Category Archives: personal development

(THE BOOK) Chapter 5: A controlling person

Start with an experiment.

In the privacy of your own mind, take a moment to consider this question:

How does a controlling person look, sound and act?

(Authorial pause while reader complies.)

What came up?

If you bothered to try this, I’m guessing you found some image, memory or feeling that carries the emotional weight of the word controlling for you.

What most of us encounter is a distillation of our most powerful (usually most painful) experiences with people by whom we’ve felt controlled.

Or we discover that we harbor some archetypal image of how a controller looks and acts.  Someone like Hitler, or Donald Trump, or Mom.

That, at least, used to be my own reaction.  

It changed when I began to really study control.

Ten years of practicing a therapy focused mainly on control issues taught me to see controlling as a shape-shifter, so various, subtle and relentless that it manages to slip sideways into virtually every experience and interaction.

And I came to see the need for some finer distinctions.

Some first steps, then, towards a more descriptive language.




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:



(THE BOOK) Chapter 4: Chameleon

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:




(THE BOOK) Chapter 3: Pictures

an excerpt from 3 (w borders)You may not think of yourself as controlling.  

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:



(THE BOOK) Chapter 2: Controlling

an excerpt from 3 (w borders)The urge to control is part of our hard wiring.


Because it is wired into us to

..~ seek pleasure and avoid pain,

..~ imagine a perfect life (one that meets all our needs and makes us perfectly happy), and then

..~ try to make those imaginings come true.

The word controlling covers all forms of this imagining and trying.

Our trying may be large (building a skyscraper) or small (killing crabgrass), complex (winning a war) or simple (salting my soup). 

It may be important (curing cancer) or petty (trimming toenails), public (getting elected) or private (losing weight), essential (avoiding a car crash) or incidental (matching socks).

I may inflict my trying on other people (get you to stop drinking, kiss me, wash the dishes, give me a raise) or on myself (raise my self-esteem, lose weight, hide my anger, learn French).

All this involves seeking some form of control.

We’re controlling nearly all of the time.

We control automatically and unconsciously, waking and sleeping, out in the world and in the privacy of our thoughts.

From birth until death.

The only time we’re not controlling is when we can relax, and do nothing, and trust that things will work out just fine anyway.

How often can you do that?




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:



(THE BOOK) Chapter 1: Control

an excerpt from 3 (w borders)The ability to dictate reality.

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:








Third Paradox: Tradeoff

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. 

                         ~ Lao Tzu



Your other foot

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?

Not God

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.”

He laughs.

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.



Group anxiety

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.



I’m stuck.

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:


[][] Bert's therapy [FRAMED, 50%]

You face a choice of symptoms.

Read the rest here.


I’m two days into vacation, and it’s not going well.
When I try to rest I feel guilty.  I’m at home, and I look around and see all the shit that needs to be done.
Then I try doing some of it and end up feeling angry.  I mean, I’m supposed to be on vacation.
All of which reminds me of the Zen proverb:
just sit.
just walk.
Above all,
don’t wobble.
Now, I know this.  I know that when you’re not paying full attention you feel fragmented.  That when you’re not where you are, you’re nowhere.
But knowing doesn’t help.  Because I’m also like most people.  I spent my life detached from reality, dwelling not in the moment but in tomorrow (What do I have to do? And when?) or yesterday (What did I forget?).  
Like most people, I spend my life wobbling.
So hard to get in touch with here/now.  To stop doing and just be.
I just installed a mindfulness bell on my computer which rings periodically to remind me to visit here/now.
Every time I hear it I get annoyed.  (Monkey mind hates to be told to shut up.)
But then I stop what I’m doing, close my eyes, breathe in and out three times.
And for just a moment I enter the room I’m already in.  I feel my body, and the air around it, and hear the sounds in that air, and I settle down a little bit, and feel a little less fragmented.
For just a moment, I’m unwobbly.

Practicing responsibility

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






Fourth in the series
Notes on Recovery
Our need to refocus comes from realizing the real reason we try to control stuff:
We’re trying to control how we feel.
We’re especially trying to manage anxiety.
Think about it.  What scares you most?  Criticism?  Failure?  Rejection?  Abandonment?  Humiliation?  Physical pain or discomfort?
That’s what you feel most compelled to control.
Compulsive means anxiety-driven.   Whenever I act like a control addict – for example,
~ hide my real self from other people,
~ hide my true feelings from myself,
~ try to impress, coerce or manipulate others,
~ insist things be done my way,
~ caretake friends or family members,
~ worry endlessly about the future, or
~ try to make my environment just as I want it to be
– I’m being driven by some anxiety about what will happen if I don’t do these things.
Recovery means finding another way to manage this anxiety.
Which is where refocusing comes in.
When I refocus, I shift my attention from Out There to In Here.  I redefine the problem from some external trigger (X looks mad) to my own reaction (I’m scared of X).
I  step back from that reaction and realize that, to feel safe again, I really don’t need to control X.  I just need to change my reaction.  If I can do that, X’s anger stops being a problem.
Changing my reaction to stuff is what allows me to stop trying to control it.
Next: The three questions

* * *

Previous posts in this series:
(A sort of preface:) Tricky
1. Bottom 
2. Power
3. Plan B




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