Category Archives: parenting problems and control
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.
Most people are anxious when they first join a therapy group.
Some take a long time to get over their anxiety. A few never do.
Usually they don’t understand why.
It’s because on some level they expect to be treated in group as they were treated in their family of origin.
If they were abused or neglected as kids, they expect the group to abuse or neglect them. If they were controlled or criticized or rejected or shamed, they expect the same treatment again.
For this reason even the idea of group is terrifying to some.
But it’s also what makes group such a powerful therapeutic tool.
Because when an emotionally wounded person joins group and nothing bad happens — when instead they receive the attention, acceptance and caring their family couldn’t provide — they have what’s called a corrective emotional experience:
Some deep part of them starts to realize they’re not kids anymore, and that not everyone is like the people who disappointed or hurt them when they were.
It’s a realization I’ve seen change lives.
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:
You face a choice of symptoms.
Read the rest here.
Controlling comes in many flavors: healthy and unhealthy, necessary and unnecessary, public and private, conscious and unconscious, choiceful and compulsive, functional and dysfunctional. It’s your job to decide which flavors you prefer.
* * *
From Bert’s Therapy, Session 2:
She says I have communication issues.
Read the rest here.
Seventh is the series
Notes on Recovery
I probably use the word responsible differently than you.
To me it means able to respond. “Respond” as is reply or answer.
I see responsible people as those who can answer a situation, challenge or problem in a healthy way – one that meets their needs, respects their feelings, acknowledges their preferences, promotes their growth, and leaves them more powerful.
I’m guessing responsibility means something else to you.
That may be because I’ve known so many clients who confuse it with following rules, meeting expectations and discharging obligations. These are people who regularly lose themselves. They sacrifice their needs, feelings, preferences and growth to other people, or jobs, or imposed codes of behavior, or impossible standards, or endless To Do lists. They do this less out of love or idealism than self-defense: they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t do it.
I call that irresponsible.
Truly responsible people, as I see it, as the ones who can (a) listen to themselves and (b) act in their own self-interest.
Listen to themselves mean focus inside, pay attention to feelings and the messages their bodies send telling them what their needs are.
Act in self-interest means respecting those emotional and bodily signals instead of ignoring or hiding them.
This sort of responsibility starts with simple stuff: eating when hungry, resting when tired, peeing when your bladder is full. It extends to venting when angry, crying when sad, reaching out to others when lonely or scared.
As I said, simple stuff. But if you suffer from control addiction I bet you don’t do any of it nearly enough.
So that’s what you need to practice in recovery. Call it responsibility, self-love, self-care, or (as I do) healthy selfishness.
“Selfish,” of course, is the dirtiest of words. Most people confuse it with behavior that harms or neglects others.
But who isn’t selfish? Preoccupation with ourselves is built into our nature and neurology. We can’t help that. Our only choice is to admit or deny it. To be honestly selfish, or hide our true motives behind a mask of selflessness.
Thus in the end practicing responsibility means being able, willing and brave enough to take care of yourself.
Because if you don’t, who’s going to?
Next: Practicing intimacy
Six women, crying.
All moms or grandmothers, and all worried about a kid.
One kid is gay and her parents are rejecting her. One’s being fed junk food and left alone all day with tv. One (a big one) is a germophobe whose marriage is in jeopardy. One (another big one) drinks too much. And the last flies into rages when he can’t get his way.
Anxiety, frustration, guilt and helplessness slowly fill the group room like a swimming pool.
And behind each story is one question: What can I do about this? And the same frightened answer: I can’t do anything.
“Okay,” I say finally. “Ready for some good news?”
They look at me.
“Not the answer you’re looking for, probably. And not where you’re looking for it. Not out there, among the people you love and want to rescue and the problems you hate and want to solve.”
I get up from my chair and go to a mobile hanging in one corner. It’s my Seafood Mobile, all fish, crabs and starfish. I flick a tuna with my finger. The whole mobile bounces.
“This is a family,” I say. “See what happens when one member’s in trouble? The trouble migrates throughout the system. Affects everyone. Got that?”
“Now watch.” I hold the tuna between my thumb and forefinger. The mobile calms down. “This is what happens when one member stabilizes or heals. That healing migrates throughout the system too.”
I sit down again.
“You’ve no control over these problems. But you also have more power than you know. You can be the calm fish. You can help stabilize the system.
“Remember when you were kids? Remember the adults that helped you the most? They weren’t the anxious, angry or desperate ones. Not the ones who scolded or punished or rescued.
