Category Archives: dysfunctional controlling

Downhill

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In group.  Liz comes in fifteen minutes late. 

“Sorry,” she says to everyone.  “Traffic.” 

Everyone nods, except Nancy.

“So glad you could make it,” Nancy mutters.

“Whoa,” someone says.

We look at Nancy.  Nancy notices. 

“What?” she says.

“You’re pissed,” someone says.

“No I’m not,” Nancy says, and bursts into tears.

I wait while someone passes her tissues.

“What’s up?” I ask.

She wipes her eyes and shrugs.  “I’m all nervous and angry lately.  I don’t know why.”

“Since when?”

“Two, three days.”

“What happened three days ago?” 

“Nothing.”  She looks up.  “Wait.  My inlaws came to town.”

“Bingo,” someone says.

“Your alcoholic inlaws,” I say. 

Nancy nods.

“Bingo bingo,” someone says.  There are chuckles.

“What?” Nancy asks again.

“You’re a victim of gravity,” Liz smiles.  “As in shit rolls downhill.

“I don’t understand,” Nancy says.

“Old saying,” I say.  “Shit rolls downhill.  Boss yells at Dad, Dad yells at Mom, Mom yells at Sister, Sister yells at Brother, Brother kicks the dog.”

“Oh,” Nancy says.

“Nancy, how does your husband get along with his parents?” Liz asks. 

“They make him crazy,” Nancy sniffles.  “Nervous, frustrated, angry.”

“And how does he act with you?”

“Like I can’t do anything right,” she says glumly.

“And then how are you with the kids?”

“Controlling,” Nancy admits.  “If they don’t do exactly what I say I just…lose it.”

She looks at me in surprise.  “Shit does roll downhill.”

“Why does that happen?” someone asks me.

“There are several ways to explain it,” I say.  “One is simple displacement.  Shit rolls downhill because people take their anger out at the next person below them on the food chain.

“Another is boundary confusion.  In alcoholic families the boundaries between members get impossibly blurred.  We can’t tell where I end and you begin.  Feelings leak from one person into another.   Your bad day becomes my bad day.  Your anger or anxiety become my problem.”

Nancy frowns.  “So my husband catches his parents’ emotional problems, like the flu?”

“Maybe,” I say.  “But there’s a third explanation.  Being around his parents probably triggers old feelings in him, old pain and fear, helplessness and anger.”

“Like PTSD,” someone says.

“Yes,” Nancy says sadly.  “I see that.  He regresses.”

“So what should Nancy do?” someone asks.

I smile at Nancy.  “She can start by apologizing to her kids.”

“Yes,” Nancy says.

“And tell them that she’s been in a bad mood lately, and it’s not their fault, and she’s working hard on getting out of it.”

Nancy nods.

“Then she should probably try to talk to her husband about how they can support each other for the next — Nancy, how long?”

“They’re staying a week.”

“The next week or so.  For example, they could carve out debriefing time every night, and use it to vent to each other about whatever happens that bothers them.”

Nancy nods.  “We can do that.”

“Finally, she can promise herself that for the next week she’ll lean on her support system to process whatever comes up for her.  Bring it to group.  Call you guys when she gets confused or angry or anxious.”

“Call me,” Liz says.

Nancy smiles.  “I’m sorry about before.”

Liz shakes her head.  “I went through this for years.  Whenever his family visited my husband and I would fight like cats and dogs.  Finally we got into therapy and learned to manage our temporary insanity — which is just what it felt like — without resorting to divorce or homicide.”

“And your inlaws still visit?”

“Yes,” Liz sighs.  “But one thing that helps is a little ritual we created.  The day before we see them I tell my husband, ‘I apologize in advance for the next five days,’ or however long Mom and Dad are in town.  And he says the same thing to me.  And we hug.  And the hug is like a promise that we’ll stay connected, no matter how much shit rolls downhill.”

