Monthly Archives: August 2019

(Talk #6) Mindware

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #6) Mindware.  Questions and feedback welcome.

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Change how you see and

see how you change. 

~ Zen proverb

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The idea of anxiety

Before we move on to Plan B, let’s look at anxiety.

My clients and I talk a lot about anxiety, so most of them know how I usually explain it.

They’ve heard me describe it as a symptom of emotional constipation. 

They know I believe that feelings, like shit, need to be expelled from the body, not stored up inside.  And that when we don’t express feelings we feel shitty. 

Anxiety is the name we give to this feeling. 

Psychologist Paul Foxman explains,

When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup or physical tension.  When that tension is not released, an internal pressure builds up.  An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally.  That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger. 

Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings. (1)

I know this is true because of all the anxious clients who describe how their anxiety drops when they’re able to express what they feel. 

But I also think anxiety is much larger than that. 

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Consciousness

Anxiety is an organism’s response to a real or imagined threat. 

We tend to experience it as heightened tension, sensitivity to our environment, and a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come.

For human beings anxiety is simply the cost of being conscious.  That’s because to be conscious is to be aware of (among other things) threats to survival and safety and wellbeing.  We sense threats in the present, remember them in the past, and anticipate them in the future.  We can’t help this; we are hardwired to do so. 

So to be conscious is to be forever on guard to some extent. 

Anxiety both causes and results from being on guard. 

It’s not inherently unhealthy.  We actually need some anxiety.  We wouldn’t want it to go away entirely.  That would leave us unconscious and vulnerable. 

But anxiety is damned uncomfortable. 

Severe anxiety can be crippling.  (Ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack.) 

Severe anxiety can be so unbearable that people kill themselves to escape it.

Moderate anxiety depletes energy, impairs concentration, limits productivity and destroys peace of mind.

Even mild anxiety is uncomfortable enough so that we work constantly to lower it and keep it at tolerable levels.

Which is where the idea of control comes in.

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The goal of control

I’ve defined control as the ability to edit reality, to direct or dictate or manipulate our environment. 

Why would we want to do that?

Mainly to manage anxiety.

That’s because we’re used to thinking of anxiety as a reaction to people, places and things.

In their book about American neurosis and neurotics, sociologists Snell & Gail Putney write,

One of the unquestioned assumptions of American culture is the belief that emotions have an external explanation.  When an American feels angry he looks around to see what provoked him and when he feels happy he looks around to see who delighted him. (2)

Read that again; it’s important.

Because it is this unquestioned assumption which leads us into control addiction.

Ultimately the goal of all our controlling is

 

Actually our emotional reactions come not from externals but from how we interpret and respond to them.

But if you don’t know this, you have a big problem.

Because then you’re left with no choice but to try to control the world around you.

Which is largely impossible.

Sure, some externals are controllable.  But many are not.

Most are not. 

And even when we do get a bit of control we can’t hold onto it for long. 

(Have you noticed?)

So a person for whom control is the only defense against anxiety is driven, inevitably, into compulsive controlling.

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A new goal

By comparison, Plan B has a different goal.

It’s both more realistic and more achievable.

The goal of Plan B is

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The idea of objectivity

“Seeing objectively” means seeing clearly and realistically.  It means moving beyond feeling, fantasy or desire. 

Or as Alcoholics Anonymous describes it, dealing with life on life’s terms.

In Plan B the idea of objectivity replaces the idea of control.

Control addicts, in their need to edit reality, find themselves perpetually at war with What Is.  Objectivity allows us is to declare a cease-fire in that war, to accept What Is and to cope realistically with it. 

For example, objectivity enables me to move beyond fear and desire and become able to see

~ why it’s pointless to try and stop “my” alcoholic from drinking;

~ why I can’t expect a narcissist to meet my emotional needs;

~ why my parent’s inability to love me was about their limitations, not mine;

~ why someone’s abusive behavior is never my fault;

~ why hiding my feelings makes me feel more scared, not safer; 

~ that I can feel good even when people around me are feeling bad;

~ that I’m as sick as my secrets;

~ that I’m as healthy as my relationships;

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~ that there are things I just cannot or should not try to control.

So how do we achieve objectivity?

We change our mindware.

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Mindware

Mindware is a term used by family systems theorist Michael Kerr to define “Mental knowledge and procedures used to solve problems and make decisions.” (3)

Plan B is a kind of mindware.

It’s a set of ideas and practices which allow us to remain objective under stress — i.e., replace anxiety-driven controlling with more rational and effective ways of managing our emotional lives.

