We each have two families.
The first we inherit, the second we create.
The first is where we get wounded, the second where we go to heal.
Sorry. I don’t mean to sound cynical.
But do my job for any length of time and you can’t avoid concluding that, while healthy families exist, they are rare.
Healthy families are those able to meet their members’ needs for attention, acceptance, approval and affection.
Healthy families understand and practice empathy, respect, loyalty, goodwill, trust.
And healthy families make room for everyone. No one gets abused, ignored or sacrificed. No one gets lost.
As I said, such families exist. But for too many reasons to list here, they are outnumbered by the other kind.
And when the first family is inadequate, the second becomes essential.
Some people, wounded in the first family, give up on people. They decide relationship is dangerous, something that hurts or disappoints you, not a place to get your needs met. So they retreat into anger, isolation, intellect, work, materialism or substance abuse. Some try to make do with a hobby, a tv or a cat.
Others keep returning to their dysfunctional first family, hoping against hope that someday, somehow, this dry well will produce water.
The luckier ones realize they need a second family.
They may start with a tentative connection to a therapist, sponsor or recovery buddy. Scary stuff, at first. But as they collect good experiences, their sense of safety and ability to trust grows. Their new family may expand to include friends or classmates, coworkers or colleagues, members of a self-help or a therapy group. Eventually it may include their own partner, inlaws, and/or their own children.
That’s what happened to me.
It’s why, when I published my book, I included this on the Acknowledgements page:
This is no exaggeration.
So yes, first families are unavoidable, often disappointing, even destructive.
And yes, the wounds they inflict can last a lifetime.
But no, they do not constitute our destiny.
Second families are our second chance.
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monkeys of the world:
Got 2 minutes?
Use them to listen to Chapter 1 of
(More to come in
the weeks ahead.)
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For those of you with dysfunctional families who just survived another painful Christmas, some notes:
~ Congratulations. You didn’t murder anyone. You didn’t kill yourself, either. You’re not in a holding cell or a hospital. Sure, you sustained some emotional wounds. But it’s over now. You survived another one. Congratulations.
~ Forgive yourself. Maybe you failed to make everyone happy. Maybe you weren’t as happy as you hoped to be. Maybe you ate, drank, spent, or something-else too much. Maybe you lost it with someone. Maybe things went off the rails in another way. Fuck it. You did the best you could this year. It’s over. Move on.
~ Make lemonade. A dysfunctional family is a heartless machine; it chews up everyone unlucky enough to get tangled in its gears. It’s nobody’s fault, really. Most of the machine’s victims don’t set out to hurt others. They just do the best they can with impaired understanding and limited resources. The real enemy here is a pathology so complex and subtle it takes therapists years of study to figure it out. What can you do? Make lemonade out of this lemony Christmas. Learn something about why things went wrong. The most important lesson may be to have more realistic expectations next year — of yourself, other people, of the holiday itself. If you can learn that, and go into next Christmas with your eyes wide open, maybe this will be the last really bad one.
~ Steve & Bert
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Bert and I have learned two things about expectations.
The first thing:
1. An expectation is an attempt to control something.
It’s a sort of demand we make on the future.
“It must be like this,” we tell ourselves. “And if it’s not, I won’t be happy.”
Then it’s not. And we’re not.
The second thing is:
2. Expectations are killers.
They kill all sorts of important living things.
Spontaneity. Spontaneity means freedom — being able to express yourself without fear or constraint. But expectations are both judgmental and constraining. (Listen up, future: I want this to happen, and not that.) Expecting A prevents you from accepting and embracing B, or C, or D. That includes what comes to you from your environment and what comes up inside you, your own feelings and responses. Expectations are emotional handcuffs.
Pleasure. However else you define pleasure, it’s certainly a feeling. And expectations generally undermine our ability to feel. They’re born in our heads, while feelings live in our bodies. They’re future-oriented, where feelings occur only in the now. They’re controlling, where feeling (especially the feeling of pleasure) involves surrendering to an experience. And they’re born out of fear (I really don’t want X to happen). And nothing kills pleasure deader than fear.
