Author Archives: Steve Hauptman

One big happy

12-9-16-one-big-happyTwo weeks from Christmas, and it’s cranking up now.

But it started a month ago.

In session after session I heard uneasy anticipations. 

Like

The holidays are coming (sigh),

Or

I’ve got the family coming for Thanksgiving,

followed by an eye roll.

There’s real anxiety here.  For some, it approaches panic.

This happens because, around now, a particular myth takes on a terrible importance:

The myth of the Big Happy Family.

It’s a myth with the power to yank us right out of our comfort zones and twist us into emotional pretzels.

It forces people who normally don’t speak all year to sit side by side in living rooms and pretend to find each other endlessly interesting and amusing.

It makes people who secretly hate, fear or distrust each other pretend to a bond of mutual love and affection.

It’s kind of nuts.

And it can do real damage. 

For control addicts (that’s me, and probably you too) the holidays are a setup, a virtual invitation to relapse.

How do we relapse? 

Let’s count the ways:

~ We imagine ideal holidays and try to manufacture them.

~ We remember traumatic holidays and try to compensate for them.

~ We notice relationship problems and try to disguise them.

~ We notice feelings that don’t match the holiday mood (resentment, jealousy, anxiety, rage) and judge ourselves for feeling them.

~ We associate with people we really don’t like, then suppress or deny our inevitable discomfort.

~ We use the holidays as a benchmark to measure our progress through life, then try to conceal our sense of disappointment or inadequacy.

~ We mask our awareness of all the above by eating or drinking or drugging or spending too much, then wonder why we end up feeling empty, lonely and mad at ourselves.

The Big Happy Family is an aspirational myth.  Like Santa Claus, Heaven or the United Nations, it describes how we wish things could be. 

It’s a lovely aspiration. 

But it’s dangerous to take such myths too literally. 

Because to do so creates denial of how things really are. 

And that’s rarely a good thing.  It stops us from dealing with life on life’s terms.  Makes us ignore our own feelings, needs and preferences. Tempts us to try to control people, places and things instead.

And that way lies madness. 

Or at least a holiday that feels like a picnic in a minefield.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Distrust.

12-3-16-distrust


Here/now.

11-21-16-be-here-now


Myth.

11-24-16-myth


Tragedy.

11-21-16-tragedy


Comfort.

11-15-16-comfort


Surviving Trump

           x

May you live in interesting times.

~ Traditional Chinese curse

 

As we near the end of this horrible, terrible, not-very-good week I find myself having more and more conversations with friends and clients whose mental health took a nosedive on Tuesday.

They are angry, or anxious, or depressed, or grieving, or bewildered, or all of the above.

One client sent me an email describing these feelings, asking, “Should I worry?  Or is this the new normal?”

I answered, “I don’t know what the new normal is.  But if Facebook is any barometer, you’re not alone.”

That fact has actually helped me more than anything else.  Yes, I spend way too much time on Facebook.  But this week it really helped me to hear how many people were upset by this clusterfuck of an election.  And it helped me to go there and gnash my teeth in public.  Misery doth love company.

But I’m also a therapist, and Monday starts a new interesting week, and I expect to be faced with a good deal more misery to come.

Hence this short guide to surviving whatever the hell comes next.  

 

1. Don’t eat garbage.

Garbage means whatever makes you sick.   Sick means angry, anxious, depressed or hopeless.  Listen to your feelings, and go in the direction they point.  Change the channel.  Avoid Fox.  Avoid Facebook, or at least block anyone whose postings dismay you.  Move to another seat, away from the bigmouth who’s gloating.  That’s not rudeness, it’s self-defense.  Feed yourself good stuff instead.  Good food, good music, good friends.  Spend time with like-minded people, those who feel the way you do.  Even better, take a vacation from politics.  (They’ll still be there when you return.)  Walk in the woods or on a beach.  (Alongside the majesty of nature, politics shrivel in significance.)  Drink wine.  Drink hot cocoa.  Watch Frank Capra movies.  Read good books, ones that expand your mind and soul.  Or trashy novels that provide delicious escape.  Bake cookies and eat them with cold milk.  And if you have grandkids, play with them more (which is just what I’m doing right after I finish writing this).  

 

2. Throw the OFF switch.

On the projector in your head, I mean.  Yes, terrible things may happen, and no, we don’t want them to.  But they haven’t happened yet.  And obsessing won’t prevent them.  If you must do something, do something constructive.  Get political and work to elect progressives.  Send money to Planned Parenthood.  Join a Black Lives Matter march.  Go out of your way to be friendly to the Muslim woman you meet in the produce aisle.  Stick a safety pin in your collar.  (Unaware of the Safety Pin movement?  Scroll down to the bottom of this page.)  You’re not helpless; there are many opportunities to do good, and to feel good doing it.  But the one thing you should not do is sit in a corner listening to the insane chatter of monkeymind.

 

3. All politics are personal.

This is something I know but keep forgetting when I go on Facebook and encounter Trump supporters.  I forget that we believe what we believe, love what we love, hate what we hate and fear what we fear for subjective reasons.  That my political opinions, like a lawnful of dandelions, have roots sunk deep in my personal history, experiences, relationships, aspirations, disappointments and woundings.  Deep stubborn roots, many of them hidden even from myself.  That my unawareness of these roots only strengthens my faith in my own rightness, and your wrongness if you disagree with me.  Hence my self-righteous anger at you.  And hence the saying “In politics, as in love, we are often astounded by the choices of others.”  I’ll try harder to remember all this next time I’m astounded.

x

*

safety-pin-capture

For more info, Google #safetypin or search

for Facebook posts under that hashtag.

The safety pin drawing at the top of the page

is by Jessica Jacks-Turkus.


Maybe, 2016

11-11-16-maybe-2-framedFriday, November 11, 2016. 

Three days after the election of Donald J. Trump.

People marching in the streets.

Clients coming in anxious and depressed about the fate of the nation.

They, like I, fighting off scary projections about what will happen now to minorities, to Obamacare, to Planned Parenthood, to SCOTUS.

What happens with Russia, and ISIS, and abortion rights, and guns in our schools, and Rudy Giuliani as Attorney General.

And the KKK and American Nazis, who seem poised to go mainstream.

And I’m trying my damnedest to be Buddhist about this whole thing. 

Because projection is so dangerous. 

It’s so easy to scare ourselves shitless.

This Zen story helps me to remember that.

I hope it helps you, too.

 

Maybe

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.  One day his horse ran away.  Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.  “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.  “Maybe,” the farmer replied.  The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.  “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.  “Maybe,” replied the old man.  The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.  Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.  “Maybe,” answered the farmer.  The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army.  Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.  The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.  “Maybe,” said the farmer.


On feeling adequate: Adulting

11-8-16-me-outside-and-inside

*

(Sixth in a series. You can read the last post here.)

.

Liz is nervous about entering my therapy group. 

“But I don’t know why,” she says. 

“I do,” I answer. 

“There’s a secret reason for this feeling most people don’t realize,” I say.  “When we enter a new group situation we expect the group to treat us as we were treated in our family of origin. 

“If our family provided safety and acceptance, we unconsciously expect that from the group.  But if our family abused us, we expect the group to abuse us too.  If our family was critical or judgmental, we expect the group to be the same.  If our family ignored or neglected  or dismissed us….  You get the point.” 

“Jesus,” mutters Liz,  who grew up in an alcoholic family.  “No wonder I’m nervous.”

“Right,” I say.  “This makes group pretty scary for some people, at least when they start. 

“But it’s also an opportunity for real therapy.

“Group provides a chance for what I call a corrective emotional experience.  When we find that the bad thing we expect to happen doesn’t — that this group is actually nothing like our family, that here we can actually be ourselves and still feel safe and get our needs met — the kid inside us begins to heal. 

“And we come away from group feeling just a bit more adult.”

That last word — adult — is a good way to describe the most adequate any of us ever feel.

True adulthood is much rarer than we suppose.  It’s one thing to grow up in external, superficial ways; it’s another to feel adult inside.  We look at others living their apparently grownup lives — with their grownup bodies, jobs, houses, money and accomplishments — and think surely they must feel like grownups.  But all the people I know well admit to feeling anything like that.

They feel like kids wrapped in adult bodies. 

They look forward to feeling as old as they actually are.

Me too.

We feel this way because of the famous Inner Child you’ve heard about.  This is the part that never entirely grows up.  I see it as a collection of wounds — unmet needs, expressed feelings, unanswered questions, unresolved doubts.

We each have a Kid inside, whether or not we talk about it. 

And most of us treat the Kid pretty badly.

“Most adults are ashamed of the Kid,” I wrote in Monkeytraps. 

They perceive it as a weakness, a flaw or vulnerability.  When the Kid makes an appearance — gets scared or cries, for example — they’re embarrassed.  Shut up, they tell it.  You make me look ridiculous.  Shut up and go away. 

This is no accident.  It’s the result of being parented by adults who largely forget what it felt like to be powerless, puzzled, and surrounded by giants.  And of schools which cram kids into classroom, ignore their needs for freedom, fresh air and play, regiment their behavior and test them into obedience.  All of this taught them This is how you treat a kid.*

In therapy we have to decide what to do with this part of us. 

I tell clients there are three steps to healing the Kid.

First, you stop the abuse.  You bring the Kid out of the closet, stop calling it names, stop shaming it when its feelings come up.  This takes a conscious decision and, usually, some external support like that provided by a therapist or therapy group.

Second, you get to know the Kid.  What are its needs?  What are its wounds?  What didn’t it get when you were its age?  What scared or traumatized it?  Answers to these questions are essential to understanding what triggers the Kid now.  Again, to do this work seriously requires a conscious decision, and external permission and support.

Third, you help it grow up.  You do this by helping the Kid do things most kids are not permitted by the giants that surround them: tell the truth, express feelings, cry, rage, swear, be funny, be silly, be selfish, play, say No, ask for help, ask to be held.  You look for ways to listen for what the Kid needs and, if possible, provide it.

These three steps make up the process of what I call adulting. 

The goal of adulting is not to eliminate the Kid, or even get it to grow up all the way.  Neither is possible.  Each of us is fated to carry some childhood wounds forever.  This is sad, and normal. 

No, the goal of adulting is simply to help us treat the Kid with compassion and understanding, and to heal what wounds that we can.

Sound frivolous? 

It is not. 

Such work is necessary to reduce the long-term emotional crippling every kid suffers when compelled to follow a Plan A.

We all have work like this to do. 

Sadly, most of us will never do it.

We won’t take the time, won’t see the need, or, most probably, will just be too scared.

“To suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy,” wrote Fritz Perls.

Still, neither is the alternative, which is to go through adulthood feeling less than adult.

And so inadequate.  Not enough.

Which, as I’ve been suggesting throughout this six-part series, is nothing more than a destructive and unnecessary lie.

 

___________________

*Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (Lioncrest, 2015).  Available at amazon.com.


On feeling adequate: Unsticking

grasping-hand

(Fifth in a series. You can read the last post here.)

.

If you want to feel like an adequate human being, there is no more valuable emotional skill than detaching.

Detachment is a form of surrender, the ability to stop trying to control reality and still believe things will be okay.

“Surrender is the moment of accepting reality on the unconscious level,” writes Stephanie Brown.

The individual knows the deepest truth, regardless of wishes or explanations to the contrary.  Defenses used in the service of denying that reality (denial and rationalization, defiance and grandiosity) no longer work….  When true unconscious surrender has occurred, the acceptance of reality means that the individual can work in it and with it.” [1] 

Surrender is essential to sanity.   “Think about it,” I suggested in Monkeytraps: 

Imagine someone unable to ever surrender control.  How could they drive on a freeway?  Fly in an airplane?  Eat in a restaurant?  Let their kids ride a school bus?  Permit a dentist to drill their tooth?  Or a surgeon to remove their tonsils?  Trust a therapist with their secrets?  Stay sane during a hurricane? [2]

Other forms of surrender are faith, tolerance and trust — each in its own way essential to adult functioning, emotional balance and peace of mind.