 

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Me and my hammer

~~~ silhouettes 70%*

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Particularization means mistaking some specific way of satisfying a need with the need itself.

It means confusing ends with means — mistaking what we want with one particular way of getting it.

“The genesis of particularization is habit, or conditioned response,” explain sociologists Snell & Gail Putney:

A person who has satisfied a need in one particular way since childhood is likely to have only a vague awareness of the need; his vivid consciousness will be of the familiar means of satisfaction. When feeling needful, he thinks instantly of the usual mode of fulfillment, bypassing recognition of the need itself….
But if for any reason the habitual behaviors are not very effective — as in many case they are not — particularization renders it difficult for the individual to recognize this fact…. Habit prevails, and he tends simply to try again in the familiar way.
The result is analogous to bailing a boat with a sieve.
~ From The adjusted American: Normal neuroses in the individual and society (Harper Colophon, 1964).

I see this all the time in people who grow up in alcoholic, abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional families.

Early on they learn to see life as unpredictable and dangerous (Will Dad drink or be sober? Will Mom hug me or hit me? Will everyone get along or fight until bedtime?) and blame their inner anxiety on events in their immediate environment.

Inevitably they try to manage their anxiety by controlling that environment (hide Dad’s beer, clean Mom’s kitchen, keep everyone laughing or distracted).

And there it is: particularization.  As kids they equate something they need (feeling safe) with one particular way of getting it (controlling people, places and/or things).  And they grow up convinced I must control things in order to feel safe.

Which leaves them no choice but to keep trying to rearrange the world around them.

Over and over and over.

And that, gentle reader, is how you create a control addict.

This happens to all of us, regardless of what our family was like. Why? Because we all start out as children. And children, having no power, are forced to rely on controlling the grownups around them.

“When the only tool you have is a hammer,” Abraham Maslow wrote, “everything looks like a nail.”

So we’re all adult children.  We’re all control addicts.  And we all enter adulthood with the same hammer in hand.

Some of us, though, get sick and tired of secretly feeling and functioning like kids.

At which point the crucial question becomes:

Is there another way to rearrange how we’re feeling inside?


A sense of control

Another thing we control addicts tend to get wrong is the difference between actual control and what I call a sense of control.

I’ll explain.

Like you, I want to feel certain feelings.  I also want to avoid feeling others.

For example, I want to feel column A and avoid column B.

~~~ 2 columns

And so on.

Sense of control refers to those moments when we feel only the items in column A.

It’s in those moments that our internal universe seems to be under our command.

And we hunger for those moments.  We hunger for happiness and safety, confidence and love.  Those experiences are what we live for.

In fact, our whole lives are arranged in an attempt to repeat these experiences as often as possible.

Think about it.  Doesn’t every choice you make boil down to an attempt to answer questions like What will make me happy, not sad?  Comfortable, not uncomfortableConnected, not alienated?

Our preference for Column A experiences is rooted in survival instinct, and so hardwired into us.  That makes it the inevitable basis for all our conscious choices, and all our unconscious choices too.

And often we conclude that what will enable us to choose comfort over discomfort is to get actual control — control of the external world around us.

And that’s a valid conclusion sometimes.   Of course I’ll feel better if

~ My car stays on the road (instead of hitting that tree),

~ The boss raises my salary (instead of firing me),

~ My kid aces English (instead of failing it),

~ This attractive woman agrees to have dinner with me (instead of slapping my face).

All these experiences, and a million others like them, leads us to conclude that the way to get a sense of control is to get actual control.

A natural conclusion, but a flawed one.

Because one (the internal feeling) is a goal.  And the other (control over the external world) is just one means to that goal.

They’re.  Not.  The.  Same.

And it can be dangerous, self-defeating, and crazy-making to conclude that they are.


You haven’t asked

REMIND #1 (You haven't asked)


Wonderful/terrible

Wonderful terrible w borderLove is a wonderful terrible thing.

Wonderful because it connects us to others in the ways we most need to be connected.

Terrible because that connection leaves us horribly vulnerable.

You can’t love someone and protect yourself emotionally. Not really.

Real love means hurting when the other person hurts, and being subject to all sorts of doubts and disappointments, disillusionments and frustrations.

And yet many people I know try to make love safe.

They try to control the other person’s feelings, or viewpoint, or behavior.

They operate out of their heads, hoping to keep their feelings buried and beyond danger.

Or they hedge their bet, limiting their emotional commitment in the hope this will keep their vulnerability manageable.

These tactics always fail.

Because you can’t love someone and protect yourself emotionally.

And because you can’t protect yourself without the person you love noticing.

And because, by its nature, love is a wonderful terrible thing.

 

And because, by its nature, love is a wonderful terrible thing.

* * *

Now on YOUTUBE:

[ 1 addiction 320x342 (7)

the new trailer for

MONKEYTRAPS (THE BOOK):

click here.


Meet me, already

Meet your inner monkey (final),,,enlarged

 

Coming December 2015.

Sample chapters here:

MONKEYTRAPS (THE BOOK).

