Monthly Archives: May 2014

New glue

Submitted to The Practice Corner:
New glue
My wife’s mother was the glue that held their large family together, and after she died the members pretty much stopped communicating.  The one I missed most was my wife’s nephew Sean, a young man with whom I spent hours at family gatherings, just talking.  One day, eighteen months after his grandmother’s funeral, I surprised myself by calling him on the phone.  “What’s wrong?” was his first question.  It took five minutes to convince him I’d called just because I missed our conversations.  Then we spent an hour catching up.  He seemed as happy to reconnect as I was, and I got off the phone feeling proud of myself. This was not something I’d have done six months ago.  I‘d have been too scared Sean would feel imposed upon, or just not interested.  But reading and thinking about Steve’s alternatives to control  – especially the ones he calls responsibility (listening to feelings) and intimacy (being myself with someone else) – changed that.  I realize now how much I want and need to connect to the people in my life, and that I’m even willing to risk some discomfort to do it.  Turns out I can create my own emotional glue. 

~ Shared by J.R.S. (5/31/14)

The way to happiness

Way to happiness 2

Practicing intimacy: Intimate communication

Ninth in the series 
Notes on recovery 
Intimacy depends on the quality of communication.
And the first step to raising that quality is by not doing stuff we normally do.
Psychologist Thomas Gordon once famously identified twelve “roadblocks to communication” between parents and children.  It’s a good list to memorize, since each item is essentially a controlling behavior able to destroy intimacy between anyone and anyone else:
1. Ordering or directing
2. Warning or threatening
3. Advising or suggesting
4. Arguing or persuading
5. Lecturing or moralizing
6. Criticizing, judging or blaming
7. Agreeing or praising*
8. Ridiculing or shaming
9. Analyzing or diagnosing
10. Reassuring or sympathizing*
11. Questioning or probing
12. Withdrawing, humoring or distracting
A client with whom I shared this list responded, “What’s left?  Hand signals?”
I sympathize.  We’re so used to these ways of unconsciously controlling each other that it’s hard to imagine doing without them.
But there are alternatives.
I-statements, for example.  Ever notice how any sentence containing the word You tends to make the listener defensive?  I-statements avoid this by focusing on me instead.  I’m confused by what you’re saying, instead of You make no sense.  I’m mad at you, instead of You suck.  Like that.  Which do you think leads to better communication?      
Then there’s feedback, a skill I teach in therapy groups.  Group requires a lot of emotional safety, so to forestall judgments or unsolicited advice members are asked to respond to what they hear by describing only what it made them think, feel or remember.  (When you talk about your anger I remember all the times I lost my temper and how it felt.)   These expanded I-statements not only make it safer for everyone to talk about sensitive issues, they help members get to know each other quickly, and to understand their own reactions and perceptions reactions on a deeper level.
Finally, monologuing is an exercise I teach couples who want to learn intimate communication.  Each partner takes five minutes to list his/her resentments (I resent when you insult my mother) and appreciations (I appreciate when you make coffee so I don’t have to) while the other just listens.  Then they switch roles.  Monologuing’s not meant to settle disputes or solve problems; it’s used to keep the air clear, lines of communication open, and each partner in touch with where the other is emotionally.  It also teaches them to make I-statements, identify feelings, listen without interrupting, and develop empathy.  (I didn’t know you felt that way is a common reaction.) Couples who monologue regularly tell me it becomes a way they can talk safely about almost anything.


*Yes, items 7 and 10 tend to surprise people.   See here for an explanation of why they inhibit parent/child communication.




Practicing intimacy: Why bother

Eighth in the series
Notes on Recovery


Intimacy is the ability to be yourself with other people, and allow them to be themselves with you.
It’s the most difficult of the three alternatives to controlling.
Two reasons for this.
First, it requires us to practice the other alternatives as well.  Being intimate means both surrendering control over another person (including their thoughts and feelings) and at the same time responding as authentically as possible.
For control addicts that’s akin to learning to play violin while roller skating.
Second, intimacy is scary.  It means coming out of hiding, feeling intensely, and exposing ourselves to rejection and other hurts.  Hard for anyone.  But if you’ve been traumatized by other relationships the idea of such vulnerability can be paralyzing.
Why bother, then?
Sadly, most of us don’t.
Most people I meet have been so wounded in relationships that they’re afraid to trust them again.  They’ve decided feeling and vulnerability are just too damned dangerous.  So they stay in hiding emotionally, and around other people they armor up.
It’s how they became control addicts, and why they remain so.
Others are forced to learn intimacy in order to recover from some illness that’s even scarier.  Thus recovering alcoholics learn to stand in meetings and share painful secrets, and depressives learn to express feelings in group.  Hard work, yes.  But they do it because they know that the alternative is even harder.
There are some people, though, who set out to learn this most challenging of skills because they understand that intimacy is as good as it gets.
That, for human beings, nothing in life is as rewarding, nurturing, healing or strengthening as a truly intimate relationship.
Next: Intimate communication

