Author Archives: Steve Hauptman
A vein throbs in Jack’s forehead.
Jill is pale and near tears.
We are discussing Tupperware.
“I hate how it always falls out on the floor whenever I open the cabinet,” Jack says.
“That’s what Tupperware does,” Jill replies
We’re off to the races.
I, a trained mental health professional, can tell that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Though a trained beagle would probably sense the same thing.
I start asking questions.
Thirty minutes later I’ve learned that Jack coped with growing up in the chaos of his dysfunctional family by becoming a neat freak who now regularly imposes his need for physical order on the people around him.
And I’ve heard Jill describe how her mom used to prowl through her personal belongings, and how nowadays the only room in Jill’s life which feels remotely like hers is the kitchen.
Given those histories, a Tupperware war was inevitable.
Axiomatic among therapists is the idea that most relationship problems boil down to problems with communication.
Fair enough. But the next question is “Where do communication problems come from?”
And the next after that is “Why do they keep recurring?”
Here’s how I see it:
Communication tends to break down whenever partners either haven’t learned or have forgotten three key principles. The first is
(1) There’s no such thing as a grownup human being.
This is the secret truth behind the vast majority of emotional problems. Human beings grow faster physically than psychologically, so regardless of how big or old or emotionally healthy we are there’s always part of us that retains the feelings, perceptions and vulnerabilities of the child we once were. That part — the famous Inner Child you’ve probably heard about — is usually what gets triggered by criticism, rejection or conflict.
And when you and I keep having the same fight over and over, it’s a fair bet that the fight is really between your Child and mine.
Which leads to the second principle:
(2) All feelings are legitimate.
This actually means two things: that all feelings make sense, and that all feelings are worthy of respect.
Jack’s hatred of unruly Tupperware makes sense in light of how he’s come to associate external control with internal safety. And Jill’s anxiety at Jack’s “invasion” of her kitchen and criticism of her housekeeping makes sense in light of how it reminds her of her mom’s disregard for personal boundaries.
Neither can help feeling what they’re feeling. Their only real choice is between feeling them secretly or out loud.
Which brings us to the third principle:
(3) Every conversation occurs on two levels.
Level 1 is the level of What We Talk About.
Level 2 is the level of How We Feel When We Talk About It.
Communication tends to break down when couples are unable to leave Level 1 and drop down to Level 2.
Jack and Jill will keep fighting about Tupperware because the fight isn’t about Tupperware at all. Tupperware’s just the trigger. The real issues are Jack’s need for a sense of order and safety, and Jill’s need for boundaries and respect.
More than any other, this principle explains both why communication problems tend to recur and why couples repeat the same fight over and over.
When feelings are involved, Level 1 talk won’t resolve much, because Level 1 talk doesn’t address feelings. So we’re talking about the wrong thing.
And trying to resolve conflict by talking about the wrong thing is like mowing the tops off dandelions. Expect a new crop tomorrow.
Limited time only.
I used my lollipop analogy the other day. First time in years. It’s one of my favorites.
Jeannie is a woman who dislikes herself. She doesn’t know this, exactly. She just knows that she’s lonely and discouraged and a doormat in all her relationships. The sort of person who says Yes when she wants to say No and always has, without knowing why.
She’s just finished telling me about her eight-year marriage to a man who drank, cheated, abused her emotionally and then left her.
“Ever licked a lollipop,” I ask, “and then stuck it in your pocket?”
“Sure,” she says. I don’t believe her. Pretty sure she’s humoring me, just to move things along.
“What happened to it?” I ask.
She shrugs. “It got…fuzzy.”
“Right,” I say. “It got fuzzy. And the longer it stayed in your pocket the fuzzier it got. It kept collecting fuzz until after a while it didn’t even look like a lollipop anymore. Just a fuzzball on a stick. Right?”
“That’s you,” I tell her.
“It’s all of us, ” I say. “We’re all lollipops. When we’re kids we have these experiences which seem to defines us. Yours was having a mother who couldn’t love you the way you needed to be loved.’
