Monthly Archives: April 2015

(THE BOOK) Chapter 27: Monkeyships

I’m a couples therapist who used to be scared of couples.

There’s just so much going on in a couples session, so many levels and variables to be aware of.   I was constantly asking myself questions like

~ What are these people actually saying?  What are they holding back?

~ Which feelings can they express to each other?  Which ones do they hide?

~ Which of their motives are conscious, and which are unconscious?

~ Are they reacting to their current situation, or experiencing old feelings from past experiences or unhealed wounds?

It was a lot of work.  

And it made Bert anxious as hell.  

Then things changed for me.

I began studying control, and developed what I call the Monkeyship Theory.

The theory has three tenets:

(1) A monkeyship is any relationship that turns dysfunctional because the partners are trying to control each other.

(2) All relationships get monkeyish from time to time.

(3) Most relationship problems are really control struggles in disguise.

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 sessions, sort of like an Etch-a-Sketch magnet rearranges iron filings.  Identifying underlying control issues (You’re rude to my mother./You won’t share control of our money./Hold on, she’s my daughter too) clarified how the couple got into trouble in the first place.

Second, it gave me a way to help them get out of trouble.

I realized my job wasn’t so much to fix them or change anything as to help the partners notice what they were already doing – what they tried to control and how they went about it.

I did this mainly by pointing out what I was seeing and hearing.

Mary, you just interrupted John again.  Were you aware of that?  Does it happen a lot?

John, you look hurt.  What’s coming up for you right now?

When you apologize I get the sense that sorry is not how you really feel.  Am I right?  

For many couples just noticing their patterns and hidden messages helps to defuse tension and redefine conflicts.  Once they see what they’re doing, they have a choice of whether to keep doing it or not.  This alone can feel empowering.

After they learn to spot their own patterns, the next step is to teach them alternatives to control.

There are three, I tell them:

~ Surrender, which is the ability to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway,

~ Responsibility, which is the ability to shift your attention from externals (people, places, things) to internals (your own thoughts, feelings, behavior) and to base your choices on what you feel and need.

~ Intimacy, or the ability to be fully yourself with another person and permit them to do the same with you.

Once they understand the alternatives, the job is to get them to practice.

This approach works better with some couples than others.  Its success depends mainly on how willing they are to stop playing blame tennis and look hard at themselves.

Those with the courage to do so usually discover that they’ve been trying to change their partner into the partner they want, instead of accepting the partner they have.

And that, without realizing it, they’ve been dancing to the toxic theme song of all monkeyships:

Don’t be who you are.  

Be who I need you to be.

 

 

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(THE BOOK) Chapter 26: The addicted

Everyone I see in therapy is addicted.

So is everyone I know.

When I first became a therapist I distinguished between addicts and nonaddicts.  That distinction no longer makes sense to me.

Now I think we’re all addicted to something.  It’s just that some addictions are more obvious than others.

As I said (see Chapter 12), addicts are people who can’t deal with feelings, and so feel compelled to find something that makes feelings going away.   This may be a substance (alcohol, drugs, food) or a behavior (work, sex, tv, shopping, video games, etc.).  Anything that alters your mood can be turned into an addiction.  That includes behaviors not inherently unhealthy, like exercise or meditation or volunteering.

The variations may be infinite, but they share the same root: the need to alter or control how one feels. 

My own addictions came in both flavors, substances and behaviors.

Sugar was always my drug of choice.  In grade school I ate it by the spoonful.  I also drank maple syrup.  In grad school I smoked a pipe until cumulus clouds formed in my office and my tongue morphed into hamburger.

My compulsive behaviors included watching television (an alternate reality where I spent most of ages twelve through eighteen), reading books (the alternate reality I still find preferable much of the time), and writing (in my thirties and forties I carried a spiral notebook everywhere with me, compulsively filling page after page whenever I felt confused or stressed out or scared.  There are thirty-one dusty spirals stacked in a corner of my garage).

And I’m still addicted to work.  But I can’t write intelligently about that here, since I remain in denial.

These were the main paths I followed into what I call the Garden of Numb.

You know that place.  It’s where your focus narrows, and the world goes away, and anxiety recedes, and tension and worry slough off like dirt in the shower.

Great place to visit.  Necessary, even.  We all need vacations.  The world can be a frightening and painful place, and living a human life is no picnic.

The problem comes when you find you can’t live outside the Garden.

Each of my addictions eventually took on lives of their own.  Each stopped being something I was doing and became something that was doing me.   I lost control of my need for control.

So now, whenever I meet a new client, I look for two things:

(1) What they do, repeatedly and compulsively, to get themselves into the Garden,

and

(2) How impaired this controlling behavior leaves them.

The signs of (2) are pretty predictable:

~ Bad feelings.  Since they have no way but numbness to manage feelings, and since nobody can stay numb constantly, addicts are emotionally uncomfortable much of the time.

~ Bad choices.  Since their unconscious priority is feeling-management, addicts tend to follow the path that is least threatening emotionally, and their decision-making reflects this — instead of, say, an awareness of reality, determination to solve problems, or concern for the needs and feelings of others.

~ Bad relationships.  Addicts struggle with relationships simply because addicts aren’t all there: their feelings are missing.  So they can’t be fully honest and authentic, can’t tolerate honesty and authenticity in others, and can’t communicate in a way that promotes real connection and mutual understanding.

See yourself in this?

Don’t feel too bad.

We’re all control addicts.

If you’re human and breathing there’s no avoiding it.


(THE BOOK) Chapter 25: The depressed

For the anxious, constipation is a problem.  For the depressed, it’s a lifestyle.

Usually it starts unconsciously and in self-defense.  All my depressed clients grew up in dangerous families where it was unsafe to be themselves.  (See Chapter 14.)  Kids in such families have little choice but to self-constipate. 

Ever been physically constipated?  Remember how, the longer it lasted, the more distracted and uncomfortable you felt?  How eventually the internal pressure and tension came to sap your energy and occupy all your attention?

That’s just what happens to the depressed.  It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (my shit’s coming up, can’t get my shit together) to describe emotional processes.  Feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are physical byproducts of what we eat.  And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings must be expressed — not hidden or stored up.  When they aren’t we get sick, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Humans either express themselves or depress themselves.

The best book I know on all this is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body, which explains depression as a physical symptom, an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need to come out.  Lowen writes,

The self is experienced through self-expression, and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed….  The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.

For control addicts – who experience life itself as one long litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts — some depression is inevitable.  And since everyone is addicted to control, it is not surprising that depression is called the common cold of mental illness.

I’ve had my cold for six decades.

I caught it in grade school.  Nobody called it depression then.  This was the fifties.  I’m not sure if back then anyone even knew that kids got depressed.

All I knew was I always felt sad, shy, nervous, worried.  Different.  Inadequate.  Flawed. 

I preferred being alone.  Preferred books to people.  Preferred tv to real life.

“Moody,” mom called me.  “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.

I also felt bad about feeling bad.  It must be my fault, I thought.  Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try.  So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder.  I just didn’t know how.

I felt bad through high school, college, and into adulthood.  Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood.  Through college, graduate school and into professional life. 

Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books.  Lots of books.  The idea of happiness, always mysterious to me, became a preoccupation, then a challenge, then a sort of quest. 

I read everything I could that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life? 

It was only after I began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.

Doing therapy with control addicts taught me that I hadn’t gotten depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or because they fought or divorced when I was eight.  It wasn’t because I never had as much money as I wanted, or the body I wanted, or wrote the book I always wanted to write.  Or because of anything that had happened to me.

I was depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.  

Or rather, didn’t react.

We express ourselves, or we depress ourselves.

 

 


Necessary fictions

Contro*

*

Just published a guest post

on Lisa Fredericksen’s blog 

Breaking the cycles,

titled 

“Control and other necessary fictions.”

 You can read it here.

*

 

 


(THE BOOK) Chapter 24: The anxious

The anxious are all different and all the same.

Big and little, old and young, rich and poor.  Worried seniors, controlling spouses, insecure employees.  Obsessive parents, stressed teenagers, scared kids.

Their symptoms are both painful and remarkably common.  They can’t stop worrying.  Their thoughts race.  They either can’t fall asleep or can’t stay there.  Their appetite comes and goes.  They’re self-doubting, perfectionistic, agonize over mistakes.  They get irritable, cranky or tearful.  They’re self-conscious around other people.  Even when alone, with no jobs to do, they can’t relax or enjoy themselves.

Some develop physical symptoms: restlessness, muscular tension, teeth grinding, indigestion, nausea, headaches.

Some suffer social anxiety.  Others have panic attacks.  Still others report obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors.

But behind all these differences they have three things in common:

(1) They try to control the future.   

They do this mainly by thinking about it.  Anticipating it.  Planning it.  Worrying about it.   Obsessing about it.   Forming expectations.  In other words, by surrendering their thoughts to the not-so-tender mercies of monkeymind.

This highly efficient system keeps anxieties growing like weeds.

Because the more the anxious worry about the future, the more anxious they get.  And the more anxious they get, the more they worry about the future.  And so on.

(2) They try to control other people. 

They do this by insisting — secretly, in the privacy of their monkeyminds– that other people always like them, accept them, approve of them, agree with them, admire their clothes, hair, physique, income, intelligence or sense of humor.

They convince themselves that they really need other people to do this, and that life will be intolerable when they don’t.

Thus they scare the crap out of themselves, and set off on a desperate course of seeking a degree of interpersonal control nobody can ever have.

(3) They overcontrol themselves.

This habit is an inevitable outgrow of the last.  Anxious people try to control other people mainly by editing themselves — hiding the parts they think others won’t like.

Most importantly, they bury feelings instead of expressing them.

That last sentence defines the heart of anxiety.

That’s because feelings are – excuse this analogy – like shit.  Feelings are supposed to be expelled and expressed, not buried and hidden.  When they’re buried, they don’t go away.  They collect.  The person becomes emotionally constipated, lives in a constant state of self-interruption, internal pressure and emotional pain.

And anxiety is the name we give to this pain.


(THE BOOK) Chapter 23: Five weeds

After the workshop described in chapter 13 — the one where I redefined codependency as control addiction —  I went back to doing therapy with clinic clients.  

Mine was still a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the same problems every therapist faces.  

But now something was different.

Did you ever buy a new car — a new Honda, say — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas?  Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.

That’s what happened to me. 

Suddenly my caseload was filled with control addicts.

The clients hadn’t changed, of course.  I had.  It’s like I’d put on new eyeglasses.  My vision had refocused or sharpened or something, and now I couldn’t help seeing how relentlessly and self-destructively controlling they all were.

They?  I mean we.  Everyone.

Controlling, I realized, was a universal addiction.  It was everywhere I looked.  Not just in clients I’d labeled codependent, but in every client.  Not just in clients, but in colleagues, and friends, and family, and on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watched on tv or in the movies. 

And, of course, in myself.  (I’d discovered Bert.) 

Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snaked through every problem, every motive, every personality, every life.

Most surprisingly, I noticed that the five most common problems clients brought to therapy all had compulsive controlling in common.

Anxiety, depression, addiction, relationship problems and problems with parenting — all seemed to grow out of the same dysfunctional urge to control what either couldn’t or shouldn’t be controlled.

Like five weeds growing out of the same root.

 


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