Monthly Archives: September 2016

What we talk about when we talk about control (part 6): Peace

peace(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.  Steve speaking:)

So what do we mean when we talk about control?

Like when someone says something like I want to feel more in control — what are they asking for, really?

I think it’s

6. Peace

Of mind, I mean.

Peace of mind.  Consider that phrase, and what it suggests.

Calm.  Safety.  Blessed relaxation.  Absence of worry.  Absence of fear.  The ability to do nothing and feel fine about it.  Connection to our selves, to others, to the world.  Serenity.

And where does peace of mind come from?

Not fighting. 

Peace of mind is rare because our minds are usually at war.

We fight reality itself, we fight ourselves, and we fight each other.

And we do it almost constantly.

 “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.   Think of how often the reality you want matches the reality you have.

Think of the time you spend wishing that things (or you yourself, or your partner) were different.

Think of the energy you spend plotting or actually trying to make things the way you’d prefer.

Like all addictions, the search for control is a problem disguised as a solution.   It seems to offer a way out of discomfort and discontent.  In fact, it offers the opposite.

“The life of addiction is one of perpetual longing,” writes William Alexander in his Still Waters:

“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.

Sure, you can fight reality.  You just can’t ever win.

Is there an alternative to fighting?

Three, actually.

We can practice surrender, responsibility and intimacy instead.

I’ve written about these alternatives before.

~ Surrender is the ability to stop controlling what can’t (or shouldn’t) be controlled. It means being able to do nothing and trust that things will work out just fine anyway. Other words for surrender are detachment, acceptance and faith. A life without surrender is a tense, white-knuckled life.

~ Responsibility means the ability to respond – to answer a situation or need appropriately. Often the key to such answers lies in our ability to listen to ourselves, especially to the body and the messages it sends us. Most of us are trained to ignore such messages. But a person who takes care of himself is being responsible. One who buries feelings or sacrifices himself for others is not.

~ Intimacy is the ability to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same with you. It’s the most challenging alternative because it combines the first two. Intimacy requires that I stop trying to control you and also risk being myself. Not easy. But worth the work. Because intimate relationships are as good as human relationships get.*

As I said, I’ve written about these before, and expect to continue for a while.

The rest of my life, probably.

Partly because Bert — that part of me who insists on fighting the War with Reality — still has so damned much to learn about them.

But mainly because I am convinced they are the only real chance we have of achieving inner peace.


* The three alternatives and how to practice them are explained in detail in Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (Lioncrest 2015).



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What we talk about when we talk about control (part 5): Illusion


(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.  Steve and Bert wrote this together.)

Steve:  In our last post I explained where we got this blog’s title:

In the East they trap monkeys by placing fruit in a weighted jar or bottle with a narrow neck. The monkey smells the fruit, reaches in to grab it, and traps himself by refusing to let go.

A psychological monkeytrap is any situation that triggers you into compulsive controlling — i.e., into holding on when you really should be letting go.

One reader replied:

Why didn’t the monkeys just break the jar or bottle? I get that it was weighted down, but monkeys use tools. Were there no rocks laying around?  

Bert:  Shit.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Steve:  Just the comment I’d expect from a control addict.

5. The illusion of control

Bert:  Why?  What’s wrong with what I said?

Steve:  You misread the problem.

Bert:  How?

Steve:  You think the jar is what traps the monkey.   

Bert:  Well, sure. 

Steve:  But he could escape the jar just by opening his paw.   

Bert:  Oh.  Right.

Steve:  Except he won’t.  He wants the banana.  More than anything. 

Bert:  And that’s what traps him. 

Steve:  Exactly.  Just as control addicts get trapped by their need for control.

Bert:  Why’d I miss that?

Steve:  Because you’re addicted.  Control addicts usually respond to loss of control by thinking, But I want control.  I need control.  There must be some way to get it.  Their craving distorts their thinking.

Bert:  So instead of letting go we try breaking the jar.

