So we’re lying in bed, Hank and I, both half asleep.
And he hears a car in the street or a bird in a tree or a plane overhead.
And he yelps.
Scares the crap out of me.
But what happens then is interesting.
I mean, I just flinch.
And roll over and resume dozing.
Interesting because not long ago I might well have reached out and slapped him for yelping.
(Or tried to. He’s fast.)
It’s not that I’m used to him yelping.
I’ll never get used to his yelping.
It’s that this time I did not take his yelp personally.
I somehow redefined his yelp to
(a) something Hank does
(b) something Hank does to me.
I know that sounds silly.
Dogs yelp. They just do.
It’s nothing personal.
But how many times are we frustrated or upset or enraged by things that are nothing personal?
The driver who cuts us off in traffic.
The long line in the bank.
Dysfunctional medical offices.
The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
This process of redefining such shocks is called detachment.
It’s a mental skill I learned from twenty years of thinking and talking and teaching about our addiction to control.
And an enormously valuable one.
The silver bullet, in fact, of healing control addiction.
Because it allows us to accept discomfort without taking it personally.
To see clearly, instead of squinting through a lens of defensive victimization.
To move beyond suffering to mere pain.
To, in the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, live life on life’s terms.
And to understand what Joseph Campbell meant when he said
Life is this wonderful,
It just hurts.
Detachment is what allows us to live in this beautiful, barking world without losing our last marble.
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Here’s the second law of control:
This is the Law of Dysfunction.
Stated more fully, it means that compulsive controlling causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems.
It builds on the first Law, that we are all addicted to control.
Because only when you see how controlling you are can you start noticing how dangerous controlling can be.
You may notice that overcontrolling your feelings — by hiding them from other people, say — leaves you more anxious, not less.
Or how hiding feelings from yourself — like when you bury them so deeply you forget where you put them — can leave you exhausted and clinically depressed.
Or how attempts to control others by pleasing or impressing them leave you feeling, not more loved and accepted, but more frustrated and alone.
But compulsive controlling is baked into our nature.
It’s every human being’s unconscious default position.
So it can take a long time to see all 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, of course, to control it.
So controlling leads to pain, and pain leads to controlling, which leads to more pain…
Just like in any addiction.
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There are four laws of control, laws we obey whether we realize it or not.
Here’s the first:
It’s the Law of Addiction.
What does it mean?
Control means the ability to edit reality — to make people, places and things the way we want them to be,
Addiction means the compulsion to repeat a certain behavior in order to achieve a particular gratifying — but ultimately unhealthy — experience.
So a control addict is anyone who
(a) feels compelled, over and over and over again, to edit reality according to their preferences,
(b) experiences intolerable discomfort or anxiety when they cannot.
We are all control addicts.
Think of it this way:
Moment to moment, we each carry around in our heads a picture of the reality we want.
And we constantly compare that picture to the reality we have.
Anything we do to bring those two realities closer together is what I call controlling.
It’s controlling whether we do it in speech, or behavior, or in the privacy of our imagination.
Our controlling may be obvious or hidden, conscious or unconscious, choiceful or compulsive, creative or destructive, healthy or unhealthy.
Notice how vast a range of human behaviors this description covers:
I’m controlling when I mow my lawn, balance my checkbook, steer my car, swat a mosquito or help my kid do homework.
I’m controlling when I brush my teeth, salt my eggs, change channels, vote in elections or post selfies on Facebook.
I’m controlling when I pursue a goal, a degree, a job, a raise, a sale item, a cure for cancer or a sexual partner.
I’m controlling when I rage at bad weather, slow traffic, dumb commercials, rude waiters or lying politicians.
I’m controlling when I lie, hide my feelings, pretend to agree with you, worry that I’m fat or guess what you think of me.
I’m controlling when I try to get you to agree with me, hire me, understand me, respect me, kiss me, forgive me or do me a favor.
Also whenever I judge, criticize, manipulate, persuade, coerce or abuse you.
Not to mention whenever I anticipate, plan, ruminate, fantasize, worry, project or obsess.
All controlling behaviors.
All stem from the urge to swap my current reality for one I think I’d prefer.
All those and infinitely more.
Our craving for control is inevitable and unavoidable, the mother of all motives, the psychological sea in which we swim.
Perhaps the best way to describe its enormity in human psychology is to describe its opposite:
The opposite of controlling is the ability to
say nothing, and do nothing, and trust that
things will work out just fine anyway.
How often can anyone do that?
How often can you?
Welcome, fellow control addict.
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6 Comments | posted in control
Welcome to monkeytraps.com.
Thanks. What’s a monkey trap?
“A cage containing a banana with a hole large enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, but not large enough for a monkey’s fist (clutching a banana) to come out. Used to catch monkeys that lack the intellect to let go of the banana and run away” (Wikipedia). Other versions use heavy bottles or anchored coconuts to hold the banana.
This is what you’re blogging about? Catching monkeys?
No, it’s a metaphor.
Psychological traps. The sort we all get stuck in.
More specific, please.
A psychological monkeytrap is any situation that pulls you into holding on when you really need to let go.
I know I’m in one whenever I find myself trying to control something that can’t or shouldn’t be controlled.
Well, feelings can be monkeytraps.
So can relationships.
So can stressful situations of all sorts.
Anything that scares us or confuses us or makes us uncomfortable.
Seen from this perspective, life itself is pretty much one monkeytrap after another.
And you’re writing about this because…
Because not understanding monkeytraps makes people sick.
I’m a therapist. Thirty years of doing psychotherapy have taught me to see just about every emotional problem as rooted in some sort of monkeytrap.
Anxiety, depression, addictions, relationship problems, family problems, problems with parenting —
all of them usually turn out to be caused by someone holding onto something when they really should let go.
Too much control makes us sick?
Too much controlling.
Control itself, that’s usually an illusion.
What in your life can you finally, absolutely control?
We spend our lives grabbing for it anyway.
Control is like a train you chase but never catch.
And most of the time we don’t even know we’re chasing it.
“Ideas we have, but don’t know we have, have us,” James Hillman said.
Control is just such an idea.
Like an addiction.
Exactly like that.
We’re all addicted to control.
I know I am.
How can you tell?
Because the opposite of controlling is being able to accept the reality you have instead of trying to replace it with the one you want.
(The reality you want, that’s the banana.)
It means being able to relax and do nothing and trust that everything will work out okay.
And I know I can’t do that very often.
Almost never. Who can?
Nobody I know.
I’ve known people who can do it occasionally.
I’ve never known anyone who could do it all the time.
I doubt any human being can.
We’re the monkeys who simply must control things, or die trying.
(And like most therapists, I’ve known people who did just that.)
It’s one of the reasons I dislike the term control freak.
There’s nothing freakish about trying to control reality.
What’s freakish is being able to stop.
Why is that?
Why is one of the questions I hope to explore in this blog. I have some ideas about it.
I have ideas, too, about how to better understand and deal with this universal addiction. I created monkeytraps.com as a way to road test those ideas.
Road test how?
Unpack them in public, ask readers to think and talk about them.
Start a conversation about all this.
Okay. Anything else I should know?
I have a book out about this, and more in the works.
The first is titled Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop.
You can buy it here.
The next will be Monkeytraps for Adult Children: There I Go Again.
I‘ll let you know when that one drops.
I’ll also be starting a YouTube vlog soon where I’ll be talking about how we can recover from our addiction to control.
And publishing new blog posts, and reposting old favorites.
Leave me your email and I’ll let you know when.
Come back soon.
And bring your banana.
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