Monthly Archives: February 2020
There’s control, and then there’s power
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.
The four stages of learning
We go through four stages in learning anything:
(1) Stage One is unconscious incompetence. That’s where we don’t know that we don’t know.
Imagine a four-year-old sitting behind the steering wheel of Daddy’s car. He’s watched Daddy drive, so now he yanks the wheel left and right, peers over the dashboard, waves his hand out the window to signal turns. He thinks he’s driving. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.
(2) Stage Two is conscious incompetence. That’s where we know that we don’t know.
Imagine this same kid as a teenager. It’s his first day in the Driver Ed car. The instructor tells him to parallel park. A chill runs through his entire body. He knows that he doesn’t know.
(3) Stage Three is conscious competence. That’s where we know that we know.
Flash forward to this same kid six months later. He’s just gotten his driver’s license. He gets behind the wheel, buckles up carefully, and drives down the street with a smile on his face. He knows that he knows.
(4) Stage Four is unconscious competence. That’s where we don’t know that we know.
Flash forward, one last time, to this same kid at forty. He’s been driving for so long that now it barely engages his attention. He tools along the highway talking on his cell phone, fiddling with his radio, and worrying about the fight he just had with his wife. When he has to parallel park, he does it without thinking. He’s reached the stage where he doesn’t know that he knows.
What has all this to do with control?
When it comes to control, we’re all addicted.
And we all start off in the same place:
We don’t know we’re addicted.
We don’t know that we don’t know how not to control.
We control automatically, unconsciously and compulsively.
And when our controlling causes problems, we don’t see it. We find other explanations.
So the first step we face, if we want to recover from this universal addiction, is we must move from Stage One to Stage Two.
We must become aware that, most of the time, we really don’t know how not to be controlling.
That’s where the learning begins.
The rules for feelings
1. Your feelings do not originate from the part of your brain that is under your control You cannot control your feelings.
2. Feelings are not subject to any moral code. They’re neither good nor bad, right or wrong. They just are.
3. Even though you can’t change your feelings, you are responsible for them.
4. Emotions can be “walled off” but not extinguished. If you wall off an emotion it does not disappear. It just goes and lives on the other side of the wall.
5. Feelings can lead you down the right path or they can lead you astray. It all depends on what you do with them.
6. When you disregard an emotion you are actually empowering it. Ignoring, pushing away or walling off a feeling may seem to make it go away — but it’s the feelings you’re least aware of that control you the most.
7. There is only one way to make an uncomfortable feeling go away, and that is to let yourself feel it.
8. Your feelings drive your thoughts, but you can also use your thoughts to manage your feelings.
9. Sitting with a powerful emotion and letting yourself feel it while thinking about it — to understand why you’re having it, what it means and what it’s trying to tell you — is called “processing” the feeling.
10. Your feelings are valuable messages from your deepest, most authentic self. When you follow Rule 9 you are listening to the messages, honoring yourself, and making use of this invaluable inner resource.
11. The way your parents treated your feelings as they raised you is probably how you treat your own feelings now.
~ Adapted from “The ten rules emotions follow that everyone should know,” at Psych Central.
Whatever we don’t own, owns us.
~ Carl Jung
Among recovering people, and in the lexicon of nearly every therapist I know, the single most common word used to describe unfinished emotional business is:
It’s a good metaphor.
Actual shit is a waste product, what’s left undigested after our systems process nourishment.
Emotional shit is what’s left undigested after human beings process (or can’t process) emotional experiences.
Actual shit is smelly and unpleasant. So is emotional shit.
Actual shit, when it collects inside you, makes you very uncomfortable. So does emotional shit.
Releasing actual shit is an enormous relief. Ditto the emotional version.
The biggest difference between them is that most people instinctually know what to do with actual shit.
They know they need to expel it from the body on a regular basis. And they know that if they don’t they’ll get sick.
But many people don’t know that about emotional shit. They think the way to handle it is to hide it, keep it inside, store it up.
Then they don’t understand why they go around feeling shitty.
They’re emotionally constipated.
Constipation produces all sorts of symptoms, like anxiety and depression and anger and addiction. Also high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal distress and exhaustion. Also arguments and violence and child abuse and divorce.
What has this all to do with what I call the inner Kid?
Because this is the main way inner Kids gets wounded.
We’re not born constipated. We’re born healthy little animals, able to trust what our bodies tell us and automatically expel waste products. Then in childhood we begin hearing messages like Quiet down and Big boys don’t cry or Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about. Surrounded by giants on whom we depend for food, shelter, love and security, we have no choice but to follow such instructions.
And why, exactly, does emotional constipation make us feel shitty?
“When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup of physical tension,” Paul Foxman explains.
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.
One more consequence of constipation is worth noting:
It makes it impossible to feel like an adult.
Being adult means being strong and healthy enough to be yourself. That includes being able to notice your feelings, even the smelly ones, and take responsibility instead of hiding them. Taking responsibility means learning to express feelings in appropriate ways, ways that leaving you feeling stronger, not constipated.
Hiding feelings is what kids do. So no matter how old we are, to the extent we feel compelled to hide our feelings from others, we are going to feel like kids inside.
Adults can, in the jargon of recovery, own their shit.
There’s more to adulthood than this one ability, of course. Owning your shit doesn’t automatically make you a grownup.
But you can’t start growing up until you start owning your shit.
Foxman, Paul. Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.