I tell my friend about my broken water heater and how for a week I’ve been bathing in the sink.
“Why don’t you take a cold shower?” he asks.
I smile, thinking
Because I’m not batshit crazy.
Later, though, when I recall the conversation, I realize that a more honest answer to his suggestion would have been
Because I’m a big fat baby.
As I age I notice I get more and more attached to comfort. It becomes harder to exercise, harder to diet, harder to skip meals or sit down on a cold toilet seat.
Sure, I still slip occasionally into workaholic overdrive (like ten-hour writing sessions). But mostly I seek out the easy way, the path of least resistance.
After five decades of chronic guilt and codependent self-criticism, I kind of like this way of doing life.
And I kind of don’t.
The reason I don’t is that I have a theory about why we do things that sees a craving for comfort as problematic. The theory holds that we’re all addicted to control, that this addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems, and that all our controlling is driven by wanting to control how we feel.
Which means, in practice, that the less discomfort I am able to tolerate, the more compulsively controlling I become.
I’m writing a book about this now. It’s about how we hate discomfort, how in avoiding it we walk into emotional traps, and how one way to escape is to develop more tolerance for discomfort, which I call an emotional shock absorber .
Since life is full of discomforts, a life without this shock absorber would be essentially unlivable. You’d be horribly vulnerable to everything from an empty belly to a full bladder, from traffic jams to heat waves to crying babies — never mind big stuff like abuse, illness, disability, unemployment or loss of a loved one. You’d simply go mad.*
This vulnerability is what I don’t like about my craving for comfort.
So I decide to take a cold shower.
I approach it in stages.
Stage 1: Like any good codependent, I start by seeking support for my decision.
I pray to the Great God Google.
Are cold showers healthy? I type.
God answers my prayer with a cluster of articles, one of which informs me that there are multiple health benefits to cold showers — strengthened circulation, immunity, metabolism, breathing and mood. Who knew?
But this is what sells me:
Big goals require discomfort to achieve. The difference between making a good impression, standing your ground, and being successful could be altered by getting used to discomfort….
Conditioning your brain to accept, survive, and embrace discomfort is one of the practices that can greatly impact the rest of your life. It isn’t about the cold water. It’s about the discomfort associated with cold showers, which you can overcome every day towards greater goal in life.*
Stage 2: I meditate. Well, it’s not really meditating, because all I can think about is the shower I plan. I picture it in my mind: undressing, crouching in the tub with my hand on the faucet, turning the faucet, the water hitting my back, counting one two three before shutting off the tap. I picture this over and over, hoping to fan my tiny ember of courage into a flame.
Finally I’m ready. I go to the bathroom, trying hard to think of nothing at all.
I follow the procedure I rehearsed. I strip, crouch, turn, wait.
Holy Mother of Christ Jesus.
Afterwards I feel wonderful. Not just strangely proud of myself (though there’s that) but physically exhilarated, as if the cold water triggered some chemical change in my body, some delicious flood of endorphines or dopamine or something.
It feels almost spiritual.
I go to work and babble happily to my therapy group about my cold shower. They look at me oddly.
I don’t care. I feel childlike, giggly.
That was three days ago.
I’ve showered coldly each day since then.
I can count up to ten now.
* Monkeytraps in Everyday Life: 51 Ways We Self-Sabotage, due in 2017.
** “7 reasons to take colder showers and 1 that really matters,” by Mansal Denton, writing for The Hacked Mind (http://www.thehackedmind.com/7-reasons-to-take-cold-showers-and-1-that-really-matters/)
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The greatest stumbling block in true communication is the tendency to play lawyer.
~ Muriel Schiffman
Last week I talked to two lawyers.
One was an actual attorney, the other an amateur.
Both struggle with relationships for the same reason:
They want it their way, and they’re pretty determined.
The first (actual) lawyer tells me she’s mad at her new boyfriend because he adopted a puppy without consulting her. “I’m a cat person,” she explains. “He knows this. And if we end up living together I’m going to be very unhappy.”