Steve:  Right.  Breaking the jar is a metaphor for imagining life as something we can control if we try hard enough.  And that’s a dangerous illusion.

Bert:  Tell me again.  It’s an illusion because…

Steve:  Because there are some bananas we’re not meant to have.

Bert:  Such as?

Steve:  Well, immortality, for example.  Much as we want to live forever, we can’t.

Control of emotions is another.  As determined as we are to feel only happy, safe and contented, life forces us to feel sad, scared and needy.

And then, of course, relationships.  Relationships never go as planned. 

Bert:  I noticed.  Why is that?

Steve:  Because relationships involve people.  And people tend to be uncontrollable. 

Bert:  So there’s no breaking the jar.   

Steve:  Right.  Life is what it is.  Messy, and unpredictable, and painful, and inconvenient, and unless we want to suffer endlessly we have to find some way of making peace with all that.

Bert:  To accept life on life’s terms.

Steve:  And let go of the banana.

Bert:  Okay.  Fine.  I get it.   Actual control’s usually an illusion.  Now what?

Steve:  What do you mean?

Bert:  At the start of this series you told that story about seniors and house plants, and said having a sense of control is essential to both mental and physical health.  Right?

Steve:  Right.

Bert:  Well, if actual control is an illusion, how do I get a sense of control?

Steve:  Feel okay inside, you mean.

Bert:  Exactly.

Steve:  There are three ways.  I’ll explain them next time.

Bert:  Explain them now.

Steve:  I can’t.  It would take too long. 

Bert:  But I want it now.  I need it now.  There must be some way to get it now.

Steve:  Very funny. 





What we talk about when we talk about control (part 4): Monkeytraps

how-to-spot-monkeytraps-black(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.  Steve and Bert wrote this together.)

Steve:  We once asked readers to tell us what they most want to learn about control.  One replied with,

I like your blog, but it’s a little scary, since before this I had no idea how controlling I am and how many problems it causes me.

What I want now is to learn to be more aware of my controlling, to keep the idea of control at the surface of my mind and to understand how wanting to control things drives how I react and what I do and say.

Got any tips on that?

Bert:  Good question.

Steve:  Yes.  She wants to learn how to spot monkeytraps.

Bert:  Maybe you should remind everyone what a monkeytrap is.

Steve:  In the East they trap monkeys by placing fruit in a weighted jar or bottle with a narrow neck. The monkey smells the fruit, reaches in to grab it, and traps himself by refusing to let go.

A psychological monkeytrap is any situation that triggers you into compulsive controlling — i.e., into holding on when you really should be letting go.

Bert:  And yes, we have tips on how to spot them.

Steve:  The first is,

(1) Notice where you’re uncomfortable.

We’re controlling whenever we need or want to change some piece of reality instead of accepting it or adapting to it as is.  And we’re most likely to want to change realities that make us uncomfortable.  So it makes sense that our discomfort zones are where we’re most likely to get monkeytrapped.

[] bert panel (print for edit)Bert:  For example, I hate rejection.  So I’m most controlling with people I think might reject me.  I hide feelings I think will upset them, pretend to agree when I really don’t, laugh at stupid jokes, avoid confronting behavior I dislike, try to read their minds, and so on and so on.  It keeps me busy.  

 Steve:  The second tip:

(2) Notice where you’re stuck.

Stuck as in not learning, healing or growing — struggling with the same damn problem over and over.  You know you’re monkeytrapped whenever you find yourself doing what you already know doesn’t work.

[] bert panel (print for edit)Bert:  All that controlling I just described traps me because it (a) stops me from being myself, which (b) prevents me from ever getting accepted as myself, which (c)  keeps me chronically scared of rejection, which brings me right back to (a).  Like riding an endless merry-go-round. 

Steve:  The third tip:

(3) Notice where you’re scared.

Like all addictions, compulsive controlling is anxiety-driven.  We stay monkeytrapped because we’re scared to do anything else.  Often even the thought of giving up control in such situations is enough to scare us silly.