She nods again. We’ve been over this.
“It left you feeling unlovable,” I say. “But the problem didn’t end there. Because you went on and collected more experiences like that one.”
“I know,” she says. “But why?”
“Because we hate confusion,” I say. “We hate not understanding. It makes us feel out of control.”
She nods again. We’ve talked about her need for control too.
“So we look for answers to explain stuff in our life. And we hang onto those answers even when they’re wrong, even when they hurt. Because having no answer is even more painful. Follow?”
“I think so.”
“You found your answer early on. You decided that mom didn’t love you because you were unlovable. It was a lousy answer, because, A, it wasn’t true – she couldn’t love you because she was an alcoholic – and, B, it hurt. But it was better than no answer at all.”
She’s quiet, listening.
“So you carried that answer out into the world and into every relationship. And whenever there was a disappointment or conflict or someone treated you badly, you turned back to that old answer to explain what was happening. ‘See?” you told yourself. ‘Mom was right. I am unlovable.’’
“And that’s why you’re a fuzzy lollipop. Because by now you’ve collected so many of those experiences you’re no longer recognizable as yourself.”
She looks at her hands in her lap. Then she looks up.
“Well, shit,” she says.
“What do I do about it?” she asks.
I offer two suggestions.
The first is to remember our conversation the next time she got into relationship trouble. “Question how you usually explain problems. If you catch yourself self-blaming, talk to me about it. If you get confused, talk to me about it. But stop automatically collecting fuzz.”
“Okay,” she nods.
The second is to seek out corrective emotional experiences.
“This one’s harder,” I warn her. “Because you’ll have to risk being yourself with people. Especially new people, like at Al-Anon or in a therapy group. That’s where you have the best chance of redefining yourself.
“Practice coming out of hiding. Tell a bit more of the truth than you’re used to telling. Show a bit more of your feelings. Just a bit. See what happens.
“Of course, this will mean giving up some control. So it may feel scary at first.”
She shakes her head.
“Living this way?” she says. “That’s scary.”
Questions for you, dear reader:
1. Are you a fuzzy lollipop?
(Hint: Most everyone is.)
2. What early experience seemed to define you?
(Hint: Probably a painful one. Maybe a string of them.)
3. Are you aware of how you use that old experience to explain your current problems?
(Hint: How you do it may not be entirely conscious. Dig a little.)
4. Are you ready to stop?
Lollipops of the world, unite.
You have nothing to lose but your fuzz.
“How do you know,” Alice asks, “if you married the wrong person?”
The others frown.
“Or the right one, for that matter,” Betty mutters.
“Good question,” Cathy says.
“Are these questions you guys ask yourselves?” I ask.
“How do you go about answering them?”
“I’m in the process,” says Betty.
“I ask you,” says Alice.
They all laugh.
“But aren’t they the same question?” Cathy asks. “Whether you’ve married the right or wrong person?”
“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe not.”
“Most people I’ve known don’t actually decide about this the way you decide which car to buy or what to have for dinner. The decision sort of happens to them.
“One wife I knew struggled with it for years. We spent hours talking about whether she should divorce this guy she married young and who wasn’t very nice to her. She was unhappy but scared, so she’d go back and forth. She worried about the usual things — finances, how it would affect the kids, what the neighbors would think.
“Then one night she’s giving her kids a bath and, bang, it happens. The decision appears. She goes downstairs, tells her husband ‘I want a divorce,’ then goes back up to finish the bath. Her doubts are gone.”
“How do you explain that?” Alice asks.
“I think all the work she’d done in therapy reached a sort of critical mass. She’d spent years collecting emotional evidence — who she really was, how she really felt, what she really wanted. Then this particular night that all came together, and some scale inside her tipped. She just knew.”
“Hm,” says Denise, who’s been quiet until now. “What about the other question? If you married the right person?”
“Well, I’m not sure the right person actually exists,” I say. “Outside of movies and romance novels, I mean. It can be a pretty destructive fantasy. Some people marry in a blur of infatuation and excitement, and then, when the honeymoon ends and kids come along and things get complicated and difficult, decide Oh, I picked the wrong person and give up. Ever see that?”