The components of this mindware will be the subject of the remaining talks in this series.

I love the mindware metaphor because it suggests that, once installed, this new learning allows us to respond in a healthier way automatically.

In my first book (4) I told a story to illustrate how I discovered that the mindware I was teaching my clients had seeped deep into me:

During a routine physical my doc runs a cardiogram and finds a blip that suggests a TIA (transient ischemic attack).  He tells me to drive to the ER.  I feel fine, but I go.  At the hospital they put me on a gurney and park me in a hallway for four hours while they run an assortment of tests.  I have to cancel six clients, calm my worried wife over the phone, wonder what all this is costing me, and then just lie there and wait.  At one time I would have reacted to all this with frustration, worry and anger.  Now I surprise myself by closing my eyes and taking a nap.  It’s a pretty good nap, too.

Change how you see, and see how you change.

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Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

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(1) Paul Foxman, Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty (Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 48.

(2) Putney, Snell & Gail J, Putney, The adjusted American: Normal neuroses in the individual and society (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964), 99.

(3) In his book Bowen theory’s secrets: Revealing the hidden life of families (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019).  Kerr says the term was coined by Keith Stanovich, in his book What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

(4) Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (New York: Lioncrest, 2015).


(Talk #5) Hungry, lonely, scared: Decoding the laundry list

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #5) Hungry, lonely, scared: Decoding the laundry list.  Questions and feedback welcome.

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Because we are afraid of life, we

seek to control or master it.

~ Alexander Lowen

Three talks ago I told you about The Laundry List, those thirteen symptoms common to kids from dysfunctional families.

Three decades of working with adult children — plus seven decades of living as one — make it hard for me to read that list as anything but a detailed description of control addiction. 

For example, as an adult child

(1) I guess what normal is, then try to imitate it.

I don’t feel normal, whatever that is.  I feel emotionally hungry, lonely and scared.  I feel this all the time, and assume these feelings are unique to me, and am convinced that if you knew about them you’d judge me.  So I hide my feelings and fake normalcy.  I do this in order to control how you perceive and react to me.

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(2) I have trouble following projects through from beginning to end.

This comes from how I handle discomfort.  I hate discomfort, mainly because I’ve no idea what to do with it.  I haven’t learned to detach or vent or ask for support or help or advice.  So I try to make the discomfort go away by stopping what I’m doing.  (I call this “taking a break.”)   And since all projects turn uncomfortable at some point, demanding I do things I’d rather not do, I end up stopping permanently.  Thus my garage remains a disaster, my graduate degree unearned, my book unwritten, and I may never lose those last ten pounds.  I do this to control how I’m feeling. 

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(3) I lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

Since the truth — like how I really feel about myself, or how I feel about you, or what I really want or hate or fear —  makes me uneasy, honesty feels dangerous.  It feels much safer to conceal and manipulate the truth.  I’ve been doing that for so long that now it’s become automatic, a habit.  I control the truth because it calms my anxiety and helps me believe I can control what happens next.    

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(4) I judge myself without mercy.

Childhood taught me to expect others to criticize, judge or reject me.  This was so painful that now I anticipate it and do it to myself before you can.  I’d rather abuse myself than feel victimized.  (Kind of like quitting a job before they can fire you, or ending a relationship before you can be dumped.)  And judging myself without mercy saves me from being surprised or disappointed should you ever do it.   I do this to control the anixety I feel in relationships.

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(5) I have trouble relaxing or having fun.

As a kid I never knew what to expect.  Will Dad come home drunk or sober?  Happy or angry?  Will he hug me or hit me?  Will Mom comfort me or point out my flaws?  Will my parents get along tonight or scream and break things?  This uncertainty made me hypervigilant.   I learned to constantly scan for danger, signs of unrest or tension or anger or conflict or some other trouble.  I did that for so long that I lost the ability to not do it, to drop my defenses and relax or just play.  I became an adult chronically braced against imminent danger.  I do this in an attempt to control my anxiety about living in an unpredictable environment.   

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(6) I take myself very seriously.

Anxiety makes you pretty damn serious.  It hijacks your attention, steals your energy, keeps you preoccupied and wary.  And since one of the things I’m most scared of is rejection, I’m forever worried that others will dislike or judge me.  I dread embarrassment and humiliation.  Dance?  Play?  Act silly?  Make a fool of myself?  God, no.  On some level I’m afraid of that all the time.  Chronic seriousness feels like controlling how you will see and evaluate me.      

