Category Archives: addiction to control
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.
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.
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.
Controlling is hard to spot, and even harder to talk about.
Several reasons for this:
(1) It’s automatic and unconscious, like blinking or the beat of a heart. You can make yourself aware of your own controlling, but it takes effort.
(2) It’s normal. You do it all the time. Everyone around you does it all the time. So controlling behavior fades into the background of awareness, like a chameleon blends into its surroundings.
(3) We use stunted language to describe it. We apply the verb control to wildly different behaviors, to our handling of everything from feelings to finances, foreign trade to cholesterol, termites to acne. We almost need to construct a new language in order to adequately describe this chameleon we’re looking for.
Let’s try to do that, then.
We’re forming two online 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: email@example.com.
Well, you are.
You just don’t see it.
Consider this view of how we operate:
From moment to moment, each of us carries in our heads a picture of how we want reality to be.
And we constantly compare that internal picture to the reality we have.
Everything we do to bring those pictures closer together — whether we do it out in public or in the privacy of our most secret thoughts — is what I mean by controlling.
See it yet?
Add this, then:
Discomfort of any sort – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, everything from agony to an itch – amounts to a signal that the two pictures don’t match.
And we respond to that signal automatically.
So wherever there’s discomfort, there’s controlling.
And we all know how uncomfortable life can be.
Controlling, in short, is as reflexive and inevitable a response as slapping a mosquito that’s biting you.
See it now?
We’re forming two online study/support groups for readers who want to explore these ideas with me in real time. One group is for therapists who want to integrate these ideas into their clinical work. Both groups will be small, eight 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s how I define control.
It’s not a definition you’ll find in any dictionary, and probably not how you define it.
But it’s essential to understanding everything that follows.
Dictate means rearrange or edit according to our preferences. Reality means, well, everything — everything outside us (people, places and things) and inside us (thoughts, feelings, behavior) too.
Defined this broadly, the wish for control stands behind just about everything we do consciously.
Plus most of what we do unconsciously (feel, fantasize, worry, dream) as well.
We seek control in order to get reality to behave as we want it to.
We seek control because we want to make the world adjust itself to us, instead of vice versa.
We all want control in this sense.
Not just want, either.
We crave it.
Control is the mother of all motivations.
Every human ever born has craved it and chased it.
Because it’s a craving that is literally built into us.
We’re planning an online study/support group for readers who want to explore these ideas with me in real time. Also coming, a group for therapists who want to integrate these ideas into their clinical work. Both groups will be small, eight 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: email@example.com.
The Third Paradox of control:
Controlling boils down to a tradeoff.
Gain control here, lose control there.
Think of the original monkey trap:
To hold on to the banana, the monkey surrenders his freedom. To regain his freedom, he must let the banana go.
It also explains all garden-variety codependent interactions:
To control you (make you like, love or accept me) I must surrender control of something else — like my ability to be honest, or spontaneous, or emotionally expressive.
Taking control of my emotional life — especially how I feel about myself — means surrendering control over how you react to me.
It also applies to New Year’s resolutions, not to mention all goal-setting:
To reach a particular goal (like writing my book) I must surrender control of others (like spending time with my family, or on chores that absorb my energy and attention).
To gain control of my weight I must surrender control (i.e., limit my choices) of what I put in my mouth.
To control my social anxiety I must detach from how other people see me and practice being myself.
And so on.
So control and surrender are two sides of the same coin.
And getting control of anything means losing control of something else.
To win A, you must sacrifice B.
Fill your bowel to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
A man loses his foot in an accident. Forced to hobble and use a crutch, he finds himself the object of unexpected attention and sympathy. Then his doctor fits him with a prosthetic foot. The hobbling ends. The crutch becomes unnecessary. The attention and sympathy dwindle away. So he takes an axe and cuts off his other foot.
I see it all the time.
In the husband who complains daily about his unhappy marriage but puts off getting a divorce.
Or the wife who rages about how her husband avoids or ignores her but won’t examine how her behavior pushes him to do so.
Or the teacher who bemoans the bullies who abuse her at work but refuses either to learn how to assert herself or to change jobs.
Or the son so scared his alcoholic parents will reject him if he stops drinking that he clings to his addiction in self-defense.
Welcome to the world of secondary gain.
Secondary gain refers to an emotional or psychological benefit that comes from having a problem or illness.
The gain may be attention, acceptance, sympathy, safety, familiarity, resistance to change, distraction from responsibility, avoidance of intimacy, or denial of other problems.
Seeking such gains is not faking or manipulation.
It’s often unconscious.
It can be seen as an attempt to meet legitimate needs in an unhealthy way
It’s also a monkeytrap: a situation that encourages you to hold on when it would be healthier to let go.