 

Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.netx


(THE BOOK) Chapter 28: Monkeyparents

 

When I first opened my private practice I needed clients, so I went into local high schools to give talks about parenting.   

Everyone’s favorite talk was titled “How to Parent Your Child Through Adolescence Without Committing Murder.”  Each delivery generated new clients. 

But most of them weren’t parents.  They were teenagers, nervous and sullen, dropped off in my waiting room by Mom or Dad with a tag tied to their toe:

Fix my kid.

I jest.  Well, partly.

Adolescence brings out the worst in many parents, for a reason which by now should be obvious: it challenges their sense of control. 

Before this they could convince themselves they were in charge.  Eat your broccoli, they’d say, and Junior complied.  It’s late, come in now, and here comes Junior. 

Or they could kiss the booboo and give Junior a hug and Junior would stop crying and hug them back.  Problem solved.    

Then Junior hits puberty and everything changes. 

The kid starts acting strangely.  Refuses your broccoli; won’t even touch your dinner.  Comes home late, or not at all.  Stops giggling at your jokes.  Acts like you’re a moron.  Rude, defiant, loud, silent, stubborn, irresponsible, self-centered and incredibly sloppy. 

Mom’s baby has morphed into an Orc. 

This predictable family crisis is called separation and individuation.  It’s a psychological threshold kids need to cross.  Once they do they start detaching from their parents, develop their own identity, express their own views and values, and start feeling and functioning like grownups.

All this is essential to healthy adult functioning.  Without it, no matter how old or how big someone gets, inside they feel incomplete and childish.    

But many parents misunderstand separation and individuation.  Even those that do understand usually find it uncomfortable. 

And to parents with control issues, it can feel like an earthquake.

Some misread this normal developmental stage as disrespect, disloyalty, rejection, parental incompetence, or a sign their kid no longer loves them.

Some misinterpret it as psychopathology.  They start hunting for signs of substance abuse, or Googling bipolar disorder.

Some panic.  Often these are people for whom parenting was the one part of life where they felt somewhat in command, could expect to be respected and admired, listened to and obeyed.  To such parents a child’s defiant No can feel like being tossed into deep water without a life preserver.

Some react with hurt, anger, judgment or withdrawal.

Some try to regain control by imposing new rules, demands or punishments.

Some become emotionally or verbally abusive.

Some become violent.

Some fight with their spouses about it.  Some get divorced.

Some get depressed, or develop anxiety disorders. 

Some drink, drug or overeat. 

And some enter therapy.

Where, if they’re lucky, they start to learn alternatives to monkeyparenting.

 


(THE BOOK) Chapter 26: The addicted

Everyone I see in therapy is addicted.

So is everyone I know.

When I first became a therapist I distinguished between addicts and nonaddicts.  That distinction no longer makes sense to me.

Now I think we’re all addicted to something.  It’s just that some addictions are more obvious than others.

As I said (see Chapter 12), addicts are people who can’t deal with feelings, and so feel compelled to find something that makes feelings going away.   This may be a substance (alcohol, drugs, food) or a behavior (work, sex, tv, shopping, video games, etc.).  Anything that alters your mood can be turned into an addiction.  That includes behaviors not inherently unhealthy, like exercise or meditation or volunteering.

The variations may be infinite, but they share the same root: the need to alter or control how one feels. 

My own addictions came in both flavors, substances and behaviors.

Sugar was always my drug of choice.  In grade school I ate it by the spoonful.  I also drank maple syrup.  In grad school I smoked a pipe until cumulus clouds formed in my office and my tongue morphed into hamburger.

My compulsive behaviors included watching television (an alternate reality where I spent most of ages twelve through eighteen), reading books (the alternate reality I still find preferable much of the time), and writing (in my thirties and forties I carried a spiral notebook everywhere with me, compulsively filling page after page whenever I felt confused or stressed out or scared.  There are thirty-one dusty spirals stacked in a corner of my garage).

And I’m still addicted to work.  But I can’t write intelligently about that here, since I remain in denial.

These were the main paths I followed into what I call the Garden of Numb.

You know that place.  It’s where your focus narrows, and the world goes away, and anxiety recedes, and tension and worry slough off like dirt in the shower.

Great place to visit.  Necessary, even.  We all need vacations.  The world can be a frightening and painful place, and living a human life is no picnic.

The problem comes when you find you can’t live outside the Garden.

Each of my addictions eventually took on lives of their own.  Each stopped being something I was doing and became something that was doing me.   I lost control of my need for control.