Love. Real love, the kind we all crave, depends on safety — knowing you can be yourself and not be punished for it. How can you feel that if you’re worried about meeting someone’s expectations? How can they feel it if they’re worrying about meeting yours?
Why write about expectations just now?
That should be obvious.
‘Tis the season to be expecting.
And expectations are the main reason so many people suffer emotionally at this time of year.
We expect to feel a certain way, and usually don’t.
We buy with one eye on what people expect of us, and the other on what we expect of them.
And we compare where we are this December to where we were last December, and to where we’d expected to be by now.
Let’s be realistic, though. Expectations are difficult to give up. No one who reads this is going to suddenly stop expecting.
But you can take note of what you’re expecting.
And you can distinguish the expectations that are really important from the one are just bad habits.
And you can consider tossing out a few of the less important ones.
See how you feel.
Better, I bet.
Lighter. Freer. More accepting. More loving.
Not a bad way to feel heading into a new year.
In an Italian plaza, orchestra and chorus assemble one by one, and perform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for delighted passers-by.
Take five minutes, watch and smile:
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In group. “So the bad news is I still hate them, and they’re coming for Christmas,” says Dennis. “But the good news is, this year I think I can detach. I think I can step back and not let them bother me.”
“Wow,” someone says.
“Not me,” says Emma. “I hate my inlaws too, and they’re coming. But I can’t detach. The best I can do is hate them secretly. You know, bite my tongue and avoid conflict.”
The group looks sympathetic.
“What’s the difference?” asks Frank. “Steve, what’s the difference between detaching and just avoiding conflict?”
“What do you think?” I ask the group.
They frown a collective frown.
“Dennis, what does detaching feel like to you?”
He thinks. “Calm,” he says finally. “Relieved. Like the problem has stopped being a problem.”
“And Emma, when you’re avoiding conflict, how do you feel?”
“Awful,” she says. “Inside I’m scared, angry, self-conscious, confused.”
“Not at all.”
“So there’s one difference,” I say. “Detachment lowers anxiety. Avoiding conflict tends to raise it.”
“But why?” Frank asks.
“Well, controlling behavior usually raises anxiety, and that’s what conflict avoidance is — manipulation, a kind of secret controlling. You can’t see Emma doing it, but inside she’s controlling like crazy: watching, worrying, stuffing her feelings and waiting for something bad to happen. Right?” Emma nods glumly. “Whereas detaching avoids all that internal mess.”
“I’m still confused,” Frank says. “How do I know when I’m doing one or the other?”
“There are two ways,” I say.
“The first is to ask yourself, Where’s my attention? Control addicts focus outside, on the people/places/things they want to control. But to detach is to turn inward, shift attention to our own feelings and needs. It’s like taking our energy back.”
“That’s true,” Dennis says. “When I’m controlling I’m edgy and tired. When I detach I feel relaxed and strong.”
“And the second way?” Frank asks.
“That’s more subtle. Ask yourself, How old do I feel?”
“Right. Remember, control is what kids do. Kids have no power. Kids can’t take care of themselves, can’t even stand up for themselves most of the time. So they have to manipulate the big people around them. But real adults can stop controlling and act in service of their own needs. That’s what I mean by power.
“So if you find yourself feeling powerful, like the grownup you are, you’re detaching. And if you feel like the scared kid you used to be, you’re probably still controlling the way kids do.”
* * *
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In group. Denise, a teacher, looks haggard.
“This always happens at Christmas. My classes go out of control. The kids get excited and antsy and rude and it’s impossible to get them to focus. I can’t settle them down, hard as I try. And I feel helpless and angry and like the worst teacher in the world. Today a kid gave me attitude and I wanted to slap him.” She wipes her eyes. “It scared me.”
“Same here,” says Edie, an alcoholism counselor at a busy outpatient agency. “My clients start relapsing all over the place. The ones who haven’t picked up are scared that they will. They come in begging me to save them from themselves. Suddenly I feel like I’m carrying the whole bunch on my shoulders. It’s too much. I can’t save them all, and I know it. I start to hate them, and I feel guilty. Then I can’t sleep for worrying about it, which makes everything worse.”