The second (amateur) lawyer tells me everything’s been going great with his girlfriend of six months: they like the same food and music, they laugh a lot together, and the sex is terrific. “Still, there are red flags,” he frowns. “She’s bad with money. She spends too much time on Facebook. And I don’t like her mother.”
I asked each of them two questions.
“Have you talked to your partner about this stuff?” is the first.
Both answer No. They’re upset, but neither wants to rock the boat.
“How do you feel when you’re with this person?” is the second question.
Both smile and answer, “Happy.”
“Okay,” I say to them. “I hear three problems here.
“The first is a boundary problem. Yours are fuzzy. You’re not clear on what is your business and what isn’t.
“The second is a communication problem. You need to share your feelings with your partner. Not as a complaint or a demand, but as information. They need to know what you like and don’t like, what pushes your buttons. How can you communicate and reach agreement with someone who doesn’t know what’s going on inside you?
“The biggest problem, though, is a control problem. You’re looking for a level of control you can’t have.
“I understand why. You’ve been hurt in past relationships. You don’t want to get hurt again.
“But you can’t indemnify yourself against hurt or disappointment or frustration with some sort of emotional contract. You can’t list your demands and expect your partner to sign the dotted line. That’s unrealistic and frankly, disrespectful. How’d you feel if someone made you sign such a contract?”
“Anyway, it’s just bad for relationships. A relationship is a living thing. We can’t control it; we have to care for it, the way you care for a flower. You water it with attention, you feed it with communication and patience, and you let it grow in its own way and at its own pace.
“Trying to edit it according to your expectations is like cutting it and putting it in a vase.
“Sure, a cut flower is pretty. But you know what happens to it.”
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He’s twenty-six, and every night after work he goes home and locks himself in his room.
“It’s the only place I feel safe,” he tells me.
“How long have you felt this way?” I ask.
“Since I was little. Dad would drink and start yelling, and mom would yell back, and one of them would kick something or throw a plate, and I’d go to my room and shut the door and try not to hear it.”
“Scary,” I say.
“Sure. But I’m a man now, and dad’s dead six years, and mom and I get along fine. And I’m still hiding out. What the hell is wrong with me?”
“You’re cursed,” I say.
“Cursed?” he says. “Like by…”
“A witch?” I say. “No, not like that. Your curse is a false belief you absorbed in childhood, and have carried unconsciously ever since.”
“Yes. There are three main curses. Kids tend to grow up believing that…
The world is a dangerous place, or
People are not to be trusted, or
There’s something wrong with me.
He frowns. “I believe all three. What causes it?”
“Childhood experience,” I say. “Grow up in a family like yours, where you never feel safe, it’s pretty hard to believe the world outside is any safer. So the whole world comes to feel dangerous.
“And if your parents are violent or unpredictable or abusive, if they reject or criticize or abandon you — and these are the people who are supposed to love and protect you — well, how do you trust anyone after that? So all people come to feel untrustworthy.”
“Finally, if your family treats you badly — or even if bad things happen that have nothing to do with you, like divorce or money problems or someone dying — you tend to conclude that the bad stuff was your fault, that there’s something wrong with you.”
“Because that’s how kids think. Bad stuff makes them feel helpless, and helplessness is terrifying. So they convince themselves they caused the bad stuff. They trade helpless for guilty. And they usually grow up to be adults with what’s called free-floating guilt. Whenever anything bad happens in their vicinity they feel somehow responsible.”
“That sounds like me too,” he says glumly. He is quiet. Then he looks at me.
“So I’m fucked?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “All this is pretty common. Most of my clients are cursed. Actually, so are most of the people I know. Me too.”
“Yes?” he smiles. “What do you do about about it?”
“Well, I went to therapy, and my therapist taught me to trust her, and that helped break the can’t-trust-anybody curse. And she helped me to see how the bad stuff that happened to me was mostly beyond my control, and that helped with the something-wrong-with-me curse. And the first curse…”
“Right. That one I’m still working on.”
“Oh, mainly by taking risks — new places, new people, stuff I’m scared to do — and finding out that almost everything I’m scared of is imaginary.”
“That sounds hard,” he says.
“Sometimes,” I agree. “Still better than living cursed.”
