Category Archives: unconscious controlling

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.

(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,


(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 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.



(THE BOOK) Chapter 11: Heart

About addiction:

More people talk about it than understand it.

That’s because most people don’t know the secret at addiction’s heart. 

That secret is (surprise) this book’s subject.

Because all addicts are control addicts.

And every addiction is an addiction to control.



(THE BOOK) Chapter 10: Choiceful and compulsive

There’s one more distinction to make.

It is closely related to the last one, but essential to understand in its own right:

Controlling may be choiceful or compulsive.

Choiceful means both conscious and freely chosen.  Compulsive means driven by anxiety, to where a person essentially loses the ability to choose.

Most dysfunctional controlling is compulsive.

Compulsive controllers are people who see no other way to feel safe or secure than by trying to control people, places, things and themselves.  And who keep on controlling despite all evidence that the control they seek is an illusion.

Another word for compulsive is addictive.

Compulsive controllers, then, are addicts:

People who feel driven to control.

Who are unable to stop, even when their controlling is inappropriate, unhealthy or impossible.

Who’ve lost control of their need for control.






(THE BOOK) Chapter 8: Conscious and unconscious

Controlling can be conscious or unconscious

Conscious controlling is the sort we notice ourselves doing.  Unconscious controlling operates outside our awareness.

Archie probably knew he was trying to control Edith.  Edith, though, may not have realized she was controlling him back.

One way we hide our controlling from ourselves is by calling it something else:

Niceness.  Politeness.  Respect.  Helpfulness.  Protection.  Loyalty.  Love.

That’s not to say all unconscious controlling is dishonest or unhealthy.  But it’s also true that the vast majority of compulsive controllers are relentlessly “nice” people unaware of their driving need for control.

They’re also unaware of how much their need for control controls them.

It’s easy to identify such people.  Just place them in a situation beyond their control and see how uncomfortable they get.

(On the wall behind my chair there’s a picture of flowers.  I once tilted it so that it hung crooked.  Then I spent the day watching my clients’ eyes flick back and forth between my face and the crooked picture.  Most were unaware they were doing this.  All seemed increasingly restless or irritable.  Two finally felt compelled to ask permission to straighten it.)



We’re still forming two Skype-based study/support groups for readers who want to explore these ideas with me in real time.  One is for therapists who want to integrate these ideas into their clinical work.  Both groups will be small, six members at most, and meet weekly. Fee is $50 per session, and group members may purchase Monkeytraps (The Book) at half price. Interested?  Write me:



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