Practicing responsibility

Seventh is the series
Notes on Recovery
I probably use the word responsible differently than you.
To me it means able to respond.  “Respond” as is reply or answer.   
I see responsible people as those who can answer a situation, challenge or problem in a healthy way – one that meets their needs, respects their feelings, acknowledges their preferences, promotes their growth, and leaves them more powerful.
I’m guessing responsibility means something else to you.
That may be because I’ve known so many clients who confuse it with following rules, meeting expectations and discharging obligations.  These are people who regularly lose themselves.  They sacrifice their needs, feelings, preferences and growth to other people, or jobs, or imposed codes of behavior, or impossible standards, or endless To Do lists.  They do this less out of love or idealism than self-defense: they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t do it.
I call that irresponsible.
Truly responsible people, as I see it, as the ones who can (a) listen to themselves and (b) act in their own self-interest.
Listen to themselves mean focus inside, pay attention to feelings and the messages their bodies send telling them what their needs are.
Act in self-interest means respecting those emotional and bodily signals instead of ignoring or hiding them.
This sort of responsibility starts with simple stuff: eating when hungry, resting when tired, peeing when your bladder is full.  It extends to venting when angry, crying when sad, reaching out to others when lonely or scared.
As I said, simple stuff.  But if you suffer from control addiction I bet you don’t do any of it nearly enough.
So that’s what you need to practice in recovery.  Call it responsibility, self-love, self-care, or (as I do) healthy selfishness.
“Selfish,” of course, is the dirtiest of words.  Most people confuse it with behavior that harms or neglects others.
But who isn’t selfish?  Preoccupation with ourselves is built into our nature and neurology.  We can’t help that.  Our only choice is to admit or deny it.  To be honestly selfish, or hide our true motives behind a mask of selflessness.
Thus in the end practicing responsibility means being able, willing and brave enough to take care of yourself.
Because if you don’t, who’s going to?
 Next: Practicing intimacy





Practicing surrender

Sixth in the series
Notes on Recovery
Surrender means being able to stop controlling stuff and still believe things will be okay.
It means the ability, when facing some reality we can’t dictate, to accept it with grace and patience.
Some people dislike the word surrender.  To them it connotes defeat, failure or weakness.
Fine.  Call it something else.
Call it detachment, as they do in Al-Anon.  Or acceptance.  Or trust.  Or faith.
Call it what you like.  But notice how essential it is to not losing your marbles.
Surrender is the spiritual alternative to control.  Here spiritual refers to the part of us that acknowledges something bigger than we are — bigger than mind, willpower or ego.
I believe we can’t survive without that part.
Nor can we function without surrender.
Think about it.  Imagine someone unable or unwilling to ever surrender control.  How could they drive on a freeway?  Fly in an airplane?  Eat in a restaurant?  Let their kid ride a schoolbus?  Let a surgeon remove their tonsils?  Trust a therapist with their secrets? Stay sane during a hurricane?
We surrender control hundreds of times daily.  We have to. Without surrender life would be a paranoid nightmare, and peace of mind would be impossible.
So practicing surrender in recovery doesn’t necessarily mean learning something new.
What it usually means is putting surrender to new use – extending it to new parts of our emotional life, or applying it in new situations.
Thus I may practice surrender by expressing my feelings more freely, even when it scares me, because I trust that expression is ultimately healthier and safer than suppression.
I may practice by not controlling the people around me, despite the urge to, because I believe that less controlling tends to make relationships stronger.
I may practice by using the sort of mantra 12-Step programs teach – One day at a time, Let go and let God, Go with the flow, Turn it over – as a way of calming myself while developing a more flexible response to frustration and worry.  (My own favorite, scribbled on an sticky note taped to my monitor: 95% of what we worry about never happens.) 
Or I may practice by choosing consciously, when trapped behind a slow driver, to breathe deep and practice surrender instead of wishing I had a loaded weapon.
Next: Practicing responsibility


