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 #7) Laws & alternatives. Questions and feedback welcome.
In the last talk I defined Plan B as a kind of software for the mind — a set of ideas and practices which enables us to remain objective under stress and replace control addiction with better ways of taming anxiety and getting our needs met.
Let’s start with the ideas.
The four laws
Plan B is based on four conclusions about control:
That we are all addicted to it.
That this addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems,
That behind this addiction stands the wish to control feelings.
That there are better ways to manage feelings than control.
These are the four laws of control, and they underpin everything that follows.
Note that these laws are descriptive, not prescriptive.
Not laws in the sense of Thou shalt do X, but in the sense of This is what thou art already doing.
The first step to developing a Plan B is becoming aware of how these laws already play out in our lives.
Because to do that is to step into a new way of perceiving and reacting.
“We are all addicted to control” is the law of addiction.
We become aware of this law by paying attention to how often we try (or want to try) to edit reality.
Remember, controlling comes in a zillion forms and disguises. As I said several talks ago,
We’re controlling whenever we scratch an itch. Comb our hair. Mow our lawn. Salt our soup. Spank our child. Balance our checkbook. Change channels. Stop at a red light. Vote. Punch someone in the mouth. Flatter someone. Seduce someone. Lie. Hide our true feelings. Worry. Dream.
Most of these forms are benign, but there are two areas of emotional life where controlling tends to cause more problems than it solves.
Those areas are feelings and relationships.
“Control addiction causes most of our emotional problems” is the law of dysfunction.
Once you start to see how controlling you are you may also notice how ineffective controlling is.
You may notice, for example, how defensively hiding or disguising your feelings leaves you more anxious, not less.
Or how trying to control other people leaves you feeling more frustrated and alienated than accepted and safe.
Unfortunately, since compulsive controlling is baked into human nature, it can take a long time to see this.
And most people never do.
Which explains why so many of us go around in emotional pain much of the time.
And how do we respond to this pain?
We try to control it, of course.
Thus controlling leads to pain, and pain leads to controlling, which leads to more pain.
Just like in any addiction.
“Behind control addiction stands the wish to control feelings” is the law of emotion.
Think about it. Whenever you try (or want to try) to control something, isn’t it because you think controlling it will make you feel better?
Control addiction is all about feelings.
We become aware of this law when we shift our attention from externals to internals — from the people/places/things which stress us to our reactions to those stressors.
Do that long enough, and you realize that — surprise! — stress is not something that exists out in the world, but something that happens inside us.*
Which is damned good news.
Because while there’s an infinite number of stressors in the world that are beyond our control, we can learn to manage our response to them.
Or as someone once said, “We cannot direct the winds, but we can adjust our sails.”
And how do we do that?
We learn alternatives to controlling.
“There are better ways to manage feelings than control” is the law of alternatives.
The alternatives are the basic practices that make up Plan B.
There are three: surrender, responsibility and intimacy.
I’ll explore each of the alternatives more fully in future talks, but here’s a brief introduction:
Surrender means the ability to stop controlling in any given situation. In practical terms it usually means detaching – stepping back from something instead of automatically wanting or trying to change it. It’s the tactic AA is advocating with the slogans “Go with the flow” and “Let go and let God.” To do either requires a certain amount of faith that surrendering is both safe and an effective way of handling stress or problems. That’s why I call it the spiritual alternative to control.
Responsibility means the ability to respond – to make a healthy intelligent answer to a problem or stressor. In practical terms it usually means listening to feelings and being able to tap into our authentic selves (our Kid, for example) to get a sense of what it is we really want or need. Becoming responsible in this sense means overcoming the socially-conditioned habit of concealing or denying feelings. Thus responsibility is the emotional alternative to control.
Intimacy means the ability to be yourself with another person and to allow them to do the same with you. It is the hardest alternative to master, since it requires a person to both surrender (refrain from controlling the other person) and be responsible (emotionally authentic). In practical terms it means developing the courage to come out of hiding with the most important people in our lives and show them who we are despite the risk of judgment, conflict or rejection. This is scary stuff for everyone, and so is usually attained only by people committed to growing up and developing healthy relationships. But intimacy — the relational alternative to control — is also as healthy as human relationships ever get.
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.
*In 1936 Hans Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” A more modern definition: “Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health.” Source: Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm