Me and my hammer

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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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