“They were the ones who reassured you, encouraged you, praised you, helped you feel good about yourselves. Who modeled calmness, acceptance, or faith. Who helped convince you – because they really believed it – that Everything Will Be Okay.”
“That’s what you can bring to your families.
“Your kids and grandkids are each in their own little rowboat. You can’t row it for them. Can’t stop the storm or calm the waters. You don’t have that kind of control.
“But if you learn how to calm yourselves without controlling, you can offer them a safe harbor. Model faith that Everything Will Be Okay. And provide an emotional space where they can pull in, drop oars, catch their breath, regain hope.
“Not a small thing.”
How can I have you without losing me?
How can I have me without losing you?
You can’t really answer these questions, just struggle with them.
But it’s the struggling that matters.
Because they represent two essential needs each of us brings to any relationship:
Connection and freedom.
Acceptance by another person, and self-acceptance.
A real partner, and at the same time, a real self.
Most people I know are convinced you can’t have both at the same time.
Most came from families — alcoholic, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional — unable to teach them to balance connection with freedom.
What they learned instead was that having one meant losing the other. That winning love and approval from parents, for example, meant sacrificing important parts of themselves, like the freedom to express feelings or take care of their own needs.
The family that raised us is where each of us learned our own personal answer to the two questions. And the answer we learned grew into a crucial (though mostly unconscious) part of our basic view of life and relationships, what I call our Plan A.
Some of us decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have me, and to hell with you.” Shrinks call this the narcissistic answer.
Others decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have you, and to hell with me.” This is the infamous codependent answer.
So the narcissistic partner says “Me first,” and the codependent replies, “Yes, dear.”
And the two personality types end up together with stunning regularity. (Remember Archie and Edith Bunker?)
Watching such couples interact, one is struck by their predictability. In every situation the narcissist finds some way to say “Me first,” and the codependent to reply “Yes, dear.” It’s as if long ago they sat down and signed a contract.
Which in a way they did.
Their complementary answers to the two questions probably account, in large part, for why they felt attracted to each other.
In any case, the vast majority of couples I see for couples counseling follow this pattern — so many that I felt the need to give them their own name.
I call them split-level relationships.
Split-level relationships work for a while, but almost always break down. Eventually one or both partners realize they’re not getting what they need.
Codependents usually notice first. When that partner is female this can lead to the syndrome called the Walk-Away Wife.
But narcissists tend to be unhappy too. They often complain of loneliness, lack of connection to their codependent partner, or an absence of respect or affection. They may feel impatient, frustrated, irritated, resentful. Sometimes they drink, drug, overeat, rage or cheat, and then feel bad about that.
All this happens because split-level relationship is inherently unhealthy.
Familiar, sure. Comfortable, even, in the way the predictable may come to feel.
But not healthy. The unbalanced answers on which a split-level relationship is based simply cannot fill the emotional needs of two adults. So both partners end up feeling deprived, often without understanding why.
What does recovery for such a couple look like?
Put simply, a sort of role reversal.
Codependent partners must develop courage and practice standing up, asserting themselves. Narcissistic partners must develop empathy and practice stepping down, giving instead of grabbing.
Easy? No. Not easy for either of them.
Just necessary to life on the same level.
I’ve been addicted to control for as long as I can remember.
That is, for as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to force reality — people, places, things, even myself — to match the pictures in my head of how I want reality to be.
I do this constantly.
I do it unconsciously. Which means I usually don’t know when I’m doing it.
And I do it compulsively. Which means I get really really anxious when I can’t get control.
I expect to stay an addict until I die.
Yes, I’m in recovery. But that just means I’m less controlled by my need for control than I used to be, just as recovering alcoholics are less controlled by their need to drink. They’ll always be alcoholics, though, and I’ll always be a control addict.
I’ll always feel this urge to control stuff. Even when I know it’s crazy to try.
It’s crazy, I’ve learned, because control is largely an illusion.
Sure, it’s not always an illusion. If I pour sugar in my coffee the coffee gets sweeter. If I pull the steering wheel to the right my car will reliably turn right.
But the world is larger than sugar and steering wheels. And the truth is that, beyond these concrete ways of changing my immediate circumstances, much of my controlling operates more on the level of wishful thinking.
Why? Because most of my controlling is an attempt to control feelings and relationships.
And feelings have no steering wheel. And in relationships sugar doesn’t always work.
Let me explain.