I look at them. The phrase orphans of the storm comes into my mind.
“Question for both of you,” I say. “Imagine a hurricane is headed your way. Big hurricane, the kind that blows away houses. What do you do?”
They look at me blankly.
“Do you go out and stand on your lawn and yell at the hurricane to go away? Try to push the winds in another direction?”
They frown and shake their heads.
“Of course not. You go inside, hunker down and ride it out. You don’t pretend you have superpowers. You don’t try to control something so much bigger than you. You protect yourself as best you can, and you wait for the storm to pass.
“That’s what you need to do now. It’s all you can do. This is not a test of your professional competence or your worth as a person. It’s just hurricane season. People go Christmas-crazy. You can’t stop it, control it or escape it.
“So you lower your expectations. Do the best job you can do — teach the ones you can teach, help the ones you can help — and wait for the crazy to pass.”
Denise and Edie look relieved.
“By the way, this is what lots of us have to do around now,” I add. “Especially those of us with dysfunctional families. We get this idea that this year will be different, that we can arrange things so everyone gets along and is happy. It’s a fantasy, and we have to let go of it or make ourselves sick. You can’t control Christmas crazy. Sometimes all you can do is hunker down and wait for crazy to pass.”
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In group. Amy is describing her recent visit to Disney with her four-year-old daughter and her narcissistic husband.
“So he wants to ride the Goofy roller coaster with her,” she says, “but she’s scared of it. Come on, it’ll be fun, he says. Mommy, I don’t want to, she says. Maybe you shouldn’t force her, I say. Damn it, she’s my daughter too, he says. Yes, but she’s scared, I say. It goes on like this for thirty minutes: he’s yelling, she’s crying, I’m trying to keep them both calm.”
“So what happened?” someone asks.
“I finally suggested he ride the Goofy roller coaster himself. So that’s what he did.”
The group laughs, sadly.
“But it was a turning point for me,” Amy says. “I gave up on the marriage that day. Now I just focus on what my kid needs and keep him at a distance.”
“I know,” says Barry, whose wife left him a year ago and whose kids chose to stay with him. “I have that with my ex. She keeps trying to get our kids to see things her way. She doesn’t care what they think or feel at all.”
“Narcissism,” someone mutters.
“Right. And the harder she tries, the harder they resist. It’s gotten so they’re refusing to spend Christmas with her. I felt bad about it – they’re kids, they need a mother – so for a long time I tried to help. I’d tell her what they told me about how they were feeling, and suggested she might try listening to them more. You just want to turn them against me, she’d say. So I’ve given up now. She’s on her own.”
“You got off the Goofy roller coaster,” I say.
He smiles. “I guess so.”
“My brother almost died last weekend,” Cathy says suddenly. “He drank too much and was ambulanced to the ER. My parents were devastated, but I felt guilty that I didn’t feel worse. He’s been drinking and drugging my whole life, and for most of that time I worried and worried, and finally I had to either detach or go crazy. I had no choice. But I feel guilty.”
“But you got off the roller coaster,” I say.
“Good for you,” Barry says.
The others nod.
“It’s a good metaphor, the Goofy roller coaster,” I say, “for engaging with a narcissist.”
“How so?” Amy asks.
“We engage with narcissists thinking we can somehow persuade them to be less narcissistic. We argue, beg, plead and coerce, but nothing ever changes. The ride is always the same. So in the end all we can do is just what you guys did: give up on the bad marriage, back off from the controlling mom, detach from the self-destructive sibling.”
Moral, if you have a narcissist in your life:
Stay off the Goofy roller coaster if you can.
It will only make you scared, angry or nauseous.
It cannot be steered.
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What do we mean when we talk about control?
Say someone says “I want to feel in control” — what are they asking for, really?
Peace of mind.
Peace of mind. Consider that phrase, and what it suggests.