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If you love an addict, or live with one, or depend on one in some way, you are probably in, as the old saying goes, nine kinds of pain.
And I’m guessing that, whether or not you realize it, the very worst of these pains comes from being confused about the difference between power and control.
No, they’re not the same.
In some ways they are opposites.
One difference: power is possible, but control is usually an illusion.
Another: seeking power can set you free, while seeking control can make you crazy.
Let me explain.
Control, as I define it, means the ability to dictate reality. To make reality what we want it to be. To get life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.
Power, on the other hand, means being able to get your needs met. To take care of yourself. To not just survive, but to heal, and grow, and be happy.
Here’s an example of the difference:
Imagine your rich uncle dies and leaves you control of his multinational corporation. So 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 people, buy things and sell things, build plants or close them, approve product lines and advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.
How do you feel?
If you’re anything like me, you feel crippled by anxiety. Bewildered and overwhelmed by your new responsibilities. Disoriented. Panicked.
Anything but in control.
There are two other interesting differences between control and power.
~ Control looks outward, mainly at other people, places and things. Power looks inward, to your own feelings and needs. So control-seeking pulls you away from yourself, away from self-awareness and self-care.
~ Control operates paradoxically. The paradox goes like this: The more control you need, the less in control you feel. Which means if you depend on getting control to feel safe and happy, you don’t feel safe or happy most of the time. Chasing control is a lot like chasing a train you can never catch. Power, though — rooted in healthy, intelligent self-care — is a real possibility.
Want to become more powerful? Here are seven ways to do it:
Let go of what you can’t control anyway. That may be a situation, or a person, or that person’s behavior. If it’s a person you love, you can detach with love, as they say in Al-Anon. Detaching doesn’t mean you stop caring. It just means you acknowledge your limitations. And when you do that, an enormous relief often follows.
Start by shifting your focus from outside — people, places and things — to inside — your own needs, thoughts and feelings. Happiness is an inside job, and most of the answers you need are there.
(3) Take care of yourself.
Stop overcontrolling yourself, and learn to listen to your body instead. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sit. Rest. Maybe take a nap. (Naps are great.) Lonely? Seek out safe people. (More on this below.) Angry? Scream (into a pillow, maybe, so you don’t scare the neighbors). Sad? Let yourself cry. It’s how the body naturally relieves tension, and it helps.
(4) Educate yourself.
You’re not crazy; your pain means something. Your job is to find out what it’s trying to tell you. Education can take many forms, from Googling alcoholic family or codependency to reading self-help books (start with Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics or Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More), or listening to tapes (try the library), or talking to a friend, or attending a self-help meeting, or finding yourself a good therapist. After his first Al-Anon meeting one of my clients told me, “It was like a light coming on in a dark room, and suddenly I could see all the furniture I’ve been tripping over.” Hey, why live in the dark if you don’t have to?
(5) Get support.
No one gets through life alone. (Even if you could, why would you want to?) Seriously consider checking out a self-help program, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CODA. You’re probably scared of that first meeting. That’s okay; everyone is. Go anyway. It won’t kill you, and you can’t know beforehand what you’ll hear. A good meeting can save your life and your sanity.
(6) Listen to feelings.
This is a big one. Living with an addict usually requires hiding your feelings, sometimes even from yourself. But feelings are essential. You need to get them back again. Hang out with people who are trying to reclaim their feelings, and who can keep you company while you’re trying to reclaim yours.
(7) Have faith.
Develop your spiritual life. No, you don’t need a church. You don’t even need to believe in God. You do need to believe in something bigger than you, something you trust even when you don’t understand it. Call it Nature. Call it The Force. Al-Anon calls it Higher Power, but you can call it what you like. I used to reject the idea of God, but I always believed in psychology. Then I heard Scott Peck suggest that it’s not unreasonable to replace the word God with the word unconscious. That permanently reframed the idea of God for me. I realized there was some intelligence inside I could listen for, and which would guide me if I let it. (I might doubt the existence of God, but who can doubt the existence of that voice? That part that Knows Better?) So that gave me something to trust. Hey, we all need some invisible support.
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