Category Archives: external control

Me and my hammer

~~~ silhouettes 70%*


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)

(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 6: External and internal

Let’s start by distinguishing different types of controlling.

Controlling, to begin with, may be external or internal.

External controlling focuses outside the individual, on people, places and things.  Internal controlling focuses inside the individual, on his or her own thoughts, feelings and behavior.

Cleaning my garage, disciplining my kids, selling anyone anything, and steering my car out of a skid are examples of external controlling.

Dieting, memorizing French verbs, learning to meditate, and hiding my true feelings are examples of internal controlling.

This may seem an obvious distinction.  It isn’t. 

Because people addicted to control often lose the ability to distinguish between external and internal.

For example, as a control addict I may well believe that the only way to accept myself (internal) is to get you to like me or love me or give me money (external).  So I try to control you in order to control how I feel.

But I may also be convinced that in order to control you (external) I must control myself (internal) – hide what I really think of your haircut or your politics, for example.

So I control you to control me, and control me to control you.

And if you’re a control addict, you do the same.

And the boundary between us gets impossibly blurred.

(More on this confusion later, in Part 2: Dysfunction.)



We continue to collect members for two Skype-based study/support groups for readers who want to explore these ideas with me in real time.  One will be for therapists who want to integrate these ideas into their clinical work.  Both groups will be small, four t0 six members at most, and meet weekly.

These groups have two purposes.  One (the study function) is to help members understand and relate to the ideas in Monkeytraps, which are new to most people and feel counterintuitive to many.  The other (the support function) is to help members integrate these ideas into their lives and relationships. For therapists this would include their relationships with clients.  

The first step to joining is an introductory Skype consult with me, so we can meet each other, I get a sense of your interests and needs, and you can ask questions about the group, the book, and whatever.

The Skype consult fee is $50, payable in advance via PayPal.  That is also the fee for each group session.  Group members may also purchase Monkeytraps (The Book) at half price when it’s released next spring, and will be the first to be informed of any related projects or services.

I’ve already met some cool people through these consults, and am excited to see the new groups unfold.  

I expect we’ll learn a lot from each other.

Interested?  Write me:


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