But detaching is especially valuable for people in difficult situations or going through troubled times.  It’s the ability to take a step back , to disengage emotionally, to refuse to dance with a painful experience.  To say, “No thanks, I’ll sit this one out.” 

And this ability is vital to control addicts, whose deep sense of inadequacy stems from the habit of fighting battles they simply cannot win.

Like Anita, who got arrested when she could not stop stalking the boyfriend she thought was cheating on her.  Or Barbara, whose rage at her husband’s affair finally drove her to swallow a large bottle of Excedrin (I’ll show him).  Or Carl, who after the 9/11 bombings stopped going to work and stayed glued to his TV screen, because watching CNN made him feel he knew what was happening and so could protect himself and his family. [3]

I think of detachment as the ability to unglue myself from the stickiness of the world.  You know what I mean.  The world pulls at us constantly, demanding our attention, energy and caring.  Always things to do, problems to solve, people to worry over. 

Some pulls are important and necessary and it would be irresponsible to ignore them.  But control addicts can’t distinguish necessary from unnecessary, healthy from compulsive.  They try to do everything, solve everything, worry about everybody.  Then they fail, and get exhausted.  And feel inadequate.

They’re not inadequate, of course; just unrealistic.  They keep trying to do the impossible.

To feel like an adequate human being, you need to stop doing that. 

To unstick yourself from an endlessly sticky world. 

(To be continued.)

 

open-hand-globe

__________________

[1] Treating the alcoholic: A developmental model of recovery (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1985), 15-16.

[2] Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (New York: Lioncrest, 2015), 239.

[3] Ibid, 251.

 

 


On feeling adequate: Unwashing

brainwashed2

 (Fourth in a series.  The last post can be read here.

The next step towards adequacy must be to start unwashing our brains.

This series began with two posts that described how men and women are typically brainwashed — forced into meeting expectations which leave them emotionally dwarfed, frustrated and needy.

The polite term for this brainwashing is socialization.

Socialization is that process by which individuals are trained to adapt and conform to their social environments.  We are socialized by being taught — and eventually coming to perceive as our own — a set of rules, norms, values, behaviors and customs by which our tribe defines a person as normal.  

Anyone who wants to survive socially and psychologically has no choice but to accept these basic cultural assumptions. 

Unfortunately, they often conflict with our needs as human beings.

As a result we become split into two selves, one private, one public — which then proceed to war with each other.  This internal war is called neurosis.

How this happens was outlined fifty years ago in a book by two sociologists titled The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society (Harper Colophon, 1964).  Its authors ask an interesting question: Why are Americans so hungry for the approval of others?  Their answer: Because they have been taught to disapprove of themselves.

The adjusted American lacks self-approval; that is to say, he has not developed a self-image that he can believe is both accurate and acceptable.  To do so he would require successful techniques for creating an accurate and acceptable self-image through honest introspection, candid association, and meaningful activity.  The patterns to which he has adjusted do not include such techniques.  Instead, the culture abounds with misdirections, which the adjusted American acquires.

What “misdirections”?  Most thoughtful observers would agree they include the value we place on things like money, success, possessions, consuming, celebrity and emotional control.

Pursuing these goals virtually forces us into lifestyles of deprivation and neediness.   Pursuing money and success, for example, interferes with our needs for relaxation and time with loved ones.  Valuing celebrity and emotional control pushes us to win the approval of others instead of self-approval.

Perhaps above all, [the adjusted American] learns to seek self-acceptance indirectly, by seeking to substitute the good opinion of others for self-approval….  Half-certain of his own inadequacy, he attempts to present himself to others in an appealing way.  When (or if) he has won their approval he hopes that they will be able to convince him that he is a better man that he thinks he is.