Say I have a feeling I don’t want. Say I feel inadequate. But it’s uncomfortable to feel that, and I also worry that if you see that I feel inadequate you may agree with me, which would make me feel worse. So I hide my feeling, from you and from myself. I work hard at presenting myself as adequate, even superior. (For an example, see “Bert’s mask.”) And let’s say it works: I convince you I’m superior. I have successfully controlled your perception of me.
Do I feel better?
Not so much.
At least, not for long. Why? Because I know it’s an act, a pretense. I’ve basically fooled you about me, and I can’t forget that. So whatever approval I get from you is essentially meaningless. And I end up feeling both inadequate and phony.
See how that works?
Say I’m mad at you, but afraid to show it. I’m scared you might get mad back at me, which would make me unhappy.
So I hide my anger from you. I bury it.
But overcontrolling feelings tends to be bad for me. Feelings are meant to be expressed, not contained. Released, not stored up. So burying my anger makes me uncomfortable. Constipated. Pressured. Uneasy. Anxious. And when I do it long and habitually enough, I get depressed. I.e., chronically unhappy.
How’s that for irony?
Why doesn’t control work better in the realms of feeling and relationships?
Because at the heart of this addiction lies an annoying but inescapable paradox:
The more control I need, the less in control I feel.
* * *
“I feel so stuck,” she says.
I pass the tissues. “How so?” I ask.
She tells me.
Her husband bowls every Wednesday, golfs weekends, watches tv each night until bed. Never talks to her, never compliments her, hasn’t taken her out to dinner in years. Expects sex regardless.
“Regardless of what?” I ask.
“How I feel about it,” she says.
She has two teenagers, whom she serves as cook, laundress, chambermaid, tutor, therapist, referee and chauffeur. On Mother’s Day they gave her a World’s Greatest Mom card from Wal-Mart, then spent the day with friends.
Her parents are in from Florida. They visit frequently without asking, stay a week at a time, and criticize everything from her haircut to her parenting. (I jot critical parents on a mental note card, file it away for a later session.)
Her best friend is recently divorced, and calls her nightly either to exult or to mourn her new freedom, depending on how her last date went. (“And do you ever call her?” “What for?” she asks, without irony.)
Her mood’s been sliding downhill for years. She sleeps badly. Feels tired. Feels alone. Feels sad. Cries.
“Ever take a day off?” I ask.
“Ever take a nap?”
“Have any hobbies?”
“Have any friends or family who aren’t totally self-involved?”
She half-smiles. “No.”
“Ever tried therapy?”
“I didn’t see how it could help,” she says. “Can it?”
“Yes,” I say.
“How?” she asks.
“By teaching you to drive,” I say.
She looks puzzled.
“Imagine someone who learned to drive a car without ever being taught how to make a left turn. So whenever they go out all they can do is turn right. What would happen to them?”
She frowns. “They’d go in a circle.”
“Exactly. That’s what you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Think of all the choices you make in a day. Now think of each choice as a fork in the road. When you put others first, you turn right. When you put yourself first, you turn left.
“When was the last time you made a left turn?”
Her eyes widen. She thinks.
“I don’t make those,” she says finally.
“Right,” I say. “You’re driving in circles. It’s why you feel stuck.”
“And therapy can teach me to turn left?”
I nod. I’m expecting the next question.
“But isn’t that selfish?”
“Yes,” I said. “What’s your objection to selfishness?”
I’ve asked that question hundreds of times. No one has a good answer.
“That’s what everyone says,” I say. “I suppose some believe it. But most people use it to convince others to put them first. The most selfish people I know tend to be the first to condemn selfishness in others.
“Me, I think of it as a survival skill. Selfishness is essential, at least some of the time. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?”
“Well, this isn’t working.” She blows her nose. “I guess I should hang a left once in a while. But my family won’t like it.”
“Probably not. You’ll have to train them.”
“We’ll talk details later. But it amounts to putting yourself first and letting them adapt to it.”
“And that works?”
“Sure,” I said. “Look how well it’s worked for your husband, your kids and your parents.”
* * *
Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.
~ Shakespeare, Henry V
* * *
At least if I give, the thinking goes, others will like me. Better yet, they may even come to need me. Then I won’t be so alone in the world.
Giving becomes a kind of barter to belong — a bid for love, rather than an expression of it.
~ From “Healthy selfishness” at daily.om.
* * *
I think if you do not allow yourself to know them and to exercise adequate levels of self-care by satisfying those wants and needs in ways that make you feel good you will find unhealthy and unsatisfying behaviors that you do in order to be safe.