Calm. Safety. The absence of stress, pain and fear. Blessed relaxation. Connection to our selves, to others, to the world. Serenity.
And where does peace of mind come from?
Peace of mind is rare because our minds are usually at war. Mentally we fight everything — each other, ourselves, our environment. “Each of us has our own silent War With Reality,” writes Stephen Cope.
This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior. We reach for the pleasant. We hate the unpleasant. We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones. We try to get rid of this pervasive sense of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things ‘”out there.” By changing the world.*
Think about it. How often does the reality you have match the reality you want? How much time do you spend wishing that people, places or things were different? How much energy do you spend fantasizing, plotting or actually trying to make things the way you’d prefer?
Like all addictions, control-seeking is a problem disguised as a solution. It seems to offer a way out of discomfort and unhappiness. It delivers the opposite.
“The life of addiction is one of perpetual longing,” writes William Alexander:
“I want, I want, I want” is the chant of the discontented self. This longing is reckless and insistent. It will never be fulfilled. There is not one thing, one feeling, or one idea that will satisfy it. “I want” is always followed by “more.” It gets worse.**
So that’s control addiction. Is there an alternative?
Actually, there are three.
I call them surrender, responsibility and intimacy:
Surrender is the ability to give up controlling what you can’t control anyway. It grows out of believing that you can let go of control and things will still be okay. Often described with words like “detachment,” “acceptance,” and “faith,” surrender is the spiritual alternative to control.
Responsibility is the ability to respond to a situation honestly and with self-awareness. It grows out of listening to your feelings (instead of hiding or editing them), and trusting that what they tell you is both friendly (not to be feared) and important (not to be ignored). Often described with words like “presence,” “mindfulness” and “authenticity,” responsibility is the emotional alternative to control.
Intimacy is the ability to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same. It’s actually a combination of the first two alternatives, since it requires that you both (a) abstain from controlling someone (surrender) and (b) share the truth about yourself (responsibility). Intimacy is the interpersonal alternative to control, and represents the high-water mark of emotional development — i.e., it’s about as healthy as we human beings get.
These alternatives do not come naturally to us. Each must be learned, and then practiced. Nor is the practice easy. It requires courage and perseverence, patience and faith.
But the people I know who invest in practicing usually find the investment worthwhile.
Because what the alternatives amount to are three ways of not fighting.
Three ways of declaring peace.
Maybe, in the end, the only ways we have.
*Stephen Cope, The wisdom of yoga (Bantam, 2006).
**William Alexander, Still waters (Hazelden, 2006).
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Once upon a time I wrote a post explaining where I got this blog’s title. I described how in the East they put fruit in a weighted jar with a narrow neck and leave the jar where a monkey will find it. The monkey smells the fruit, reaches in to grab it, and traps himself by refusing to let go. I explained that I use this as a metaphor for psychological monkeytraps: situations that trigger us into compulsive controlling, into holding on when we should be letting go.
One reader replied,
Why didn’t the monkeys just break the jar? I get that it was weighted down, but monkeys use tools. Weren’t there rocks laying around?
This led to a conversation with Bert, which is reported below verbatim.
Shit. Why didn’t I think of that?
Just the comment I’d expect from a control addict.
Why? What did I say?
You misread the problem.
You think the jar is what traps the monkey.
But he could escape the jar just by opening his paw.
Except he wants the banana more than anything.
Wanting the banana is what traps him.
Correct. Just as control addicts get trapped by wanting control.
How did I miss that?
You’re an addict. Addicts respond to a loss of control by thinking, “But I want control. I need control. There must be some way to get it.” That craving distorts their thinking.
So instead of letting go we try breaking the jar.
Yes. Breaking the jar is a metaphor for seeing life as something we can control. A dangerous illusion.
Tell me this part again. It’s an illusion because…
There are some bananas we’re not meant to have.
Oh, all sorts of things.
Immortality, for example. We want to live forever, and we can’t.
And control of emotions. We want to feel only happy, safe and contented, and life forces us to feel sad, scared and needy.
And then there’s relationships. Which never go as planned.
