you mean.

Yes.  Forget about controlling it in the room.  I couldn’t control it inside my own head.  Couldn’t organize it mentally.

I also hated the tension.  Many couples were so frustrated or angry at each other that sessions with them felt like watching someone juggle live hand grenades.  I kept waiting for some KABOOM that would blow the office into matchsticks.

So you couldn’t control the emotional situation either.

Right.  I couldn’t control either their feelings or my own feelings about not being able to control how they felt.

All of which explains why, for years, whenever someone called Steve to request couples counseling I’d immediately climb up onto his shoulder and whisper Just say no over and over and over.

I remember.

But you didn’t listen.

Well, we do have to make a living.

Yeah.  I didn’t care.  My priority was anxiety management.

Anyway, I’m glad he didn’t listen.   Because over time he learned something important about how to help couples.  And eventually I even began to feel safe.

Both happened after he created his Monkeyships Theory.

Steve, define monkeyship.

It’s any relationship that becomes dysfunctional because both partners are struggling for control.

And the theory.

That nearly all relationship problems are monkeyship problems, since eventually all relationships turn, well, monkeyish.

This theory helped me feel safer with couples in two ways.

First, focusing on the idea of control helped me to observe and organize what was happening in each session.  Sort of like an Etch-a-Sketch magnet rearranges iron filings.

Yes.  Noticing how people are trying to control each other does clarify how they got into trouble in the first place.

But more importantly, it gave Steve a way to help them get out of trouble.

Steve, explain that.

Well, I realized my job wasn’t so much to fix or change anything as to help the partners notice how they were trying to get control.  I did this by pointing out what I was seeing and hearing.

Once they could spot their own patterns, the next step was to teach them the three alternatives to control — surrender, responsibility and intimacy (see the end of What do you know about control?) 

And then get them to practice.

And this really works.

Better with some couples than others, frankly.  Its success depends mainly on how willing they are to stop playing blame tennis and look hard at themselves. 

And when they do, what do they see?

That control is the secret motive behind most of their behavior.  That they’ve been trying to transform their partner into the partner they want, instead of accepting the one they have.  

“Don’t be who you are.  Be who I need you to be.”

Yes.  That’s the theme song of any monkeyship.         

For partners who can move past that theme song, surrendering control offers a path out of monkeyship and towards mutuality.

Which is?

What relationship is meant to be: a place where both partners can be themselves with each other, and where they come to see that what’s good for their partner is — surprise — also good for them.

* * *

For more on control and relationships, check out The split-level relationship and Monkeytraps and how to spot them.




* * *


Do you know that

most people don’t know

how feelings work?


The truth is,

if you don’t

understand how

your feelings work,

you really don’t

understand the world

around you.


The truth is,

the way you

see the world

is in large part

distorted by

the feelings

that you have not




~ From Let them off the hook by David Viscott, M.D. (4:49).


* * *

In a some families

— alcoholic, abusive or

otherwise dysfunctional —

kids aren’t

allowed to be



They aren’t allowed

to listen to

their own feelings

or act in service of

their own needs.


Instead they get drafted

into unconscious roles

intended to meet the needs

of the family.


They get lost, and end up

believing stuff like:


“If I’m smart enough,

and good enough at sports,

I can save my family…”


“I just don’t want to cause

any more trouble

for my family.”


“If I make everything fun,

we don’t have to think

about our problems.”


“If you don’t care,

then I don’t care either.”



This dynamic is

far more common

than most people think.


~ Watch the rest of Common roles played in alcoholic families (2:09).

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