They all nod.
“So maybe the best we can do, most of us, is marry someone able to become the right person over time. Someone who’ll hang in with us through the rough spots, and work on themselves, and suffer and stretch and grow in the relationship. And who makes us willing do the same.”
I shrug. “Couples grow together or they grow apart. A healthy marriage is usually a work in progress.”
Then Alice says, “That actually helps a lot.”
“To stop thinking of my husband as the right or wrong person,” she says. “To think of my marriage as a work in progress.”
Cover story by Steve.
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This I learned from Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who in his book Kinds of Power implies the term originally referred to fighting gravity.
“Control is agency, yes, but of a restrictive kind,” Hillman writes.
The word comes from contra rotullus, against the roll. Since the free flow of inertia follows the path of least resistance, the easy path downhill is controlled by restraints.
Against the roll. I found myself imagining the first “control” as some sort of wheel block, some lump of wood or stone used to stop ox carts from rolling downhill.
I really liked this idea.
I liked seeing control as rooted in the idea of prevention. It confirmed my sense of how controlling functions in me and the people I know: as a bulwark against surprise and misfortune.
Control, I realized, is defensive. We control not to make things happen, but to stop them from happening.
When we look closely at what we want when we want to be in control, we find mainly preventive desires. We want not to be bugged, not to be demeaned, not to be blocked and criticized. We want obstacles removed that compete, like other divisions in the company and other gangs in the ‘hood. Control means preventing interference. It has a conservative effect.
The most controlling people I know are obsessed with conserving, protecting and preventing. They expect bad things to happen. (Usually because bad things have already happened to them. Abuse and trauma victims, for example, are famously controlling. As is anyone who grew up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family. Which aside from Beaver and the other Cleavers pretty much covers everyone else.) So they fear the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned. They rely on control to fend off danger and discomfort. They live, whether they admit it or even realize it, like frightened people.
Control, for all its self-assured position of command, relies on a defensive vision, and [its] traits — enforced loyalty, exactitude, suspicion of the hidden watchfulness — are paranoid traits.
Paranoia, of course, is an extreme form of craziness.
Paranoids imagine the world’s out to get them. I’ve worked with paranoids. They were scared most of the time, unable to trust anyone, led lives of confusion, uncertainty and occasionally panic.
But so do control addicts.
They experience the world as dangerous, people as unreliable, relationships as competitive, emotions as scary, honesty as risky, and control as their shield against wounding by all of the above. They hate change, especially change they haven’t asked for. In therapy they’re almost always expressing resistance to something — some unfolding of events, some anticipated consequence, some expression of the innate tendencies of people around them. Often they’re anxious or angry without knowing why.
Yoga teacher Stephen Cope:
Each of us has our own silent War With Reality. Yogis came to call this duhkha. Duhkha means, literally, “suffering,” “pain,” or “distress.” This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior: We reach for the pleasant. We hate the unpleasant. We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones. We try to get rid of this pervasive state of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things “out there.” By changing the world.
Alexander Lowen points out, “Because we are afraid of life, we seek to control or master it.”
Effective? Not so much.
No, worse than that. Self-destructive. Because the War With What Is is actually a problem disguised as a solution.
Why? Three reasons.
First: Fighting reality is hard work. (Try swimming against the tide of a stream or a river. Fight the flow and see how long you last.) So control addicts end up stressed, strained and exhausted.
Second: The war is unwinnable. It’s not that control addicts don’t try hard enough. What they’re trying to do simply can’t be done. So they end up feeling depressed and inadequate.
Third (and this is a big one): Control addiction is self-perpetuating. Think about it. To be scared of reality is to organize your life around fear. You tense up, go into defense mode and stay there. “As long as we are defensive, we are going to be frightened” (Lowen). So fear makes you defensive, which makes you more frightened, which makes you more defensive, and so on. Like any addiction. The more you control, the more you need to.