Thus (a) we are socialized into pursuing the wrong goals, which (b) leaves us needy and unhappy; but then (c) we misread the cause of our neediness (I’m doing something wrong, we think), and (d) conclude that we are inadequate.

As a therapist I see the cost of socialization every day in the emotional problems clients bring to therapy: 

~ How it erodes each person’s connection to his or her true self. 

~ How, over time, this becomes an inability to even know who that true self is — what one really thinks and feels, needs and values. 

~ How the person’s self-awareness gets replaced by preoccupation with other people see them. 

~ How self-care gets replaced by compulsion to manipulate other people, and how self-acceptance gets replaced by an insatiable craving to feel valued of by those others.

~ How this sad, self-defeating cycle gets unconsciously repeated in how they behave with and parent their children.

What to do about this?

Can we unwash our own minds?

Can we raise kids uncrippled by socialization?

(To be continued.)

*

Coming soon,

the next book in the Monkeytraps series:

everyday-cover-blue-2

 

 


On feeling adequate: Reframing

.

.half-glass-1-3-b

 (Third in a series.  Previous posts were “Why women feel inadequate” and “Why men feel inadequate”.)

.

There are three things to remember when considering one’s sense of personal adequacy.

The first is

.

1. “Adequate” is a relative term

The word adequate means, basically, enough.  

So before we apply it we need to ask: enough for what?

A glass of water is enough to slake my thirst after eating potato chips, not sustain me while trekking across the Sahara. 

Six feet in height will allow me to grab a can of soup off the top shelf in the supermarket, not snag rebounds in the NBA. 

My math skills are adequate for balancing my checkbook, not teaching college calculus.

And so on.

The idea of adequate depends entirely on context.

That’s the first thing to remember.

The second thing is

.

2. We choose the context

We decide when enough is enough.

I visit a gym and feel horribly unfit and unhealthy.  Then I visit an old age home and feel strong and vigorous in comparison.

I self-publish a book that sells 300 copies and feel like a abject failure.  Until I learn that most self-published books sell fewer than 50.

I compare myself to my genius father and feel like an idiot.  I compare myself to my idiot brother and feel like a genius.

You get the idea.

My sense of my own adequacy, it turns out, depends entirely on my perspective.

The third thing to remember is

.

3. Context is adjustable

I grow up with abusive parents.  I am hit, shamed, criticized and ignored.  I grow up seeing myself as unlovable and terminally inadequate — since, I reason (as kids do), if I had any value my parents would have treated me differently.

I join a therapy group where I receive attention, acceptance, approval and affection.  At first all this is uncomfortable, since I feel unworthy of it.  But in time my perspective shifts.  I come to see myself as the group sees me, as worthy of attention, respect and love.  I also come to see my parents as limited, unhealthy people.  I feel a new sense of okayness.  My context for judging my own value has changed.

This process is called reframing — questioning assumptions and conclusions that are inaccurate, unfair or self-defeating.

Much of my work as a therapist is teaching people to do this for themselves.

Sheila grew up in a family like the one described earlier.  Her low self-esteem led her into one awful relationship after another.  Her first husband was an alcoholic who beat her.  Her second was an emotional abuser who cheated and blamed her for everything.  She’s now questioning her relationship with a man who treats her well but can be emotionally distant.  “What’s wrong with me?” she scowls.  “Why do I keep picking losers?”  I point out that it took her nine years to divorce the alcoholic, three years to divorce the emotional abuser, and that only six months into this new relationship she’s begun to expect more emotional feeding than she’s been getting.  “Six months versus nine years,” I say.  “That’s not progress?”  Her face clears.  “I guess it is,” she says.   

“Garbage in, garbage out” goes an old saying about computers.  The same is true of children.  Teach them a distorted view of themselves and they will live lives based on that lie. 

But another old saying is “Where you put your attention is what grows.” 

We can shift our view of ourselves by shifting our attention.