[] bert panel (print for edit)Bert:  Took me a long time to see that controlling doesn’t work.  Or it does, but only for a few minutes.  Then another scary thing comes along and I have to control that.  And — life being what it is — there’s no end to scary things.  So as an anxiety-reduction tactic controlling is a total flop.

 Steve:  Right.  The most frightened people are the most controlling people.  And the most controlling people stay the most frightened.


Last 3 days:


 (Only until Friday 9/30/16.)









What we talk about when we talk about control (part 3): Particularization

“So, what d’you want to work on?” he asks.
“Well, you’re here.  It’s your money, so to speak.  What d’you want to change?”
He thinks, then, of his father; of their struggle to keep between them a screen of calm and order.
“I’d like to be more in control, I guess.”
                   ~ From Ordinary People by Judith Guest.


Gentle reader, a question for you:

What does it mean to be in control?

(Author pauses while reader considers.)

Well, when we talk about being in control we usually mean one of two things: (a)  being able to rearrange the world around us, or (b) being able to rearrange how we’re feeling inside.

But as in the dialogue above, it’s not always clear which is which.

Does (b) depend on (a)?  Must I have actual control, out there in the world, in order to feel emotionally in control?

Often we assume so.  If I control the world, we assume, I can control how I feel.

We may even doubt there’s any other way to reach (b).  How can I feel okay when what’s happening around me is not-okay?  we ask ourselves.  Isn’t that like swimming in water without getting wet?

A reasonable conclusion.  Logical.

And wrong.

Worse, a dangerous conclusion to reach, because of how it leads us to cope with a complex world filled with not-okayness.

This form of confusion even has its own name (which no one ever uses):

3. Particularization

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,” write two sociologists:

 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 by Snell & Gail Putney.

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 reduce their anxiety by controlling that environment (hide Dad’s beer, clean Mom’s kitchen, keep everyone amused 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).

They grow up convinced If I can’t have control, I can’t ever feel safe.  Which leaves them no choice but to keep trying and trying to rearrange the world around them. 

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.  (See Control is for kids for a fuller discussion.)

“When the only tool you have is a hammer,” Abraham Maslow once noted,  “everything looks like a nail.”

So we’re all adult children.  We’re all control addicts.  Because we all enter adulthood with the same hammer in hand.

The question for those of us tired of secretly feeling and functioning like kids is:

Isn’t there another way to rearrange how we’re feeling inside?



Only until Friday 9/30.



What we talk about when we talk about control (part 2): Sense

sense-of-control-w-clouds-window-w-borderIn my last post I set out to explain the difference between actual control and a sense of control.

I said actual control is an external phenomenon, something we achieve out in the world when we find ourselves able to influence other people, places and things.

And I said a sense of control is an internal phenomenon, something we experience when we feel in control of our emotional state.

Today, more on the latter.

A sense of control

We each want to feel certain feelings and avoid others.

For example, we each want to feel the items on the left below, and avoid those on the right:

happy ….. sad

comfortable ….. uncomfortable

safe ….. scared

strong ….. weak

confident ….. inadequate

certain ….. confused

content ….. frustrated

accepted ….. rejected

protected ….. abandoned

approved ….. criticized

loved ….. hated

peace of mind ….. worried

and so on.

A sense of control refers to those moments when we feel only the feelings we want.

Those moments are when our internal universe seems to be under our command.

We hunger for those moments.

We hunger for happiness and safety and confidence and love. 

Those experiences are, arguably, 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 your answer to the question, Which option here is more likely to make me feel happy, not sad?  Comfortable, not uncomfortable?

Our preference for comfort over discomfort 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 — i.e., a sense of control — is to get actual control, control of the (external) world around us.

And often that’s a valid conclusion.  Of course I’ll feel better if

~ My car stays on the road (instead of hitting that tree),

~ The boss gives me a raise (instead of firing me),

~ My kid aces Math (instead of failing),

~ This attractive woman agrees to have dinner with me (instead of slapping my face).

All these experiences, and a million others like them, lead to a natural conclusion:

The way to a sense of control is to get actual control.