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(7) I struggle with intimate relationships.

Intimacy means being able to be myself with another person and allow them to do the same.  It means dropping my defenses and surrendering control.  It requires faith, both in you (I trust you not to hurt or betray me) and in me (I am basically lovable and can take care of myself).   I never developed that kind of faith, intimacy scares the crap out of me.  Showing my true self to another person feels like skydiving without a parachute.  Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone can do it, or would want to.  Intimacy means surrendering control in a way I simply cannot.

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(8) I over-react to changes beyond my control.

I spent childhood defending against situations that were confusing, stressful and scary.  This left me experiencing the external world – the world of people, places and things — as dangerous.  And I concluded that the only way to achieve a sense of internal safety was to control those externals.  A logical conclusion, maybe, but psychologically disastrous, since it left me hypersensitive to everything I couldn’t control.  Every life is filled with the uncontrollable.  So now, to the extent that I rely on control to feel secure or confident, my internal life feels not safe but chaotic.  My need to control external reality keeps me scared of reality itself.

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(9) I constantly seek approval and affirmation.

Every kid needs large helpings of the four A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection.  These are the basic components of love.  Kids who get enough grow up feeling loved and lovable.  Kids who don’t grow up emotionally hungry.  I grew up hungry, and now my hunger compels me to seek feeding in the form of approval and validation.  Unfortunately I seek it in controlling and self-defeating ways.  For example, since I feel unlovable, I feel unworthy of feeding, so instead of showing you my true self I hide the parts of me I think you’ll reject.  I try to fool you into loving me.  This never works, because whatever love or approval I do win feels meaningless, since I had to lie to get it.  So I remain chronically hungry and chronically compelled to seek approval and affirmation again and again.  The controlling way in which I seek feeding makes it impossible for me to ever feel adequately fed.

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(10) I feel different from other people.

This comes from how I overcontrol my emotional life.  I don’t trust or listen to my true feelings so much as judge them.  Since I judge them, I don’t share them with anyone else.  Since I don’t share them, others don’t share their true feelings with me, so I never discover that we feel essentially the same way.  Trapped in this closed loop of feeling > judgment > more feeling > more judgment,  I’m forced to the inaccurate conclusion that I’m different from everyone else.  The wall I’ve built to control the risk of judgment keeps me feeling isolated, alienated and alone.

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(11) I’m either super-responsible or super-irresponsible.

This comes from how I manage my anxiety.  Since I don’t realize that my anxiety comes mainly from emotional constipation — i.e., holding feelings in — I blame it on external stressors, like the endless To Do list that is my life.  Sometimes I try to control my anxiety by finishing everything on that list (super-responsible), and sometimes I turn my back on the list (super-irresponsible).  Neither approach works for long.  Hyper-responsibility leaves me anxious and exhausted, while hyper-irresponsibility leaves me anxious and guilty.  So I swing like a pendulum between these two unhealthy extremes, confusing the hell out of myself and the people around me.  My attempts to control anxiety by focusing on externals just makes me more and more anxious.

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(12) I’m extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that my loyalty is undeserved.

This comes from doubting myself and the evidence of my feelings.  Childhood left me convinced I was permanently flawed, so when things go wrong between us I usually blame myself.  (If you hurt my feelings I decide I’m being oversensitive.  If you ignore or neglect me I tell myself Stop being so needy If I lose my temper with you I worry Am I crazy?)  My sense of self-worth is so low that I figure I’m lucky to have any relationships at all, and so must work extra hard to preserve them.  This habit of ignoring or misreading my internal radar keeps me in relationships long after a healthier person would have escaped.  My distorted self-image leaves me hanging onto you for security and constantly suppressing and overcontrolling myself.     

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(13) I’m impulsive — i.e., tend to lock myself into a course of action without thinking through alternatives or consequences.

This, too, comes from how I manage anxiety.  I’m impulsive because I lack both self-awareness (for example, the fact that I’m constipated) and the ability to defer gratification.  Like a child, I grab for the first choice I think will bring relief.  (Boss yelled at me?  Quit the job.  Boyfriend didn’t call?  Throw a tantrum.  Girlfriend forgot my birthday?  End the relationship.  Partner cheated on me?  Drive into a tree.Adult children in recovery learn to calm themselves down — to take a breath, consider their options, maybe process their choices with a safe person.  In recovery I’ll learn there are better ways to reduce my anxiety than leaping without looking.  But now I get so flooded with uncomfortable feelings that the only way I know to control them is by acting out.

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Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

 


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