The three questions

Fifth in the series
Notes on Recovery
After refocusing, the next thing a recovering control addict needs to learn is how to practice.
Practice starts with three questions:
1. What am I trying to control here?
2. Have I been able to control this before? 
And if the answer is No,
3. What can I do instead?
These are essential questions to ask ourselves when stressed, because they remind us that (a) stress is what usually triggers our controlling, and (b) our controlling usually produces more stress.
Not always easy to answer, though.   Because each is a trick question.
What am I trying to control?
Control addicts answer this by looking outside themselves, at externals.  I want my spouse to stop criticizing me.  I want more money in the bank.  I want my son to pass Math.
But don’t be tricked.  Remember that what we really want to control is feelings.   Your spouse’s criticism hurts you; lack of money makes you feel insecure; your son’s grades are embarrassing.  So what you really want is to eliminate hurt, insecurity and embarrassment.
That’s good news, since feelings tend to be easier to manage than externals.
Have I been able to control this in the past?
Same trick here.  Focus on feelings.
Say you tried to control your spouse’s criticism by apologizing, appeasing, or retaliating.  Did any of that leave you feeling less hurt or angry?
Say you tried to control your finances by working harder, worrying more, or nagging family members about their spending.  Did any of that eliminate your insecurity?
Say you tried to control your son’s grades by yelling, punishing, or standing over him while he did homework.  Did any of that reduce your embarrassment?  Or just create more tension and conflict?
If your honest answer to this second question is Yes, terrific.  Problem solved.  Keep doing what you’re doing.
But your answer is No, it’s probably time for a less controlling solution.
What can I do instead?
Here the trick is to remember that there are three alternatives to control: surrender, responsibility and intimacy.
I’ve already explained what these words mean here (briefly) and here (in more detail).
They’re ways to feel better without having to control people, places or things.
Let’s see how they look in actual practice.
Next: Practicing surrender

* * *

Previous posts in this series:
(A sort of preface:) Tricky
1. Bottom 
2. Power
3. Plan B
4. Refocusing


Fourth in the series
Notes on Recovery
Our need to refocus comes from realizing the real reason we try to control stuff:
We’re trying to control how we feel.
We’re especially trying to manage anxiety.
Think about it.  What scares you most?  Criticism?  Failure?  Rejection?  Abandonment?  Humiliation?  Physical pain or discomfort?
That’s what you feel most compelled to control.
Compulsive means anxiety-driven.   Whenever I act like a control addict – for example,
~ hide my real self from other people,
~ hide my true feelings from myself,
~ try to impress, coerce or manipulate others,
~ insist things be done my way,
~ caretake friends or family members,
~ worry endlessly about the future, or
~ try to make my environment just as I want it to be
– I’m being driven by some anxiety about what will happen if I don’t do these things.
Recovery means finding another way to manage this anxiety.
Which is where refocusing comes in.
When I refocus, I shift my attention from Out There to In Here.  I redefine the problem from some external trigger (X looks mad) to my own reaction (I’m scared of X).
I  step back from that reaction and realize that, to feel safe again, I really don’t need to control X.  I just need to change my reaction.  If I can do that, X’s anger stops being a problem.
Changing my reaction to stuff is what allows me to stop trying to control it.
Next: The three questions

* * *

Previous posts in this series:
(A sort of preface:) Tricky
1. Bottom 
2. Power
3. Plan B




Plan B

Third in the series 
Notes on Recovery


So bottom’s hit you.  You realize you’re a control addict and need to recover.
What now?
Now Plan B.
Make no mistake — you do need a plan.
Good intentions aren’t enough.  Neither is willpower.
Because if hitting bottom is less a choice than a realization, recovery is definitely a choice.
Not just the hardest choice you’ll ever make, either.  One you have to remake every day. Every hour, sometimes.
Recovery from any addiction means facing your deepest anxieties and fighting your strongest impulses.  And escaping control addiction means walking through a world that seems absolutely determined to push you into relapse.
Not a walk in the park.
So you really do need a plan, and it better be good.
It should teach you three things:
Refocus, practice, and support.
Refocus means learning to shift your attention from Out There to In Here – from the environment that triggers you to your own reactions to that environment.
Practice means (a) learning alternatives to compulsive controlling, and then (b) repeating them over and over until they come as naturally as controlling used to.
Support is the hardest part, because it involves other people.  Addicts don’t trust other people.  Hell, that’s why they’re addicts.  It’s because they distrust people that they turned to substances or compulsive behaviors to manage their feelings.  But recovery means building people back into your emotional life, learning to trust them again.
Because no one recovers alone.
And anyone who tries it alone isn’t really recovering.
Next: Refocusing