(To be continued.) 

*

Coming soon,

the next book in the Monkeytraps series:

everyday-cover-blue-2

 

 

 

 

   


Why men feel inadequate

boy-in-mans-shoes-r-margin(Continued from “Why women feel inadequate.”)

 x

“Men feel inadequate because inside they don’t feel like men,” I say.  “They feel like boys.”

“Why?” asks Denise.

“Again, socialization.   I wrote about this the Four Wounds post series.”

“I read that,” Amy nods.

“I didn’t,” says Bonnie.

“I’ll summarize,” I say.  “I said the key to understanding men is to realize that most boys suffer four wounds — four losses — in childhood from which they never recover. 

“First they’re forced to give up their mothers before they’re ready.  Not just their actual mothers — because, you know, a boy who stays too attached to Mom is a mama’s boy.  But we also expect them to give up mothering itself, and everything it represents — softness and nurturing and affection and empathy.  Why?  Because those are feminine virtues.  We expect boys to be stereotypically masculine — tough, brave, aggressive and stoic.

“They also lose their fathers.  Once upon a time boys spent time with fathers, working alongside them in fields or workshops.  They had a chance to get a sense of what a grown man is and how he behaves, to absorb male energy, so to speak.  But nowadays dads go off to work early and come home late, leaving their sons only a vague idea of where Dad is or what he’s doing all day.  And the son spends his time in the company of mothers and grandmothers and female teachers and babysitters.  He has no internalized male road map to follow out of boyhood.

“Then, on top of being under-parented, boys are forced to give up their feelings.  This starts for most of us in grade school, or even earlier.  You know what I’m talking about.  All that big-boys-don’t-cry crap.”

“Yes,” Denise says.  “When my son cries, my husband gets so mad.

“How old is your son?” asks Emma.

“Six,” Denise says sadly.

 “Exactly,” I say.  “So first we deprive them of parenting, then we take away their right to complain about it.  What do we tell boys who show fear or weakness?  Be a man.

“Finally, we expect males to give up their freedom — first to go to school, then to work, and sometimes to war.  We expect them to sacrifice themselves for the sake of family and community, whether they want to or not.  And again, this is such a given that they’re not allowed to have feelings about it or complain.  But if they’re not up to it, god help them.

“All this sends most men into adulthood feeling unprepared, secretly inadequate, and often, deeply angry.”

“My husband’s mad all the time,” muses Caroline.  “I never knew why.” 

“Most men don’t know why, either,” I say. 

“Of course they find ways to medicate these feelings.  Some focus on making money or climbing the ladder of success.  Some chase women, have lots of sex, marry attractive wives.  Some buy stuff and collect stuff.  Some run for office.  Some bully women, children and others weaker than themselves.  And when all this fails many drink, or drug, or overeat, or overwork.  Or have heart attacks.

“Yikes,” says Amy. 

“So you’re saying all men and all women feel secretly inadequate,” Denise says.

“Pretty much,” I say.  “We just don’t talk about it.”

“Because we each think it’s our fault,” says Amy. 

I nod.  “We think feeling inadequate means we are inadequate.  That’s part of the brainwashing.”

“That’s awful,” Emma says.  “I don’t want my kids growing up like this.”

The others nod.

“Is the brainwashing inevitable?” asks Amy.  “Or can we prevent it?”

“Actually,” I say, “I think you can.”

(To be continued.)

 


Why women feel inadequate

wonder-woman-framedIn group. 

All women.

We’re talking about how each of them feels inadequate, though for different reasons:

Amy can’t keep her house clean. 

Bonnie is struggling to get pregnant. 

Caroline’s not sure she married the right man.  

Denise doubts she’s a good enough teacher. 

Emma is afraid she may be a bad parent.

“You’re all wrong,” I tell them.

In unison, they frown. 

“I know how I feel,” Amy says.

“I don’t mean that,” I say.  “I’m talking about why you feel it.”

“You don’t feel inadequate for any of the reasons you named.  You feel inadequate  because that’s how you were socialized.  

