Most new clients and I start off with a language problem.
We’re both speaking English, of course, but the words we use have different meanings.
This happens because people come to therapy for help with emotional problems, and I see most (maybe all) such problems as caused by control addiction. And that view has changed my view of almost everything human.
For example, it often happens that what clients call polite, I see as artificial.
What they call niceness, I see as fear.
What they call respectful, I see as dishonest.
What they call strong, I see as rigid.
What they call responsible, I see as oversocialized.
What they call loyal, I see as coerced.
What they call productive, I see as compulsively busy.
What they call helpful, I see as intrusive.
What they call protecting, I see as enabling.
What they call love, I see as codependency.
At the start of our work clients often object to my redefinitions of behaviors in which they’ve been engaged until now.
Sometimes they get so angry at how I see things that they leave and never return.
But if they keep coming back, eventually they start asking themselves:
If I’ve really been doing what I thought I was doing, why do I need therapy?
Men’s group. Six members. All husbands.
Not for long, though.
One’s divorcing, one’s halfway out the door, and one’s reaching for the doorknob.
They have one thing in common: wives unwilling to forgive them.
Each has screwed up majorly. Each has hurt his wife. Their sins include infidelity, insensitivity, irresponsibility, self-involvement, emotional unavailability and financial malfeasance.
And now all three are paying for their sins by daily reminders from those wives of how awful they are and how much damage they’ve done.
(Well, not all three. The guy who’s divorcing couldn’t stand it and moved out.)
A surprisingly common marital dynamic.
Fifty years ago psychiatrist Eric Berne described it in his brilliant Games People Play.
He called this game “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch.”
What’s going on unconsciously, Berne argued, is not an interaction between two adults but a running battle between an Angry Parent and a Guilty Child, who keep having the same conversation over and over:
Parent: I’ve been watching you, hoping you’d make a slip.
Child: You caught me this time.
Parent: Yes, and I’m going to let you feel the full force of my fury.*
The payoffs for playing NIGYSOB also tend to be unconscious. Often the angry partner is angry about other things (childhood abuse, say) and delighted to have someone on whom to vent her accumulated rage. The guilty partner tends to have chronically low self-esteem (usually their parents were narcissistic, abusive or unavailable) and plays the game in hopes of someday, somehow winning redemption.
Bottom line: Where NIGYSOB is played, what you have is less a marriage than a hostage situation.
It’s bad for both hostage and hostage-taker, since it prevents both from healing old wounds and escaping old roles and feelings.
And it’s awful for the marriage.
Since, without forgiveness, healthy relationship is impossible.
*Games people play: The psychology of human relationships by Eric Berne, MD (Dell 1964).
Women’s group. Six members.
One has been discussing problems her grown children face. Which leads into reviewing her failures as a parent. Which makes her cry.
The others listen and nod sadly.
After a minute I say, “Question for the group. Is there such a thing as an unguilty mother?”
They look at me, startled. Then at each other.
“I doubt it,” I say. “Every child deserves perfect parenting. No child ever gets it. And every mother knows this and feels bad about it. So feelings of inadequacy and failure and guilt are built into being a mother.”
“Always?” one asks.
“Maybe not,” I concede. “Occasionally I meet a parent unaware of his or her inadequacies. But they’re usually narcissists, and they usually scare the crap out of me.”
The crying mother sniffles.
“I can’t help feeling guilty,” she says. “When they hurt it feels like my fault.”
Right, Mom. You, me, and most every parent I know.
Perfect parenting is not just impossible, it’s unnecessary.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously argued that kids don’t need perfect parenting — just parenting that’s “good enough.” Winnicott wrote,
The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.
Catch that last line?
The mother’s imperfection is what helps her child adapt to reality.
So relax if you’re not perfect. You can’t be, and you don’t have to be. And it would probably be bad for your kids if you were.
Personally I take comfort in how one of my supervisors once defined good-enough parenting.
“The sign of successful parenting,” he said, “is that your kids can pay for their own therapy.”
One classic symptom of control addiction is enabling.
Enabling is anything you do to solve a problem that ends up making the problem worse.
Like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Or scratching a rash left by poison ivy.
Or trying to get an alcoholic to stop drinking by hiding their booze or nagging them to enter treatment.
Or trying to improve communication with your kids by forcing them to talk to you.
Or trying to improve your marriage by reminding your spouse how disappointing and inadequate he/she is.
The forms it takes are infinite.
What they all have in common, though — and what makes them so difficult to stop — is that they gratify a short-term need.
The need to do something.
We hate feeling helpless. We hate facing the fact that some problems we simply cannot solve.
So we cling to the illusion of control.
Maybe this time it will work, we tell ourselves.
Or Maybe if I try it this way.
Or This is too important. I can’t do nothing.
Pass the gasoline.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
~ Ascribed to Sigmund Freud
.Sometimes a banana is just a banana.
And sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes what we hang onto or try to control is important to us for its own sake.
And sometimes we hang on to it because it represents something else.
We’re often unaware of doing the latter.
We don’t see that we crave approval from the boss because we never got it from mom and dad.
We don’t understand that we feel compelled to keep our house in perfect order because where we grew up felt emotionally chaotic.
We don’t realize that we apologize constantly and compulsively because childhood taught us to fear criticism and rejection.
So much controlling happens unconsciously. Often we’ve no idea what we’re doing, much less why.
But if we want to recover from our addiction to control, we need to start getting more conscious.
A codependent in recovery tells me that once, in utter frustration over how his life was going, he fired his Higher Power.
“Wow,” I reply. “I guess that makes you the Higher Power.” I reach over to shake his hand. “Been wanting to meet you.”
But there’s a serious truth buried here.
“The fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members,” writes Ernest Kurtz, “is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God. Every alcoholic’s problem has first been claiming God-like powers, especially that of control.”*
All addicts seek control to an unhealthy degree. That’s why the First Step urges them to confront their lack of control (“Admitted we were powerless…”). Can’t heal addiction otherwise.
So recovery starts with a surrender. And that’s no less true of control addicts — a.k.a. codependents — most of whom have spent years trying to control the uncontrollable.
It’s why I suggest everyone get into the habit, when stressed, of asking themselves three questions:
What am I trying to control here?
Have I had any success controlling this before?
And if not,
What can I do instead?
Many benefits flow from this sort of self-questioning.
And one is that, the more often you employ it, the clearer it becomes that you’re not God.
*Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous by Ernest Kurtz (Hazelden Press, 1979).