* * *

Previous posts in this series:
(A sort of preface:) Tricky
1. Bottom 
2. Power


* * *


NEW in The Practice Corner (under Surrender): 


Second in the series 
Notes on Recovery
The goal of recovery is to become powerful.
Powerful, not controlling.
No, they’re not the same thing.
Control means being able to dictate reality. To force life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.
But power means being able to take care of yourself.  To get your needs met without losing yourself in the process.  To not just survive, but to heal, grow and be happy.
They’re not just different, control and power.  Sometimes they’re opposites.
~ Power is a real possibility, where control is often an illusion.
~ Power is healthy, where controlling tends to be  pathological.
~ Power is rooted in self-acceptance and confidence, where controlling grows out of insecurity and fear.
~ Power makes you stronger, where controlling weakens you, can even make you sick.
~ Power attracts people to one another, where  controlling tends to drive them apart.
But the most important difference between them is,
 ~ Power is something only an adult can develop, where controlling is the basic survival skill of a child.
Think about it.  If I’m a kid, I can’t take care of myself.  I need big people for that – to feed me, clothe me, protect me, love me.  Without big people I die.
And because I know this at the deepest level, I learn early on to stay on their good side.  To please and appease them, avoid their anger, meet their expectations.  To be what big people want me to be, instead of who I am.
This is inevitable.  It’s also how control addicts are born.
Because control addicts keep feeling and functioning like kids instead of developing personal power.  They keep pleasing and appeasing and manipulating the way children do.  They never come out of hiding, never learn to be themselves out loud.
Externally they look like adults.  Inside they still feel like kids who need support, approval or permission from big people.
Recovery is about reversing this.
Recovery is about growing up inside.
Plan B


First in the new series 
Notes on Recovery


Control addicts are just like other addicts.
And their recovery starts in the same place.
The lucky ones experience a moment when the pain of their addiction outweighs their fear of giving it up.  This moment is called hitting bottom.
But that’s not quite accurate.
Because we don’t hit bottom.  Bottom hits us.
Bottom is a realization, not a choice.  It’s the end result of a long process, an accumulation of emotional evidence you didn’t even know you were collecting.
It’s like you’ve been piling pennies on one side of a scale.  Hitting bottom is that moment when the scale tips, your pain overwhelms your fear, and you suddenly know in your bones I can’t do this anymore.
This happens despite all wishes and explanations to the contrary.  Reality forces you to look it in the face and surrender.
It’s an awful moment.
Also a wonderful one.
An experience of both exhaustion and relief.
Because when you finally accept that you can’t control something, you can finally stop trying to.
You can stop asking yourself Should I let go? and Can I let go? and What will happen if I do?
Now only one question matters:
How do I let go?



(A preface, sort of, to the upcoming
series Notes on Recovery)
It’s our wedding day, and my new wife’s cousin keeps taking photos of us.  Each time he presses the shutter he chirps “I think you’re gonna like this picture,” a line from an old TV show.
The first time he says it I chuckle.  The second time I smile politely.
By the tenth time I want to stab him in the face with a fork.
I was reminded of Cousin Forkface recently by a client who jokes compulsively.  The more anxious he feels, the more he jokes.  He’s knows he’s doing it but can’t help himself.  It’s sad, and it’s irritating.
It’s also, of course, a controlling behavior.
Like those others I’ve written about here lately — compulsive apologizing (Apology), self-editing (Friends), comfort-seeking (Comfort), self-blame (All my fault), persevorating (Gum), reenacting old battles (Dandelion fights), blaming (Blaming), expecting (Killers) and giving up (Resigned).
Each of us has a jillion tricks like these — tactics we use to ease our way through life, increase pleasure, avoid discomfort, reduce anxiety, slip out of emotional tight spots.
They’re attempts to control our experience, what we feel.
Most are unconscious.  We don’t realize we’re using them.
Most are harmless enough.
Some are merely annoying.
But some cause more problems than they solve.
And some actually make us (or people we care about) emotionally sick.
Our attempts to control stuff we either can’t or shouldn’t control lie at the root of our anxiety, depression, addictions, and nearly all our relationship problems.
They interfere with trust, safety, communication, intimacy, peace of mind, and love.
So it’s worth becoming more conscious of our unconscious trickiness, so we can distinguish the harmless tricks from the harmful.
And maybe avoid getting stabbed in the face.