But here’s where it gets tricky.

Because one is a goal.  And the other is just a means to that goal.

They’re not the same.

And it can be dangerous — even destructive — to conclude that they are.



The dangers of particularization



But only until Friday, September 30.

What we talk about when we talk about control (part 1): Inside, outside

sense-of-control-2Once upon a time the elderly residents of a nursing home were divided into two groups.

Group A was given houseplants and told to decide where to place the plants in their rooms and when and how much to water them.  Group B was given houseplants and told the nursing staff would care for them.

Eighteen months later researchers compared the groups and found the plant-tending Group A members to be healthier, more cheerful, more active and more alert.  They also found that less than half as many A group members had died.

Citing this study as evidence of the importance of control, its author later wrote,

Perceiving control apparently is crucial not only to one’s psychological well-being but to one’s physical health as well. 

The belief in personal control may be essential to one’s sense of competence and is basic to human functioning.

When one’s belief in control is threatened, the result is severely incapacitating. 

                  (Ellen J. Langer, The Psychology of Control, 1983).

All this came to mind the other day while I was explaining the idea of control addiction to a new client named George.

“Addiction?” George frowned.  “That makes no sense.  Addiction’s a sickness.  You have to give up an addiction to be healthy.  But control is a necessity.  You can’t live without control.”

George’s wife Alice is alcoholic.  And like most spouses of addicts, he suffers from what might be called boundary confusion.  He’s not sure where his life ends and hers begins.

When Alice has a bad day, so does George.  He’s concluded that to protect himself he has no choice but to try to control Alice’s addiction and its consequences.  So he begs her to stop drinking, threatens divorce, hides her booze, lies to her boss about why she missed work, lies to their kids about why she passed out on the sofa, and so on.

He’s as addicted to controlling as Alice is to drinking.

But what George said makes sense, right?   Isn’t control a necessity?  Doesn’t the nursing home study prove that?

Not really.

Notice what Langer actually wrote:

Perceiving control apparently is crucial….

The belief in personal control…

When one’s belief in control is threatened….

We’re talking here about two things, not one.

One outside, one inside.

Actual control, versus a sense of control.

They’re not the same thing, as I pointed out in a post I once wrote about power:

Imagine your rich uncle dies suddenly and leaves you control of his multinational corporation. You wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bux, Inc.

You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire, buy and sell, build plants or close them, approve product lines, mount advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.

How do you feel?

Actual control is what you’d have here.  But a sense of control?  I doubt it.

One is an objective reality, the other a subjective experience. 

Actual control means the ability to dictate or transform external circumstances — make people, place and things behave as we like.  A sense of control means  feeling competent, grounded, secure and calm inside — in control of one’s internal state. 

Put another way:  actual control describes something we achieve out in the world, while sense of control describes something we achieve in our heads.

“So what?” you ask.  “Why is this distinction important?”

Because actual control and sense of control are achieved by quite different methods.

Because chasing one makes you healthy, while chasing the other makes you sick.

And because one’s a lot easier to come by than the other.


A sense of control



Three keys to communication


A vein throbs in Jack’s forehead.

Jill is pale and near tears.

We are discussing Tupperware.

“I hate how it always falls out on the floor whenever I open the cabinet,” Jack says.

“That’s what Tupperware does,” Jill replies

Jack scowls. 

Jill tenses. 

We’re off to the races. 

I, a trained mental health professional, can tell that there’s more going on here than meets the eye.  Though a trained beagle would probably sense the same thing.   

I start asking questions. 

Thirty minutes later I’ve learned  that Jack coped with growing up in the chaos of his dysfunctional family by becoming a neat freak who now regularly imposes his need for physical order on the people around him. 

And I’ve heard Jill describe how her mom used to prowl  through her personal belongings, and how nowadays the only room in Jill’s life which feels remotely like hers is the kitchen.  

Given those histories, a Tupperware war was inevitable.


Axiomatic among therapists is the idea that most relationship problems boil down to problems with communication.