Control addiction, then, is a sort of garden-variety paranoia. A form of everyday craziness you don’t notice much.
Because everyone you know is just as crazy as you.
Occasionally a therapist has to fire a client.
This is called therapeutic discharge.
I’ve done it occasionally over the years. It’s always sad.
But sometimes there’s no avoiding it.
I remember one guy whose therapy was going nowhere. After two years we were still having essentially the same conversation we’d had the first time I met him.
He was a blamer. My wife doesn’t love me. My parents weren’t there for me. I get no respect from my boss, or my neighbors, or my kids.
I tried my best to get him to consider that he might be contributing to these problems. His typical response varied between impatience (No, you don’t understand), defensiveness (I try so hard) and hurt feelings.
He was stuck at the first stage of learning.
There are four stages:
Unconscious incompetence is where you don’t know what you don’t know. Imagine a four-year old watching Daddy drive. “I can do that,” he says, and sits at the wheel and yanks it back and forth. “Look, I’m driving.” He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s unconsciously incompetent.
Conscious incompetence is where you know what you don’t know. Flash forward twelve years: the kid’s sixteen, starting Driver Ed. “Parallel park over there,” the instructor says, and the kid panics. He knows what he doesn’t know. He’s consciously incompetent.
Conscious competence is where you know what you know. Now eighteen, the kid’s passed his road test. He drives proudly down the street, knowing he can park if he has to. He knows what he knows. He’s consciously competent.
Unconscious competence, the last stage, is where you don’t know what you know. Now the kid’s forty, a driver for decades. While driving he plays music, eats fast food, makes phone calls or daydreams. Driving’s so familiar he forgets that he’s doing it. He’s doesn’t know what he knows. He’s unconsciously competent.
Acknowledging ignorance always is the first step towards ending it.
But some people can’t or won’t take that first step. They stay stuck in that first stage of learning. So they learn nothing, and their therapies circle the drain.
Often, though, the real problem isn’t that they don’t know what they don’t know.
It’s that deep down they really don’t want to.
We just spent a month unplugging (or trying to), and will be writing about that experience shortly.
Meanwhile, in honor of the start of school — and at the request of a teacher we know who wants to share it with parents — here’s an updated version of a post some of you found helpful.
~ Steve & Bert.
Yesterday I came across a poster on Facebook.
Your child’s mental health is more
important than their grades,
I love that poster.
Sounds like common sense, no?
Yet the number of parents who don’t believe it is truly frightening.
I meet such parents all the time. Especially in spring, as the school year grinds towards its exhausting conclusion, and they come to me panicked because Janey or Johnny are at risk of failing something.
Also in fall, when everyone’s stomach turns butterflyish in anticipation of the drama ahead.
And I tell them,
Grades are mostly bullshit.
They don’t measure real knowledge or intelligence or understanding or creativity or anything people really need to be successful.
They don’t measure honesty or courage or kindness or compassion or self-awareness or whether a kid knows the difference between right and wrong or what’s important and what’s not.
More often they measure memory (short-term at that), obedience, conformity, fear of failure, need for approval, or the results of parental coercion.
Thus academic success is not the predictor of success in adult life everyone pretends it is. Einstein, Edison, Newton, Churchill and Steven Speilberg were all lousy students.
So try not to stress over Janey’s D in Social Studies or Johnny’s F in Math.
Don’t get angry, and don’t get scared.
Instead, give your kid a hug.
Make them feel loved and accepted just as they are.
Let them know you have faith that they will grow just as they need to.
That’s what they need from you.
Not dire predictions.
They’ll get plenty of those elsewhere.
From you they need a sense of how unique and valuable they are.
That learning and growing are much bigger and more joyful things than what happens in school.
That school is just school.
And that grades are mostly bullshit.
Last night at the end of group they asked me how the experiment was going.
Not as planned, I told them.
I said I hadn’t unplugged from texting because my family denied me permission, which turned out to be a good thing when Callie had to go to the ER, but which denied me the feeling of spaciousness I’d hoped for with total unplugging.