Coming soon, a new series:
Notes on Recovery


Alas, I am a slob.
I’m mostly in denial about it .  But one night, can’t recall why, I asked my wife, “Do you think I’m a slob?”  And she said, “Yes.”
And an Ouch bloomed in my guilty solar plexus.
Of course she’s right.  The mess on my desk is three layers deep.  Stacks of books climb skyward on my night table.  Crabgrass has swallowed my lawn.  My car’s gone unvacuumed since the Clinton presidency.  And my garage?  Don’t ask.
Then again, I know men whose businesses run like stopwatches but who can’t talk to their wives or children.
I know women whose houses are surgically clean but whose marriages are in the toilet.
I know families whose living rooms are always company-ready but who never hug or laugh or cry or play together.
And so on.
Can’t you have both?  Seems you should.  At least that’s what I always told myself.
Then again, maybe not.
For one of the paradoxes of control is that getting control in one part of your life means surrendering it in another.
I’m pretty happy with my marriage and my family relationships.
My desk’s a mess, but my life makes emotional sense.
So maybe it’s time to embrace my Inner Slob.
Or, maybe, think of myself less as a slob than as someone with other priorities.
A famous tv commercial once advised us: “Life is messy.  Clean it up.”
I prefer 
Life is messy.
Get used to it.


Submitted to The Practice Corner:
I dreaded this visit, but my wife talked me into it.  It’s his birthday, she said, and we’re his grandparents.  I gave in, but I was still scared that what happened last time would happen again.  We worry about my grandson, and can’t stop trying to help.  “Maybe less junk food,” we tell his parents. “Maybe less tv, more fresh air.”  But the help never helps.  It always ends in anger and tension and tears.  My wife ends up depressed and I end up overeating.  I didn’t want that again.  So we worked on it in therapy.  I mean,  we worked hard.  I talked about it in my group, she talked about it in hers, and then we talked about it with Steve, who gave us stuff to read about alternatives to controlling.  Then we talked with each other about surrender (a word my wife still hates) and responsibility and intimacy.  We talked at home, and on the flight down, and then more in the hotel room.  And when the time came we found we were actually able to not control things.  We bit our lips instead of “helping.”  Talked to each other about how we were feeling, instead of acting out with my son and his wife.  We tried to accept everything and judge nothing.  And it worked.  No fights, no tension, no tears.  My son and his wife relaxed around us. They talked to us more.  We enjoyed our grandson and he enjoyed us.  It was a wonderful visit.  Then we came home and told Steve how it went and he asked, “So, which was easier – controlling or not controlling?”  And we looked at each other and answered him in unison: “Not controlling.”

~ Shared by J.R.S. (5/10/14)


Tricky thing, victimization.
Do therapy with someone who’s been victimized but doesn’t know it, and you want them to see themselves as victimized.
You want them to see what isn’t their fault — that they didn’t cause all their problems and pain.  Your job is to help them off the hook on which they’re hanging.  Because self-blame doesn’t heal a damned thing.
But: work with people who already see themselves as victims, and what you want is to help them to stop.
Victimization starts with something external, something beyond our control, not our fault.  But if we’re not careful — or we don’t get the right help in processing this painful experience — we may internalize it.  We may see it as defining us, as part of our identity.
And then we carry the old pain around with us, like we’re in a trance.  My parents didn’t love me, so I must be unlovable.  I couldn’t stop bad things from happening at home, so I must be weak.  My husband abused me, so I can’t trust any man, ever.  Like that.
And that’s the trance of victimization: feeling stuck back in there/then, instead of realizing that you’re here/now.
How to break the trance?
Corrective emotional experience.  The frightened must find safety.  The voiceless must speak up and feel heard.  The abused must find love and caring.  The alienated must experience reconnection and trust.
Each such experience helps them wake up from the trance.
Collect enough such moments, and the waking becomes permanent.
And the label victim slides off into the past, where it belongs.

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