Fair enough.  But the next question is “Where do communication problems come from?” 

And the next after that is “Why do they keep recurring?”  

Here’s how I see it:

Communication tends to break down whenever partners either haven’t learned or have forgotten three key principles.  The first is

(1) There’s no such thing as a grownup human being.

This is the secret truth behind the vast majority of emotional problems.  Human beings grow faster physically than psychologically, so regardless of how big or old or emotionally healthy we are there’s always part of us that retains the feelings, perceptions and vulnerabilities of the child we once were.  That part — the famous Inner Child you’ve probably heard about — is usually what gets triggered by criticism, rejection or conflict. 

And when you and I keep having the same fight over and over, it’s a fair bet that the fight is really between your Child and mine.

Which leads to the second principle:

(2) All feelings are legitimate.

This actually means two things: that all feelings make sense, and that all feelings are worthy of respect. 

Jack’s hatred of unruly Tupperware makes sense in light of how he’s come to associate external control with internal safety.  And Jill’s anxiety at Jack’s “invasion” of her kitchen and criticism of her housekeeping makes sense in light of how it reminds her of her mom’s disregard for personal boundaries. 

Neither can help feeling what they’re feeling.  Their only real choice is between feeling them secretly or out loud.  

Which brings us to the third principle:

(3) Every conversation occurs on two levels.

Level 1 is the level of What We Talk About. 

Level 2 is the level of How We Feel When We Talk About It.

Communication tends to break down when couples are unable to leave Level 1 and drop down to Level 2.

Jack and Jill will keep fighting about Tupperware because the fight isn’t about Tupperware at all.  Tupperware’s just the trigger.  The real issues are Jack’s need for a sense of order and safety, and Jill’s need for boundaries and respect.

More than any other, this principle explains both why communication problems tend to recur and why couples repeat the same fight over and over.  

When feelings are involved, Level 1 talk won’t resolve much, because Level 1 talk doesn’t address feelings.  So we’re talking about the wrong thing. 

And trying to resolve conflict by talking about the wrong thing is like mowing the tops off dandelions.  Expect a new crop tomorrow.



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I used my lollipop analogy the other day.  First time in years.  It’s one of my favorites.

Jeannie is a woman who dislikes herself.  She doesn’t know this, exactly.  She just knows that she’s lonely and discouraged and a doormat in all her relationships.  The sort of person who says Yes when she wants to say No and always has, without knowing why.

She’s just finished telling me about her eight-year marriage to a man who drank, cheated, abused her emotionally and then left her. 

“Ever licked a lollipop,” I ask, “and then stuck it in your pocket?”

“Sure,” she says.  I don’t believe her.  Pretty sure she’s humoring me, just to move things along.

“What happened to it?” I ask.

She shrugs.  “It got…fuzzy.”

“Right,” I say.  “It got fuzzy.  And the longer it stayed in your pocket the fuzzier it got.  It kept collecting fuzz until after a while it didn’t even look like a lollipop anymore.  Just a fuzzball on a stick.  Right?”

She nods.

“That’s you,” I tell her.

“How so?”

“It’s all of us, ” I say.  “We’re all lollipops.  When we’re kids we have these experiences which seem to defines us.    Yours was having a mother who couldn’t love you the way you needed to be loved.’

She nods again.  We’ve been over this.

“It left you feeling unlovable,” I say.  “But the problem didn’t end there.  Because you went on and collected more experiences like that one.”

“I know,” she says.  “But why?”

“Because we hate confusion,” I say.  “We hate not understanding.  It makes us feel out of control.”

She nods again.  We’ve talked about her need for control too.

“So we look for answers to explain stuff in our life.  And we hang onto those answers even when they’re wrong, even when they hurt.  Because having no answer is even more painful.  Follow?”

“I think so.”

“You found your answer early on.  You decided that mom didn’t love you because you were unlovable.  It was a lousy answer, because, A, it wasn’t true – she couldn’t love you because she was an alcoholic  – and, B,  it hurt.  But it was better than no answer at all.”

