Category Archives: surrender
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.
Women’s group. Six members.
One has been discussing problems her grown children face. Which leads into reviewing her failures as a parent. Which makes her cry.
The others listen and nod sadly.
After a minute I say, “Question for the group. Is there such a thing as an unguilty mother?”
They look at me, startled. Then at each other.
“I doubt it,” I say. “Every child deserves perfect parenting. No child ever gets it. And every mother knows this and feels bad about it. So feelings of inadequacy and failure and guilt are built into being a mother.”
“Always?” one asks.
“Maybe not,” I concede. “Occasionally I meet a parent unaware of his or her inadequacies. But they’re usually narcissists, and they usually scare the crap out of me.”
The crying mother sniffles.
“I can’t help feeling guilty,” she says. “When they hurt it feels like my fault.”
Right, Mom. You, me, and most every parent I know.
Perfect parenting is not just impossible, it’s unnecessary.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously argued that kids don’t need perfect parenting — just parenting that’s “good enough.” Winnicott wrote,
The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.
Catch that last line?
The mother’s imperfection is what helps her child adapt to reality.
So relax if you’re not perfect. You can’t be, and you don’t have to be. And it would probably be bad for your kids if you were.
Personally I take comfort in how one of my supervisors once defined good-enough parenting.
“The sign of successful parenting,” he said, “is that your kids can pay for their own therapy.”
For this post, Steve interviewed Bert.)
Steve: So I’ve been writing about peace of mind and how control addiction makes it impossible, and how practicing alternatives to control make it easier to find. And I wanted to ask you about surrender.
Bert: What about surrender?
Steve: How you practice it, mainly.
Bert: Oh. Sure this is a good idea?
Steve: Why not?
Bert: People will know how lousy I am at it.
Steve: That’s okay. They know it isn’t easy.
Bert: I never use that word, by the way.
Bert: No, that’s one of your writer’s words.
Steve: You don’t like it.
Bert: Not really. Sounds too much like helplessness.
Steve: That’s not what it means. It….
Bert: I know, I know. Surrender means winning, not losing. Letting go of what you can’t control represents the victory of awareness over denial, growth over habit, and faith over fear. Right?
Steve: Something like that. What word do you prefer?
Bert: Depends. Sometimes I think of surrender as detaching.
Bert: Taking a step back emotionally. Like when that client cursed at us in session yesterday.
Steve: And I told you to not take it personally.
Bert: Right. That it was just transference. And then other times I think of surrender as accepting.
Steve: “It is what it is.”
Bert: Yes. Though I hate that expression.
Bert: It’s like Have a nice day. Everyone says it, then go right back to being raging control freaks.
Steve: Any other words for surrender?
Bert: Let’s see. Sometimes I do it by consciously reframing a situation instead of trying to control it. Remember how mad I used to get at little old lady drivers?
Steve: Anyone driving at the speed limit, you mean.
Bert: Right. Well, now when I find myself behind one I just tell myself This is God reminding you to slow the fuck down. And I slow down, and I’m okay with it.
Steve: Very spiritual of you.
Bert: I think so. I use slogans too.
Steve: Which slogans?
Bert: Well, there’s the one you wrote on a Post-it and taped to your PC monitor:
99% of what we worry about never happens.
That got us through some rough times.
Steve: It did.
Bert: And the one you kept in the little plastic frame in your office. The one that made clients think you’re a little nuts:
Steve: I can’t count the times I tried to explain that.
Bert: Anyone ever buy it?
Steve: No. Easier to sell Everything happens for a reason.
But back to you. It sounds like you do a lot of surrendering, in one way or another. Why do you say you’re lousy at it?
Bert: Because of all the times I can’t.
Bert: You know how we live. Rushing from chore to chore, worry to worry. Working down the To Do list with no end in sight. Feeling like everything is urgent. Lying in bed at night and trying to decide if you got enough stuff done to feel okay about yourself.
Then there’s the problem of people. All the times I just can’t be myself.
Steve: Can’t tell the truth, you mean?
Bert: Yes, but more than that. All the times I can’t just relax and stop worrying about how someone’s going to react to me.