I noticed. Why is that?
Because relationships involve people, and people tend to be hard to control.
So there’s no breaking the jar.
There’s no breaking the jar. Life’s just what it is. Messy, painful, unpredictable, inconvenient. We have to find some way of making peace with that.
And there’s a way to?
There are three, actually.
What are they?
I’ll post about them here tomorrow.
It would take too long.
But I want it now. I need it now. There must be some way to get it now.
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Particularization means mistaking some specific way of satisfying a need with the need itself.
It means confusing ends with means — mistaking what we want with one particular way of getting it.
“The genesis of particularization is habit, or conditioned response,” explain sociologists Snell & Gail Putney:
A person who has satisfied a need in one particular way since childhood is likely to have only a vague awareness of the need; his vivid consciousness will be of the familiar means of satisfaction. When feeling needful, he thinks instantly of the usual mode of fulfillment, bypassing recognition of the need itself….
But if for any reason the habitual behaviors are not very effective — as in many case they are not — particularization renders it difficult for the individual to recognize this fact…. Habit prevails, and he tends simply to try again in the familiar way.
The result is analogous to bailing a boat with a sieve.
~ From The adjusted American: Normal neuroses in the individual and society (Harper Colophon, 1964).
I see this all the time in people who grow up in alcoholic, abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional families.
Early on they learn to see life as unpredictable and dangerous (Will Dad drink or be sober? Will Mom hug me or hit me? Will everyone get along or fight until bedtime?) and blame their inner anxiety on events in their immediate environment.
Inevitably they try to manage their anxiety by controlling that environment (hide Dad’s beer, clean Mom’s kitchen, keep everyone laughing or distracted).
And there it is: particularization. As kids they equate something they need (feeling safe) with one particular way of getting it (controlling people, places and/or things). And they grow up convinced I must control things in order to feel safe.
Which leaves them no choice but to keep trying to rearrange the world around them.
Over and over and over.
And that, gentle reader, is how you create a control addict.
This happens to all of us, regardless of what our family was like. Why? Because we all start out as children. And children, having no power, are forced to rely on controlling the grownups around them.
“When the only tool you have is a hammer,” Abraham Maslow wrote, “everything looks like a nail.”
So we’re all adult children. We’re all control addicts. And we all enter adulthood with the same hammer in hand.
Some of us, though, get sick and tired of secretly feeling and functioning like kids.
At which point the crucial question becomes:
Is there another way to rearrange how we’re feeling inside?
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Another thing we control addicts tend to get wrong is the difference between actual control and what I call a sense of control.
Like you, I want to feel certain feelings. I also want to avoid feeling others.
For example, I want to feel column A and avoid column B.
And so on.
Sense of control refers to those moments when we feel only the items in column A.
It’s in those moments that our internal universe seems to be under our command.
And we hunger for those moments. We hunger for happiness and safety, confidence and love. Those experiences are what we live for.
In fact, our whole lives are arranged in an attempt to repeat these experiences as often as possible.
Think about it. Doesn’t every choice you make boil down to an attempt to answer questions like What will make me happy, not sad? Comfortable, not uncomfortable? Connected, not alienated?
Our preference for Column A experiences is rooted in survival instinct, and so hardwired into us. That makes it the inevitable basis for all our conscious choices, and all our unconscious choices too.
And often we conclude that what will enable us to choose comfort over discomfort is to get actual control — control of the external world around us.
And that’s a valid conclusion sometimes. Of course I’ll feel better if
~ My car stays on the road (instead of hitting that tree),
~ The boss raises my salary (instead of firing me),
~ My kid aces English (instead of failing it),
~ This attractive woman agrees to have dinner with me (instead of slapping my face).
All these experiences, and a million others like them, leads us to conclude that the way to get a sense of control is to get actual control.
A natural conclusion, but a flawed one.
Because one (the internal feeling) is a goal. And the other (control over the external world) is just one means to that goal.
They’re. Not. The. Same.
And it can be dangerous, self-defeating, and crazy-making to conclude that they are.
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