She’s quiet, listening.

“So you carried that answer out into the world and into every relationship.  And whenever there was a disappointment or conflict or someone treated you badly, you turned back to that old answer to explain what was happening.  ‘See?” you told yourself.  ‘Mom was right.  I am unlovable.’’ 

“And that’s why you’re a fuzzy lollipop.  Because by now you’ve collected so many of those experiences you’re no longer recognizable as yourself.”  

She looks at her hands in her lap.  Then she looks up.

“Well, shit,” she says.

Encouraging response.

“What do I do about it?” she asks.

I offer two suggestions. 

The first is to remember our conversation the next time she got into relationship trouble.  “Question how you usually explain problems.  If you catch yourself self-blaming, talk to me about it.  If you get confused, talk to me about it.  But stop automatically collecting fuzz.”

“Okay,” she nods.

The second is to seek out corrective emotional experiences. 

“This one’s harder,” I warn her.  “Because you’ll have to risk being yourself with people.  Especially new people, like at Al-Anon or in a therapy group.  That’s where you have the best chance of redefining yourself. 

“Practice coming out of hiding.  Tell a bit more of the truth than you’re used to telling.  Show a bit more of your feelings.  Just a bit.  See what happens.

“Of course, this will mean giving up some control.  So it may feel scary at first.”

She shakes her head. 

“Living this way?” she says.  “That’s scary.”     


Questions for you, dear reader:

1. Are you a fuzzy lollipop? 

(Hint: Most everyone is.)

2. What early experience seemed to define you?

(Hint: Probably a painful one.  Maybe a string of them.)

3. Are you aware of how you use that old experience to explain your current problems?

(Hint: How you do it may not be entirely conscious.  Dig a little.)

4. Are you ready to stop?

(Say: Yes.)

Lollipops of the world, unite.

You have nothing to lose but your fuzz.



The right person

wedding-coupleIn group.  All women.  All wives. 

“How do you know,” Alice asks, “if you married the wrong person?”

The others frown. 

“Or the right one, for that matter,” Betty mutters.

“Good question,” Cathy says.

“Are these questions you guys ask yourselves?” I ask.

Everyone nods. 

“How do you go about answering them?”

“I’m in the process,” says Betty.

“I ask you,” says Alice. 

They all laugh.

“But aren’t they the same question?” Cathy asks.  “Whether you’ve married the right or wrong person?”

“Maybe,” I say.  “Maybe not.”

“Most people I’ve known don’t actually decide about this the way you decide which car to buy or what to have for dinner.  The decision sort of happens to them. 

“One wife I knew struggled with it for years.  We spent hours talking about whether she should divorce this guy she married young and who wasn’t very nice to her.  She was unhappy but scared, so she’d go back and forth.  She worried about the usual things — finances, how it would affect the kids, what the neighbors would think.

“Then one night she’s giving her kids a bath and, bang, it happens.  The decision appears.  She goes downstairs, tells her husband ‘I want a divorce,’ then goes back up to finish the bath.  Her doubts are gone.”

“How do you explain that?” Alice asks.

“I think all the work she’d done in therapy reached a sort of critical mass.  She’d spent years collecting emotional evidence — who she really was, how she really felt, what she really wanted.  Then this particular night that all came together, and some scale inside her tipped.  She just knew.

“Hm,” says Denise, who’s been quiet until now.  “What about the other question?  If you married the right person?”

“Well, I’m not sure the right person actually exists,” I say.  “Outside of movies and romance novels, I mean.  It can be a pretty destructive fantasy.  Some people marry in a blur of infatuation and excitement, and then, when the honeymoon ends and kids come along and things get complicated and difficult, decide Oh, I picked the wrong person and give up.  Ever see that?”

They all nod. 

“So maybe the best we can do, most of us, is marry someone able to become the right person over time.  Someone who’ll hang in with us through the rough spots, and work on themselves, and suffer and stretch and grow in the relationship.  And who makes us willing do the same.” 