“Like most women I know, you were taught to be perfectionists.  You’re taught to care of everyone else — kids, spouse, parents, pets — and to believe that if any of them is unhappy or has problems it’s your responsibility.  You’re supposed to fix them or heal them or love them back to wholeness.

“That same perfectionism extends to housekeeping” (I look at Amy), “and your job” (I look at Denise), “and especially to parenting” (to Emma) “and virtually everything else.  Whatever you’re doing.  Whatever you’re not doing, or can’t do.  

“I’ve never known a woman who thought she was doing enough.  Have you?”

They shake their heads.

“So you’re not inadequate.  You’re just not Wonder Woman.  You’re not all-knowing and all-powerful.  You’re just a human being who’s been brainwashed.  You think you need to be perfect before you can feel good enough.”

“Well, shit,” says Amy.

“How do you know this?” Bonnie asks.  “You’re a man.”

“I’m a man who talks to women all day long,” I say.  “And I’m a man with a wife and a daughter and a granddaughter.  The first reason is how I know this about women, and the second is why it pisses me off.  This brainwashing is stupid and crazy and cruel, and it bothers me whenever I hear it hurting women” (I look at all of them) “I care about.” 

They are quiet for a moment.

Then Bonnie asks, “What about men?  Do they feel the same way?”

“I think they do,” I say.  “But for another reason.”

To be continued.

 

 

 

 

 


The universal addiction: Redefining codependency

the-universal-addiction“So what the hell is codependency?” asks a man in the back row. 

He’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket and he sounds annoyed.

I’m not sure how to answer.  I’m in over my head here.

I’m a new social worker, six months out of grad school, working for a clinic on the east end of Long Island.  My new boss has decided I should run the weekly Family Education Series, basically a crash course in alcoholism and how it screws up families.  And tonight the topic is codependency.

I know my subject well enough.  I’ve worked as an alcoholism counselor.  I’ve treated hundreds of codependents.  I can diagnose one in the first five minutes of a conversation. 

But when it came time to prepare this talk I found I couldn’t define the word. 

At work we talk about codependency all the time without ever stopping to explain what we meant.  And when I looked into my half-dozen books on the subject I found each defining it in a different way.  One was:

A specific condition characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence on another person, activity, group, idea, or substance. [1]

Another:

An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. [2]

A third:

A multidimensional (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) condition manifested by any suffering and dysfunction that is associated with or due to focusing on the needs and behavior of others. [3]

A fourth:

A recognizable pattern of personality traits, predictably found within most members of chemically dependent families, which are capable of creating sufficient dysfunction to warrant the diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder as outlined in DSM-III [4],

which sent me off to yet another book to learn what the hell that meant.

Finally I came to codependency maven Melody Beattie, who explained that a codependent is simply

a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. [5]

A fine definition.  Until you notice it describes just about everyone.

Having no idea which definition to offer my workshop, I cleverly decided to present them all.

So here I am, having just done that.  I’ve distributed a handout with the five definitions on it, and read them aloud, and am now looking at a roomful of blank faces.

“So what the hell is codependency?” asks Corduroy.

Everyone giggles.

I giggle too.  (Inside I’m thinking Shoot me now.

Then something happens.

Something clicks in some back room of my head. 

And I relax, and I hear myself answer,

“Addiction to control.”

I have surprised myself.  I’ve never thought of it this way before. 

But Corduroy starts asking questions, and I find answers bubbling out of me, and suddenly it’s all making a new sort of sense. 

I tell him I see codependents as traumatized people, convinced their survival depends on controlling “their” alcoholic’s illness.  So they do things like hide booze and avoid dad at certain times of the day and lie to his boss about why he missed work or to the neighbors about why he fell asleep in the driveway.  And from all these experiences they come to see control as a way of coping generally, and set about applying it to everything and everyone in their lives, to the point where it makes them sick. 

“Sick how?” Corduroy frowns. 