I said I did notice I don’t miss social media at all, despite all the hours I used to spend there.
I said I notice I have more time to read, and patience for more demanding material than the mysteries I usually stick to.
I said I’m reading a lot about technology, and one book in particular caught my attention with the sentence “Technology is basically an attempt to control everything.”
I said I also realized that we are vulnerable to abusing technology because we’re so scared of people – that we use it to reduce the risks and anxieties that go with relationships, and that the more limited we are in our emotional abilities the more likely we’ll depend too much on texting and email and online “friendships” and gaming and virtual realities.
I didn’t tell them about my ongoing insomnia, which prompted the unplugging to begin with, or how I’m still unsure if overstimulation is what caused it.
I didn’t tell them about my casual relapses into ordering books online or at the library or sending the odd email or registering for CBS All Access.
I didn’t tell them how easy it’s been – and how embarrassing — to slip back into those old habits, how boredom or restlessness seem to be the worst triggers, and how much unplugging — like dieting – depends on my mood or capacity for discipline on a particular day.
First good night’s sleep since unplugging. Fell asleep around midnight without meds. Woke to pee at 4:30, some delay in falling back, but then slept until past 7:30. Not sure why. Hoping this is over.
Thinking of doubling my efforts to abstain. Thought I left my phone at work last night, and was both frustrated and relieved to be unable to check it. (Someone found it and left it for me in the kitchen this morning.)
I can’t stay off the computer entirely – work requires it – but I can certainly stay offline. And the phone, I need to find a way to decrease my exposure to the phone, which is too much of a temptation.
Turn it off and check it only at, say, 4-hour intervals?
But what if Chris needs to reach me?
Reading Sherry Turkle* now about the multiple psychological impacts of a “tethered” lifestyle.
This constant connection really feels like a capacity which grew into a need and then into an addiction.
Hard to tell where the need leaves off and the addiction begins.
*Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. (Basic Books, 2011.)
(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.
Once upon a time a dad brought his fourteen-year-old son to Steve for family counseling.
He said he wanted the two of them to be closer, to talk more.
The session started this way:
DAD: Go ahead, buddy. You can say anything here.
SON: I want to go home.
DAD: No. We’re doing this, dammit. Now open up.
(He actually said that.)
Steve was professional. He took a breath, fought down the urge to roll his eyes, and tried to explain to Dad how he was sending what Steve called a “mixed message.”
My reaction was simpler. I wanted to strangle Dad.
He reminded me, I suppose, of all the times I’d witnessed some adult coerce some kid into something for their “own good.”
And all the times some wife or husband sat on Steve’s sofa and demanded “openness” from their partner, only to wither them with criticism when the other finally dared open up.
And all the times one partner justified withering another with “I’m just expressing my feelings.”
And all the times I saw teachers coax students into participating in discussions, only to reward them with humiliation.
And all the times I saw parents demand honesty from their kids, only to punish them for telling the truth.
All the times, in short, I watched one person verbally mug another and call it “communication.”
Hear that? I’m getting mad again.
Steve, give your professional opinion.
I think you can have communication, or you can seek control, but you can’t do both at the same time.
And I think that, to the extent any party to a conversation seeks to control it, healthy communication becomes impossible.
Which makes healthy communication pretty rare.
What’s “healthy” communication?
The sort that permits people to give up control — to risk being honest, emotional, vulnerable, authentic — without fear of the consequences.
Not easy at all.
And it can be terrifying.
Why is that?
Because we’ve all been burned by unhealthy communicators.
If, for example, you grew up in a family where words were used to coerce, wound or manipulate — forget it. Not only would opening up scare you, you might not even believe that safe communication is possible. Why should you?
That’s the case with many people I work with. When I talk to them about “healthy communication” I might as well be speaking Martian. They simply have no internal model for what I’m describing.
What do you do about it?
I help them learn a new model.
For example, most people don’t know how to listen. I mean, really listen. (Often they mistake listening for merely waiting their turn.)