I shrug.  “Couples grow together or they grow apart.  A healthy marriage is usually a work in progress.” 


Then Alice says, “That actually helps a lot.”

“Which part?”

“To stop thinking of my husband as the right or wrong person,” she says.   “To think of my marriage as a work in progress.”



Cover story by Steve.

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Garden variety paranoia

paranoid-flowersThe word control comes from the Latin: contra rotullus.

This I learned from Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who in his book Kinds of Power  implies the term originally referred to fighting gravity.

“Control is agency, yes, but of a  restrictive kind,” Hillman writes. 

The word comes from contra rotullus, against the roll.  Since the free flow of inertia follows the path of least resistance, the easy path downhill is controlled by restraints.

Against the roll.  I found myself imagining the first “control” as some sort of wheel block, some lump of wood or stone used to stop ox carts from rolling downhill.

I really liked this idea.

I liked seeing control as rooted in the idea of prevention.  It confirmed my sense of how controlling functions in me and the people I know: as a bulwark against surprise and misfortune.

Control, I realized, is defensive.  We control not to make things happen, but to stop them from happening.


When we look closely at what we want when we want to be in control, we find mainly preventive desires.  We want not to be bugged, not to be demeaned, not to be blocked and criticized.  We want obstacles removed that compete, like other divisions in the company and other gangs in the ‘hood.  Control means preventing interference.  It has a conservative effect.

The most controlling people I know are obsessed with conserving, protecting and preventing.  They expect bad things to happen.  (Usually because bad things have already happened to them.  Abuse and trauma victims, for example, are famously controlling.  As is anyone who grew up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family.  Which aside from Beaver and the other Cleavers pretty much covers everyone else.)  So they fear the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned.  They rely on control to fend off danger and discomfort.  They live, whether they admit it or even realize it, like frightened people.

Control, for all its self-assured position of command, relies on a defensive vision, and [its] traits — enforced loyalty, exactitude, suspicion of the hidden watchfulness — are paranoid traits.

Paranoia, of course, is an extreme form of craziness. 

Paranoids imagine the world’s out to get them.  I’ve worked with paranoids.  They were scared most of the time, unable to trust anyone, led lives of confusion, uncertainty and occasionally panic.

But so do control addicts.

They experience the world as dangerous, people as unreliable, relationships as competitive, emotions as scary, honesty as risky, and control as their shield against wounding by all of the above.  They hate change, especially change they haven’t asked for.  In therapy they’re almost always expressing resistance to something — some unfolding of events, some anticipated consequence, some expression of the innate tendencies of people around them.  Often they’re anxious or angry without knowing why.

Yoga teacher Stephen Cope:

Each of us has our own silent War With Reality.  Yogis came to call this duhkha.  Duhkha means, literally, “suffering,” “pain,” or “distress.”  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 state of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things “out there.”   By changing the world.

Alexander Lowen points out, “Because we are afraid of life, we seek to control or master it.” 

Logical, maybe. 

Effective?  Not so much.

No, worse than that.  Self-destructive.  Because the War With What Is is actually a problem disguised as a solution.

Why?  Three reasons.

First:  Fighting reality is hard work.  (Try swimming against the tide of a stream or a river.  Fight the flow and see how long you last.)  So control addicts end up stressed, strained and exhausted.

Second:  The war is unwinnable.  It’s not that control addicts don’t try hard enough.  What they’re trying to do simply can’t be done.   So they end up feeling depressed and inadequate.

Third (and this is a big one):  Control addiction is self-perpetuating.  Think about it.  To be scared of reality is to organize your life around fear.  You tense up, go into defense mode and stay there.  “As long as we are defensive, we are going to be frightened” (Lowen).  So fear makes you defensive, which makes you more frightened, which makes you more defensive, and so on.  Like any addiction.  The more you control, the more you need to.

Control addiction, then, is a sort of garden-variety paranoia.   A form of everyday craziness you don’t notice much.

Because everyone you know is just as crazy as you.



