But it’s more than that, too.
It’s all the times I can’t just relax. Can’t take, even, a really deep breath.
Steve: I know. Can’t relax if you can’t surrender. It’s a stubborn addiction.
Bert: Sometimes I’m sorry you told me I’m addicted.
Steve: Do you mean that?
Bert: No. No, I guess not.
Steve: What’s good about knowing?
Bert: Well, it does clarify things. When I feel angry or frustrated or crazy it’s usually because I’m trying to control something I shouldn’t. Calms me down, just seeing that.
Steve: Another surrender?
Bert: I suppose it is. And then, remembering I’m addicted gives me more choices than I used to have.
Steve: More choices?
Bert: Sure. Before I knew, I never even thought of surrender as an option. Now I know, even when I can’t do it. It’s something to work towards. Something to practice and get better at. And that gives me hope.
Steve: Hope’s good.
Bert: It is. It even lets you breathe a little bit deeper.
* * *
It was the sort of day that reminds you of summers in childhood, of how life felt without the permanently clenched fist in your midsection. Lawns bright with sunlight. A solid blue sky you want to swim in. Breeze like a kiss.
So I’m walking along, enjoying all this, listening to the Corrs through my earphones, and I feel a tap on my shoulder.
Bert sidles up next to me.
I need some therapy, he mutters.
I sigh. For just one hour I’d have liked to have skip the whole neurotic thing.
But your monkey’s your monkey.
“Sure,” I tell him. “Walk along with me,” and I pull out my earphones.
* * *
I’m discouraged. Depressed, maybe.
Tell me anyway. Part of the therapy.
Well, I’m really tired. That heat wore away at me like sandpaper.
And I’m sick to death of this insurance audit. What’s it now, six months?
Something like that.
I’m sick of not having money. Or a vacation. It really hurt to skip Vermont again this year.
I know. For a day or so I thought you might lose it.
The house is a mess.
Still bothers me.
I know. What else.
The block’s back.
Yeah, I noticed. What’s up with that?
I got discouraged by the lack of comments.
What’s that mean?
Nothing. I’m listening. Go on. Is there more?
I’m sixty. (Sighs.)
Yes, we are.
Sixty fucking years old.
Thought it’d be easier by now.
I hear you. I feel you, as the kids say.
So. What would you tell a client like me?
Good question. Let me think.
You get people like me?
All the time.
So what do you tell them?
Well, first I guess I try to reframe things. Help them see what they’re not seeing.
And what am I not seeing?
How lucky you are.
Your marriage works. Your kids love you. You’re a pretty good therapist.
You help most of the people who come to you.
You like what you do for a living. You own your own home. You’re not sick, or crippled, or divorced, or in Afghanistan.
You worry about money, but your bills get paid.
Right. The house embarrasses you, but it’s your house. Remember what renting was like?
And you have options. Writing is still an option. You’re a step closer to writing for money than you’ve ever been. And you managed to start Monkeytraps in the face of all this other crap.
That’s true too. So why don’t I feel better?
Oh, that’s easy. You’re tired.
It’s important. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
You and your quotes. Who said that?
So what do I do?
How? I have work to do.
Find a way.
That’s what you’d tell a client?
Pretty much, yes.
Sounds too simple.
Simple, yes. Easy, no. For one thing, it takes courage. You’d have to give up controlling all the crap you just mentioned.
You’d have to let go of the bills and the practice and the house and the blog. In your head, I mean. And have faith that the sky won’t cave in.
And you’d have to act like you deserve a rest. Which you’re not at all sure that you do.
No, I’m not.
I know you’re not. Do it anyway.
How can I?
No choice. You have to save yourself. If you don’t, who will?
Too late to get parented. It’s all your job now.
(He frowns. I wait. He scratches his head. I wait some more. Now his eyes open. He looks at me.)
Hey. I know why I hate this.
It’s an AFGO.
Yes, it is.
Another fucking growth opportunity.
I hate them.
Yeah. Me too. Anything else?
(He squints at me, like he suspects a trick question. Shakes his head. Leaves.)
(I put on my earphones, turn up the Corrs, and resume trying to swim up into the solid blue sky.)