The relationship will become toxic and cycle through predictable patterns of acting out, failure and disappointment.
Selfish behaviors that take advantage of or hurt someone else are not what I am describing. Behaviors that are done in service of the health of the self are self-ish.
~ From “The concept of healthy selfishness in therapy” by Brett Newcomb.
* * *
You stay because you know this place like the back of your hand, every dark corner, every lump in the carpet, every draft.
You stay because you can find your away around it with your eyes closed. Which, in fact, is just what you do.
There’s pain here, but it’s the dull, tolerable kind. The kind you know well. The kind you’ve known forever. The kind you cling to rather than risk something worse.
That’s the signpost up ahead.
Next stop: the Uncomfort Zone.
* * *
Albert, 58, has been married three times. His first two marriages ended in acrimonious divorce. His third marriage is two years old, and his wife recently ended their couples counseling in tearful frustration. Albert continues in therapy without her. He reports their life has deteriorated into a series of hurtful arguments alternating with long silences. Last week she told him she’d leave if she had someplace to go. I ask how he thinks our work together is going. “Really well,” he says. “It’s very interesting. I feel like I’m learning a lot.”
* * *
Barry, 38, sits on my sofa with his wife Beth. They are new clients. I ask why they’ve come. Beth tells me Barry’s individual therapist thinks couples work is necessary. “What led you to individual therapy?” I ask Barry. He frowns. “I have issues,” he says. “You drink, and you play video games, and that’s all you do,” the wife says. Barry frowns harder. “Do you have a problem with alcohol?” I ask Barry. “I have issues,” he repeats. The wall appears impenetrable. After twenty minutes I suggest Barry wait outside while I talk to Beth alone. He brightens, stands and walks quickly to the door. Then he turns back to his wife. “Can I borrow your iPad?” he asks.
* * *
Carly, 43 and a social worker, is more depressed this week than last. Last week she was more depressed than the week before. This slide began last year, with her transfer out of the counseling job she loved into an administrative job she hates, under a supervisor she considers an idiot. Now she visits her doctor monthly to request tweaks of her medication. Asked what’s depressing her, she shrugs: “No idea.” I tell her that I think what she needs is work — real, meaningful work she enjoys, that brings out the best in her and makes her feel valuable. I suggest she network, go on interviews, or consider private practice. I also suggest she pursue the hobbies — cooking, dancing, yoga — she once used to feed and express herself. She shakes her head. “I’m too tired for any of that now,” she sighs. “I need to save my energy for the stupid job.”
* * *
Debbie, 23, is crying. “You don’t love me,” she tells her boyfriend David, who’s sitting beside her on my sofa looking miserable. After three months of Debbie complaining of his silence and begging him to be more open with her, David has finally risked telling her about something he dislikes in their relationship. “I’m not good with words,” he said. “We never talked in my family. So when I try I get nervous. I’m scared to hurt your feelings. And the more you push me to talk, the scareder I get.” “Good for you, David,” I say. “I know how hard that was.” Debbie wipes her nose with a tissue. “So you don’t really love me,” she repeats.
* * *
Eddie, 42, is angry at his son Evan. “Everything scares him,” he tells me. “He’s scared to go to school. Scared he’ll fail Math. Scared to try out for teams. Scared to ask a girl out. What the fuck?” He shakes his head. I ask what happens when he tries to talk to Evan, who’s 15. “What do you think?” Eddie snorts. “He acts scared of me.” I ask what Evan’s fear looks like. “He sort of shrinks into himself. Gets quiet. Avoids eye contact. I can tell he just wants me to shut up and leave him alone.” “How’s that make you feel?” I ask. “Furious,” Eddie says. “I’m his father. I’m trying to help him.” “And what do you say?” I ask. “I say, ‘I’m your father. I’m trying to help you. What the fuck?'”
* * *
We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us. ~ Rabindrath Tagore
I’ve heard someone say that our problems aren’t the problem; it’s our solutions that are the problem. ~ Anne Lamott
When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ~ Abraham Maslow
Only a concerted effort to sort out the specific nature of our personal programming can offer hope of change, of new choices. ~ James Hollis
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. ~ Albert Einstein
* * *
Overheard at the House:
I’m probably addicted to control too. The way I’ve attempted to control things is to pull further and further within myself and my own world. I got hurt at work. Now I don’t work. I got hurt by friends. Now I don’t have friends. I’m hurt by family. So, I’m very careful when I’m with them. But, I don’t feel safer. I can’t control myself. Now, I’m with myself more than ever before! I don’t think I thought that through…