So now, whenever I meet a new client, I look for two things:

(1) What they do, repeatedly and compulsively, to get themselves into the Garden,

and

(2) How impaired this controlling behavior leaves them.

The signs of (2) are pretty predictable:

~ Bad feelings.  Since they have no way but numbness to manage feelings, and since nobody can stay numb constantly, addicts are emotionally uncomfortable much of the time.

~ Bad choices.  Since their unconscious priority is feeling-management, addicts tend to follow the path that is least threatening emotionally, and their decision-making reflects this — instead of, say, an awareness of reality, determination to solve problems, or concern for the needs and feelings of others.

~ Bad relationships.  Addicts struggle with relationships simply because addicts aren’t all there: their feelings are missing.  So they can’t be fully honest and authentic, can’t tolerate honesty and authenticity in others, and can’t communicate in a way that promotes real connection and mutual understanding.

See yourself in this?

Don’t feel too bad.

We’re all control addicts.

If you’re human and breathing there’s no avoiding it.


(THE BOOK) Chapter 25: The depressed

For the anxious, constipation is a problem.  For the depressed, it’s a lifestyle.

Usually it starts unconsciously and in self-defense.  All my depressed clients grew up in dangerous families where it was unsafe to be themselves.  (See Chapter 14.)  Kids in such families have little choice but to self-constipate. 

Ever been physically constipated?  Remember how, the longer it lasted, the more distracted and uncomfortable you felt?  How eventually the internal pressure and tension came to sap your energy and occupy all your attention?

That’s just what happens to the depressed.  It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (my shit’s coming up, can’t get my shit together) to describe emotional processes.  Feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are physical byproducts of what we eat.  And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings must be expressed — not hidden or stored up.  When they aren’t we get sick, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Humans either express themselves or depress themselves.

The best book I know on all this is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body, which explains depression as a physical symptom, an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need to come out.  Lowen writes,

The self is experienced through self-expression, and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed….  The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.

For control addicts – who experience life itself as one long litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts — some depression is inevitable.  And since everyone is addicted to control, it is not surprising that depression is called the common cold of mental illness.

I’ve had my cold for six decades.

I caught it in grade school.  Nobody called it depression then.  This was the fifties.  I’m not sure if back then anyone even knew that kids got depressed.

All I knew was I always felt sad, shy, nervous, worried.  Different.  Inadequate.  Flawed. 

I preferred being alone.  Preferred books to people.  Preferred tv to real life.

“Moody,” mom called me.  “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.

I also felt bad about feeling bad.  It must be my fault, I thought.  Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try.  So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder.  I just didn’t know how.

I felt bad through high school, college, and into adulthood.  Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood.  Through college, graduate school and into professional life. 

Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books.  Lots of books.  The idea of happiness, always mysterious to me, became a preoccupation, then a challenge, then a sort of quest. 

I read everything I could that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life? 

It was only after I began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.

Doing therapy with control addicts taught me that I hadn’t gotten depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or because they fought or divorced when I was eight.  It wasn’t because I never had as much money as I wanted, or the body I wanted, or wrote the book I always wanted to write.  Or because of anything that had happened to me.

I was depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.  

Or rather, didn’t react.

We express ourselves, or we depress ourselves.

 

 


(THE BOOK) Chapter 24: The anxious

The anxious are all different and all the same.

Big and little, old and young, rich and poor.  Worried seniors, controlling spouses, insecure employees.  Obsessive parents, stressed teenagers, scared kids.

Their symptoms are both painful and remarkably common.  They can’t stop worrying.  Their thoughts race.  They either can’t fall asleep or can’t stay there.  Their appetite comes and goes.  They’re self-doubting, perfectionistic, agonize over mistakes.  They get irritable, cranky or tearful.  They’re self-conscious around other people.  Even when alone, with no jobs to do, they can’t relax or enjoy themselves.

Some develop physical symptoms: restlessness, muscular tension, teeth grinding, indigestion, nausea, headaches.

Some suffer social anxiety.  Others have panic attacks.  Still others report obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors.

But behind all these differences they have three things in common:

(1) They try to control the future.   

They do this mainly by thinking about it.  Anticipating it.  Planning it.  Worrying about it.   Obsessing about it.   Forming expectations.  In other words, by surrendering their thoughts to the not-so-tender mercies of monkeymind.

This highly efficient system keeps anxieties growing like weeds.

Because the more the anxious worry about the future, the more anxious they get.  And the more anxious they get, the more they worry about the future.  And so on.

(2) They try to control other people. 

They do this by insisting — secretly, in the privacy of their monkeyminds– that other people always like them, accept them, approve of them, agree with them, admire their clothes, hair, physique, income, intelligence or sense of humor.

They convince themselves that they really need other people to do this, and that life will be intolerable when they don’t.

Thus they scare the crap out of themselves, and set off on a desperate course of seeking a degree of interpersonal control nobody can ever have.

(3) They overcontrol themselves.

This habit is an inevitable outgrow of the last.  Anxious people try to control other people mainly by editing themselves — hiding the parts they think others won’t like.

Most importantly, they bury feelings instead of expressing them.

That last sentence defines the heart of anxiety.

That’s because feelings are – excuse this analogy – like shit.  Feelings are supposed to be expelled and expressed, not buried and hidden.  When they’re buried, they don’t go away.  They collect.  The person becomes emotionally constipated, lives in a constant state of self-interruption, internal pressure and emotional pain.

And anxiety is the name we give to this pain.


(THE BOOK) Chapter 23: Five weeds

After the workshop described in chapter 13 — the one where I redefined codependency as control addiction —  I went back to doing therapy with clinic clients.  

Mine was still a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the same problems every therapist faces.  

But now something was different.

Did you ever buy 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.

That’s what happened to me. 

Suddenly my caseload was filled with control addicts.

The clients hadn’t changed, of course.  I had.  It’s like I’d put on new eyeglasses.  My vision had refocused or sharpened or something, and now I couldn’t help seeing how relentlessly and self-destructively controlling they all were.

They?  I mean we.  Everyone.

Controlling, I realized, was a universal addiction.  It was everywhere I looked.  Not just in clients I’d labeled codependent, but in every client.  Not just in clients, but in colleagues, and friends, and family, and on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watched on tv or in the movies. 

And, of course, in myself.  (I’d discovered Bert.) 

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

Most surprisingly, I noticed that the five most common problems clients brought to therapy all had compulsive controlling in common.

Anxiety, depression, addiction, relationship problems and problems with parenting — all seemed to grow out of the same dysfunctional urge to control what either couldn’t or shouldn’t be controlled.

Like five weeds growing out of the same root.

 


(THE BOOK) Chapter 22: Lessons and rules

So the first thing to remember about Plan A is that we learn it and follow it unconsciously.

And the second thing is that every Plan A has the very same goal:

Control over emotional life.

Do this, it tells you, to be safe and avoid pain.  Do this to win love and acceptance.

This becomes clearer when you examine the lessons and rules which are Plan A’s component parts.

I, for example, grew up in an alcoholic family.  Alcoholics are addicts, and as noted earlier, addicts are people who can’t handle feelings.  So I spend my childhood with people who reacted to my feelings with hurt and guilt, anxiety and anger.  And the Plan I evolved (essentially the same Plan evolved by every kid in that situation) reflected all that.

One important lesson was, “Feelings are uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst.”  This lesson grew into a rule: Feel as little as possible.  Think your way through life instead.

Another lesson was “You’re responsible for other people’s feelings.”  This grew into a second rule: Never be yourself around other people.

These two lessons were the foundation stones of my Plan A.

They also called my inner monkey into being.

Bert was born to take control of my chaotic emotional life.  He set out to accomplish that by doing things like burying his feelings, developing an acceptable image, and becoming painfully oversensitive to the emotions, perceptions and opinions of others.

Interestingly, it was Bert who convinced me to become a therapist.  Attending to others’ feelings while disguising my own seemed a natural fit to my original Plan.

Little did either of us suspect that becoming a healthy therapist would mean I’d have to outgrow Bert and develop a Plan B.


(THE BOOK) Chapter 20: Me and my monkey

By now you may have noticed the most interesting thing about monkeytraps:

They’re not really traps at all.

They’re just invitations to trap yourself.

They succeed because of a part of the human personality I call the inner monkey.

This is the part dominated by monkeymind, the addicted part, the compulsive part.  The scared part that grabs on, and panics, and then can’t let go.

I have an inner monkey.  

We grew up together.

I call him Bert.

It was my lifelong relationship with Bert that led me to create Monkeytraps: A blog about control.

In one of my first blog posts I invited Bert to introduce himself to my readers.  

He wrote this:

I entered Steve’s life early, probably well before kindergarten.  Probably before he could even talk.

My mission? 

To protect him.

From? 

Everything.

Scary situations.  Painful feelings.  Discomfort of every sort. 

Rejection.  Failure.  Disappointment.  Frustration.  Rejection.  Conflict.  Sadness.

(Just noticed I listed “rejection” twice.  Sorry.  I really really hate rejection.)

I did it mainly by searching relentlessly for ways to change things, things both outside and inside him.  To somehow move them closer to what he wanted, or needed, or preferred.

I also taught him tricks.  Coping tricks, like avoiding feelings and emotional risks.  And relationship tricks, like hiding who he really was and pretending to like people he hated.  Even perceptual tricks, like selective memory and trying to guess the future or read other people’s minds

None of these works over time.  But they gave him temporary comfort, and we grew close quickly. 

I became his constant companion, trusted advisor and, he thought, very best friend.

I meant well.  And at times I’ve been useful, even helped him out of some bad spots. 

But in the end ours has been an unhealthy relationship.

Why? Because in the end my need for control set Steve at odds with reality, instead of teaching him how to accept and adapt to it.  

And because, instead of making him feel safer and accepted by other people, my controlling left him scared and disconnected.

It’s like that with us inner monkeys. 

We mean well.  We really do.

But we’re also, well, kind of stupid.

Some of you already know that the title of this blog refers to a method used to trap monkeys, where fruit is placed in a weighted jar or bottle and the monkey traps himself by grabbing the fruit and refusing to let go.

That’s what I do.  I grab hold and refuse to let go.

I do this all the time, even when part of me knows it’s not working.

I can’t help myself.

One last word:

I’m betting you have one of my brothers or sisters inside you.

You have it as surely as you have fears, and a monkeymind that whispers and worries and scares you.

You may not have noticed this secret tenant before. 

But look anyway.

Because monkeytraps are just invitations.

They work only because of what monkeyminded humans do:

Set traps, then reach into them.

Build cages, then move in and set up housekeeping.

 

For a detailed description of the traps and cages, read on.

 

 

Logo_v1

 

 


(THE BOOK) Chapter 18: Survival

All the factors just described — family, trauma, socialization, culture — combine in the human mind to drive controlling behavior.

And the ultimate goal of that behavior is the most primitive and stubborn of all human goals:

Life itself.

I refer here not just to physical survival, though certainly much of our controlling (like when we’re driving a car or battling an illness) has that as its aim.

I mean emotional, psychological, and social survival as well.

We cannot help but believe control is essential to these, too.

Thus it is emotional survival that forces children to appease their narcissistic parents, since on the deepest level they know they need parental love, nurturance and protection in order to live.

It is psychological survival that demands trauma survivors limit their exposure to threatening triggers, since the alternative — constantly recurring states of fight-or-flight — would lead to intolerable stress and the disintegration of their minds.

And it is social survival that requires each of us to absorb and obey the dictates of the society to which we belong, since – again, on the deepest of levels – we know that we cannot last long without acceptance by the tribe.

For all these reasons we each come to believe that control is essential to our lives.

This conviction is so unconscious and inescapable that it makes getting control feel like a matter of life and death.  It’s why even the idea of losing control can produce anxiety, and why control addiction plays like a silent soundtrack behind every human experience.

And where does it come from, this conviction that we must control or die?

Mainly from the structure of our minds.

 


(THE BOOK) Chapter 14: Family

You need not be in relationship with an addict to develop a codependent approach to life.

There are plenty of other ways.

One of the most common is to grow up in a narcissistic family.

Narcissistic families are those unconsciously organized to meet the needs of the parents, not the children.

This description covers a wide range of possibilities.  It includes families that abuse children physically, sexually or emotionally; families fixated on addicted or mentally ill members; families stressed by poverty, racism, or chronic illness; those where the parents are strict, rigid and demanding; those where the parents are not present, physically or emotionally; and those which teach their children to be seen and not heard.

Kids in narcissistic families have no choice but to adapt to their emotional environment. To protect themselves by trying to control the big people on whom they depend, mainly by pleasing and appeasing them.

Such kids typically experience at least some of the symptoms of codependency: guilt, shame, anxiety, depression.  They see their own feelings and needs as at best inconvenient, at worst inappropriate — even dangerous.  So they go into hiding.  They become pleasers and appeasers and rescuers, better at taking care of others than themselves.  And they tend to carry those symptoms into adult life.

And since no family is perfect, and no parent is perfectly healthy, every family is at least slightly narcissistic.

Which means nearly all kids grow up at least slightly codependent.

 

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