Stuck in stage one

Occasionally a therapist has to fire a client.

This is called therapeutic discharge.  

I’ve done it occasionally over the years.  It’s always sad. 

But sometimes there’s no avoiding it.  

I remember one guy whose therapy was going nowhere.  After two years we were still having essentially the same conversation we’d had the first time I met him. 

He was a blamer.  My wife doesn’t love me.  My parents weren’t there for me.  I get no respect from my boss, or my neighbors, or my kids.

I tried my best to get him to consider that he might be contributing to these problems.  His typical response varied between impatience (No, you don’t understand), defensiveness (I try so hard) and hurt feelings.

Poor guy. 

He was stuck at the first stage of learning.

There are four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence

  2. Conscious incompetence

  3. Conscious competence

  4. Unconscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence is where you don’t know what you don’t know.  Imagine a four-year old watching Daddy drive.  “I can do that,” he says, and sits at the wheel and yanks it back and forth.  “Look, I’m driving.”  He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  He’s unconsciously incompetent.

Conscious incompetence is where you know what you don’t know.  Flash forward twelve years: the kid’s sixteen, starting Driver Ed.  “Parallel park over there,” the instructor says, and the kid panics.  He knows what he doesn’t know.  He’s consciously incompetent.

Conscious competence is where you know what you know.  Now eighteen, the kid’s passed his road test.  He drives proudly down the street, knowing he can park if he has to.  He knows what he knows.  He’s consciously competent.

Unconscious competence, the last stage, is where you don’t know what you know.  Now the kid’s forty, a driver for decades.  While driving he plays music, eats fast food, makes phone calls or daydreams.  Driving’s so familiar he forgets that he’s doing it.  He’s doesn’t know what he knows.  He’s unconsciously competent.

Acknowledging ignorance always is the first step towards ending it.

But some people can’t or won’t take that first step.  They stay stuck in that first stage of learning.  So they learn nothing, and their therapies circle the drain.

Often, though, the real problem isn’t that they don’t know what they don’t know.

It’s that deep down they really don’t want to.

Grades are bullshit

steve-and-bert stacked, w righthand (& narrow bottom) borderHi guys.  We’re back.
We just spent a month unplugging (or trying to), and will be writing about that experience shortly.
Meanwhile, in honor of the start of school — and at the request of a teacher we know who wants to share it with parents — here’s an updated version of a post some of you found helpful.
Talk soon.
~ Steve & Bert.


Yesterday I came across a poster on Facebook.

Your child’s mental health is more

important than their grades,

it said.

I love that poster.

Sounds like common sense, no?  

Yet the number of parents who don’t believe it is truly frightening.

I meet such parents all the time.  Especially in spring, as the school year grinds towards its exhausting conclusion, and they come to me panicked because Janey or Johnny are at risk of failing something.

Also in fall, when everyone’s stomach turns butterflyish in anticipation of the drama ahead.

And I tell them,


Grades are mostly bullshit.

They don’t measure real knowledge or intelligence or understanding or creativity or anything people really need to be successful.  

They don’t measure honesty or courage or kindness or compassion or self-awareness or whether a kid knows the difference between right and wrong or what’s important and what’s not.  

More often they measure memory (short-term at that), obedience, conformity, fear of failure, need for approval, or the results of parental coercion.  

Thus academic success is not the predictor of success in adult life everyone pretends it is.  Einstein, Edison, Newton, Churchill and Steven Speilberg were all lousy students.

So try not to stress over Janey’s D in Social Studies or Johnny’s F in Math.

Don’t get angry, and don’t get scared.

Instead, give your kid a hug. 

Make them feel loved and accepted just as they are.

Let them know you have faith that they will grow just as they need to.

That’s what they need from you. 

Not lectures. 

Not warnings. 

Not dire predictions.

They’ll get plenty of those elsewhere.

From you they need a sense of how unique and valuable they are.

That learning and growing are much bigger and more joyful things than what happens in school.

That school is just school.

And that grades are mostly bullshit.

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