Anatomy of a monkeytrap


This continues a new series of posts excerpted from Monkeytraps in Everyday Life: A Guide for Control Addicts (in press).  It’s a book about psychological monkeytraps: what they are, how they work, and how recovering control addicts can learn to notice when they’ve trapped themselves by trying to control what cannot or should not be controlled.  Today’s post continues the book’s introduction, which began here.


Anatomy of a monkeytrap


You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town.

~ Anne Lamott



Monkeytraps don’t so much trap us as invite us to trap ourselves.

Each one contains roughly the same elements, and follows the same circular pattern:


Look familiar?

No, probably not.

But here’s a familiar example on the physical level:



This you probably recognize.

Notice that the trap depends on two crucial misreadings.

First I misread what would relieve my rash, then I misread the result of that first misreading.

A psychological analogue would be how we handle an unpleasant feeling, like sadness:



Again, the trap depends on two misreadings of my emotional experience.  First I misinterpret the meaning of my sadness (which signals, not weakness, but loss).  Then I misinterpret the failure of my first misreading (you relieve sadness not by suppressing but expressing it – i.e., by crying).

Why do these misreadings occur?

Because accurate interpretations (“I need to apply calamine lotion” or “I need to let myself cry”) do not satisfy my need for control.

In other words, they’re rooted wishful thinking.  I want to be able to scratch my itch away.  I want to make sadness vanish by hiding my tears. 

And I will ignore all sorts of evidence that what I want is not possible.

So I basically lie to myself, over and over again in defining the real problem and the real solution. 

I lie myself right into monkeytraps.

All this can be very helpful to remember.



Avoiding monkeytraps depends on learning to recognize one before I stick my paw into it.

When I work with couples I often point out the unconscious “dance” they do with each other in response to stress, a series of predictable moves and countermoves which leads to their repeating the same arguments and frustrations over and over again.

I tell them, “You need to start noticing when the dance starts.  Otherwise you can never stop dancing and do something healthier.”

It’s the same with individuals. 

We fall into unconscious patterns of coping, automatic and rigid responses to pain, fear, or discomfort.  And we have no chance of escape until we notice what we’re doing.

In the next post of this series I’ll begin describing particular monkeytraps.

You can think of them as predictable steps we do in our dance with stress.

You may not follow all of them, but you certainly follow some.

When we follow them unconsciously, the steps of this dance take on an awful life of their own.

Yet the moment we notice what we’re doing and why we’re doing it new choices become possible.

One last point:

We human beings are wired for control addiction.  Because of our oversized brains – which cannot stop remembering and anticipating and worrying — we can’t help trying to control what cannot or should not be controlled.

Even those of us working hard to recover from this addiction remain at perpetual risk of being monkeytrapped.

“You can get the monkey off your back,” Anne Lamott writes, “but the circus never leaves town.”

But it sure helps to notice when the calliope starts playing.


An encyclopedia of monkeytraps.

* * *


Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop

is available here.

Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop by [Steve Hauptman]

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