So I may teach a couple Monologuing, which asks one partner to sit and pay attention while the other describes their feelings for five minutes. Then the listener plays back what he/she heard. (Which always contains surprises.) Then they switch roles.
Another problem: Most people don’t realize how often and how casually they hurt others with their words.
So I teach them to distinguish between You- and I-statements — how, for example, there’s a world of difference between saying “You’re an idiot” and “I’m mad at you.” Then I teach them to abstain from the former and practice the latter. Which most people find really difficult to do.
Not easy, as I said.
No, it’s not.
Just our only hope.
For really connecting with another human being.
Three days into vacation I know I have a problem. Distracted, restless, unable to settle inside, too tired to work and too tense to relax. And I can’t sleep.
The insomnia puzzles me. I’ve gone sleepless when depressed or battling some particular anxiety, but I don’t feel depressed or anxious now. I’m not sure how I feel. Except maybe topheavy. Like my head weighs too much.
I lie in bed for hours in the dark, twitching my legs every few minutes and thinking about everything and nothing. I have no Off switch.
Then early the fourth morning, while ruminating about ruminating, a word pops into my mind:
That’s how I feel. Like a wire buzzing with too much current.
What stimulation? I ask myself.
And myself answers:
The hours spent reading and writing emails. The blog posts, replies to comments, and replies to the replies. All the posters and comments and cartoons I post to social media every day (fifty in June). Reaching first thing in the morning for my iphone to check for new texts. And carrying it everywhere. To the bathroom, in the kitchen when I’m cooking; checking it at stoplights. And each night, when I finally leave my computer and go up to bed, to lie there beside my wife either watching tv (we’re just finishing Season Four of The Good Wife) or scrolling endlessly on my phone through Facebook.
Shit, I think, I’m addicted.
As an experiment, I decide to unplug for a day.
I shut down my computer. I turn off my phone and put it in a desk drawer. I resolve to ignore my tv.
Suddenly I have more time than I know what to do with. I find myself doing things I haven’t done for as long as I can remember. I sit with my wife and talk over coffee. I plant flowers in the bed by the mailbox. I read for two hours. I invent a new bean dip. I meditate. I sit on my deck and watch clouds.
That night I sleep through.
This is all very startling.
I decide to research this new addiction. From the library I borrow six books on technology. One is Christina Crook’s The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World (New Society, 2015), where I read this:
Deep down, we believe we have control over our mobile technologies; the truth is we make our technologies, but they remake us: the way we see the world, the way we spend our time and the way we value and relate to others. (1)
The problem with high-volume media is that we are bombarded, fragmented, addicted: running from dopamine-hit to dopamine-hit and, as a result, our emotional regulation is skewed. We are fragmented people. (2)
That is what is bad about technology as we commonly think of it: even though we are more productive, connected and entertained, at the same time we ourselves become less functional as sentient creatures…. [W]hen we inundate ourselves with technology, we lose our focus and begin to act like machines. (3)
As many as a million young people in Japan are thought to be holed up in their homes, some for decades at a time, spending their waking moments immersed online, reports the BBC…. Japan is the first country in the world to institute state-run “fasting” camps for Internet-addicted children. (4)
At its core, technology is a systematic effort to get everything under control. (5)
That last is the one that gets me. I am, as you know, all about control.
I need to know more about this.
This will be the last blog post you receive from me for a while.
I have decided to go offline for the month of August.
No blogging or browsing. No Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. No emails in or out. Texting only in emergencies.
When I come back I’ll write some posts about it. Maybe even a book.
It’s a little scary, like most surrenders.
Part of me whispers Are you sure you want to do this?
Then I realize that’s Bert’s voice. Bert, the control addict in me.
We decided we don’t want to be addicted, remember? I say back to him. So yes, I want to do this.
So here goes.
See you in September.
(1) Crook, 44.
(2) Crook, 57.
(3) Aiden Enns, publisher of Geez magazine, quoted in Crook, 63.
(4) Crook, 112.
(5) Albert Borgmann, quoted in Crook, 44.