Anxious and depressed, I tell him.  But also worried and tense and irritable, and unable to relax or have fun, or identify and express feelings, or trust anyone, or like themselves.  Also self-medicating with food or work or rescuing other people or whatever else they can think of. 

And now Corduroy is nodding thoughtfully, and so are others in the room.

And I know I’m onto something.

*

After the workshop I go back to doing therapy with clinic clients.  Mine is a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the sorts of problems every therapist faces: anxiety, depression, addictions, bad relationships, parenting problems.

But now something’s changed.

Have you ever bought a new car — a new Honda, say — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas?  Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.

This is happening to me.  Suddenly my caseload is filled with control addicts.

The clients haven’t changed, I have.  It’s like I’m wearing new eyeglasses.  My vision has refocused or sharpened or something, and now I can’t help seeing how relentlessly, compulsively and self-destructively controlling they all are.

They? I mean We. Everyone.

Controlling, I find, is the universal addiction.  It’s everywhere I look.  Not just in codependent clients, but all of them.  Not just in clients, but in my colleagues and friends and family.  And on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watch on tv or in the movies.  And of in myself. 

Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snakes through every problem, every motive, every personality, every emotional life.

Why is this?  

I had always assumed that dysfunctional families created codependency.  But now I find the red thread running everywhere, which must mean either that (a) all families are dysfunctional (an arguable premise) or (b) the urge to control is hardwired into us, rooted in some deep part of our brain that can’t help rejecting what life hands us and trying to replace it with what we prefer.  Or (c) both.  Or (d) something else entirely.  I don’t know. 

I spend the next fifteen years studying the idea of control. 

I hunt for books on control (there aren’t many), then for books on related ideas like desire and power and addiction.  I buy lots of books.  I start reading everything with a highlighter in my hand, scribbling big yellow Cs alongside the parts that relate to control.  Half my books start to look pee-stained.  I buy more books.  I start typing out control-related passages I like and collect them in a computer file which as of today runs to 200 pages. 

I discover Buddhism, which turns out to be all about control addiction (except Buddhists call it attachment).  I try meditating.  I hate it.  Well, not hate it exactly, but resist it like hell, to the point I’m unable to sustain a regular practice.  Apparently the control addict in me just can’t stand to sit and listen to my own thoughts, to that anxious internal chatter Buddhists call monkeymind

I begin reshaping my approach to therapy around the idea of control.  I teach my clients to notice when they’re monkeytrapped – i.e., caught in situations which tempt them to control what they cannot control, to hold on when they should let go.

I start a blog called Monkeytraps.  I write posts about control addiction and ways to recover from it.  I write posts about my own addiction, and the part I think of as my inner monkey, whom I name Bert.

People read the blog and write comments.  “You’re writing about me,” is a familiar reply.

And the new therapy seems to work.  I am struck by how many clients tell me, as they become less controlling, “It’s so much easier.” 

I decide to write a book. 

*

Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop was published in December 2015. 

It’s based on four lessons I learned from my study and clinical work:

(1) We are all addicted to control.

(2) This addiction causes most emotional problems.

(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.

(4) There are better ways to handle feelings than control.

I call these lessons the Four Laws of control, since they seem true of everyone I meet and seem to operate pretty invariably.

We can’t help but follow these laws, whether we realize it or not.

Just as, whether we realize it or not, we can’t avoid living lives shaped by the universal addiction.

.

This post previously appeared on Lisa Fredericksen’s Breaking the Cycles (http://www.breakingthecycles.com/blog/)

_______________________________________

[1] Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, ChoiceMaking: For co-dependents, adult children and spirituality seekers (Health Communications, 1985).

[2] Robert Subby, Lost in the shuffle: The co-dependent reality, quoted in Whitfield (see below).

[3] Charles Whitfield, Co-dependence: Healing the human condition (Health Communications, 1991).

[4] Timmen Cermak, Diagnosing and treating co-dependence (Johnson Institute, 1986).

 [5] Melody Beattie, Codependent no more (Harper/Hazelden, 1987).


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