Suspect you might be monkeytrapped in this way?
Try asking yourself one question about your persistent symptom or problem:
If I were to fix this, what would I lose?
One classic symptom of control addiction is enabling.
Enabling is anything you do to solve a problem that ends up making the problem worse.
Like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Or scratching a rash left by poison ivy.
Or trying to get an alcoholic to stop drinking by hiding their booze or nagging them to enter treatment.
Or trying to improve communication with your kids by forcing them to talk to you.
Or trying to improve your marriage by reminding your spouse how disappointing and inadequate he/she is.
The forms it takes are infinite.
What they all have in common, though — and what makes them so difficult to stop — is that they gratify a short-term need.
The need to do something.
We hate feeling helpless. We hate facing the fact that some problems we simply cannot solve.
So we cling to the illusion of control.
Maybe this time it will work, we tell ourselves.
Or Maybe if I try it this way.
Or This is too important. I can’t do nothing.
Pass the gasoline.
A codependent in recovery tells me that once, in utter frustration over how his life was going, he fired his Higher Power.
“Wow,” I reply. “I guess that makes you the Higher Power.” I reach over to shake his hand. “Been wanting to meet you.”
But there’s a serious truth buried here.
“The fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members,” writes Ernest Kurtz, “is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God. Every alcoholic’s problem has first been claiming God-like powers, especially that of control.”*
All addicts seek control to an unhealthy degree. That’s why the First Step urges them to confront their lack of control (“Admitted we were powerless…”). Can’t heal addiction otherwise.
So recovery starts with a surrender. And that’s no less true of control addicts — a.k.a. codependents — most of whom have spent years trying to control the uncontrollable.
It’s why I suggest everyone get into the habit, when stressed, of asking themselves three questions:
What am I trying to control here?
Have I had any success controlling this before?
And if not,
What can I do instead?
Many benefits flow from this sort of self-questioning.
And one is that, the more often you employ it, the clearer it becomes that you’re not God.
*Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous by Ernest Kurtz (Hazelden Press, 1979).
I became a therapist for the wrong reason.
Not to help people, but to get helped.
Not to give, but to take.
I didn’t like myself much, and thought if I solved people’s problems they’d be grateful and like or love me in return.
I was sort of an emotional pickpocket.
Bad reason, as I said, to become a shrink.
But not an unusual one.
For years I’ve met people in the helping professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists, even lawyers and cops — who were similarly motivated.
It’s not necessarily fatal. The lucky ones discover it in time and take steps to get their emotional needs met in healthier ways.
If they can do that they can become true professionals — adults able to defer their own needs to the service of others.
The unlucky ones never discover the real motive behind their career choice. Or they do, and then can’t decide what to do about it.
And so keep picking pockets.
Taking while pretending to be giving.
Which can become the opposite of helping.
She has an elephantine memory.
She remembers everything, especially painful stuff.
She can describe every frustration, disappointment and betrayal that wounded her in the last twenty years.
She can (and does) recite conversations — especially hurtful ones — from a decade ago.
Listening to her I sometimes feel like we’re crawling together through an endless field of weeds.
The technical term for this is perseveration: the tendency of certain memories to persist even when they’ve stopped being relevant.
Bad habit, perseverating.
Because where you put your attention is what grows.
Keep your attention on painful memories, and you fill your life with pain.
Keep your attention on stuff you cannot change (like the past), and you fill your mind with helplessness.
Sometime you need to find a way to stand up and see beyond the weed field.
Part of me says Yes, do it. Do it now.
Another part says No, I can’t. Or No, I’m scared.
Gestaltists call this stuckness impasse: the point at which you stop yourself from moving forward because you’re afraid you won’t survive the attempt.
Scared, for example, of ending the marriage. Quitting the job. Starting the business. Writing the book. Expressing the feeling. Telling the truth.
Such stuckness always involves old fears, triggered in some part of me that hasn’t grown up.
That part so clearly remembers being dependent, helpless and/or scared of punishment that it hasn’t discovered I’m grown up now, and in charge of my own life.
“We are continually projecting threatening fantasies onto the world,” Fritz Perls wrote, “and these fantasies prevent us from taking the reasonable risks which are part and parcel of growing and living.”
The surprising thing about an impasse?
It’s almost always imaginary. It doesn’t exist in reality.
Push back against the fear and it tends to vanish, like a nightmare does when you turn on the bedroom light.
To respond means to answer. Responsibility means the ability to do that, answer life and its problems appropriately, intelligently and effectively. Yet control addiction has essentially the same response (I must control this) to every problem, regardless of circumstances or how well it’s worked in the past. That’s neither appropriate, effective nor responsible. It’s crazy.
From Bert’s Therapy, session 5: