Tag Archives: compulsive controlling
(This is an updated version of a post I originally published in 2011. It continues to get the most weekly hits of anything on Monkeytraps, and the problem it describes continues to emerge in sessions. Hence this reposting.)
Three times last week I gave my speech on Men Who Can’t Love Women.
Twice I gave it to wives of men avoiding therapy.
Once I was talking to a man who’s a husband himself.
The speech I created spontaneously about six months ago, to address a relationship problem that kept cropping up in sessions.
It goes something like this.
I see this more and more lately:
Men who can’t love women.
No, they’re not gay, impotent, or anything like that.
They’re not even men who don’t want to love women.
Or don’t try to.
Usually they’re men who believe that they can and do love the women they’re with.
The women they’re with, sadly, tend to see it differently.
Because those women know there’s a fundamental truth about healthy relationships that these men simply don’t grasp:
Giving is getting.
These guys don’t get that. They don’t see relationship as collaboration, where what’s good for you is good for me. Instead they seem to see it as some sort of competition.
They tend to act, often without realizing it, as if relationship were a zero-sum game, where there’s only so much good stuff to go around, and where a gain for one means a loss for the other.
It’s as if on some deep level they believe, “When you win, I lose.”
I hope (your husband, boyfriend, lover) isn’t one of these.
Because — due respect to the members of my gender – these guys can be damned hard to retrain.
The idea of giving-as-getting is something most women know in their bones. That’s probably because they’re socialized to value relationships in a way men aren’t.
We train men to compete, not to partner.
Worse, we also train them to work, not to feel. Which leads to another missing piece in their relationships, something else that many men don’t get.
It’s the idea that love isn’t just an emotion — it’s behavior.
Most of my male clients struggle with relationships with women. And at some point I usually ask them, “Do you love her?”
They almost always say, “Yes.”
And then I ask, “How do you show it?’
And they stare at me as if I’ve just lapsed into a foreign language.
Some don’t understand the question. “What do you mean,” one asked blankly, “by show it?”
Some shrug. The shrug usually translates as, Hey, I know how I feel. I assume she knows too. Don’t women just know this stuff?
Others argue that they already communicate their love adequately. I go to work, pay bills, mow the lawn, drive Jimmy to soccer practice, put up with her mother, even wash dishes occasionally. Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t it be?
If I suggest otherwise, some get angry at me.
My work with these men usually heads in one of two directions.
Some men — usually those who’ve come close to losing the woman in their lives and come into therapy genuinely frightened — are able to face their limitations. We then have a series of conversations about the nuts and bolts of loving behavior (ways of communicating acceptance, attention and affection), which they work to internalize and practice. These are the lucky ones.
Others stand pat. Hey, this is me. She can take it or leave it. Interestingly, it’s not that they’re less frightened than the first group. They’re just more scared of changing than anything else. Some stand pat all the way to divorce court.
Some stand pat through multiple marriages and divorces.
My heart goes out to these men. They’re not bad guys. They’re not trying to hurt anyone. They’re just undereducated and overdefended. (Also emotionally wounded in four specific ways, described here).
But the hurt happens anyway, and it can be devastating to all concerned.
So, some questions to chew on:
Have you ever known a man who can’t love women?
Have you ever been in a relationship with one?
Are you such a man yourself?
Are you sure?
Wonderful because it connects us to others in the ways we most need to be connected.
Terrible because that connection leaves us horribly vulnerable.
You can’t love someone and protect yourself emotionally. Not really.
Real love means hurting when the other person hurts, and being subject to all sorts of doubts and disappointments, disillusionments and frustrations.
And yet many people I know try to make love safe.
They try to control the other person’s feelings, or viewpoint, or behavior.
They operate out of their heads, hoping to keep their feelings buried and beyond danger.
Or they hedge their bet, limiting their emotional commitment in the hope this will keep their vulnerability manageable.
These tactics always fail.
Because you can’t love someone and protect yourself emotionally.
And because you can’t protect yourself without the person you love noticing.
And because, by its nature, love is a wonderful terrible thing.
And because, by its nature, love is a wonderful terrible thing.
* * *
Now on YOUTUBE:
the new trailer for
MONKEYTRAPS (THE BOOK):
Once there was a handsome young shepherd so self-absorbed he could love nobody else. The gods punished him by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pond and stare into it until he starved to death.
His name was Narcissus, and every third or fourth day one of his distant cousins shows up in my office.
They’re not there for therapy. What they really want is magic.
They want someone to help them control the people in their lives, whom they experience as unappreciative and ungiving. They want me to teach them how to get those other people to love them better.
They’re my toughest clients.
Most people mistake narcissism for vanity or self-love. It’s not.
It’s the opposite.
Narcissists are hungry blind people.
They’re hungry because (usually) they didn’t get fed enough as kids. Most grew up in families unable to provide adequate attention, acceptance, approval or affection, the four emotional staples known as narcissistic supplies.
And they’re blind because they carry that hunger into adulthood, where they’re so preoccupied with getting themselves fed that they ignore the needs and feelings of those around them.
I explain it this way to clients:
Narcissism is like trying to drive a car that has a mirror instead of a windshield. You look out over the dashboard and you don’t see streets or traffic or pedestrians; you see only your own needs, feelings and preferences. You’re so fixated on the mirror you don’t see where you’re going, or who you run over to get there. When you hit someone you barely notice the bump.
Me-monkeys take many forms, some easier to spot than others. The most obvious are the showmen, loud, demanding, self-conscious Donald Trump types who constantly polish their image, trumpet their viewpoint, and leave me feeling less like a therapist than an audience.
Then there are the victims, eager to tell me their tales of abuse and betrayal, and desperate that I agree that absolutely none of it was their fault.
Then the addicts, so busy struggling with their tangled unmanageable feelings that they’re simply unavailable for healthy relationship with anyone else.
Finally the codependents, who always seem to be putting everyone else first, but whose caretaking, people-pleasing and avoidance of conflict are actually subterfuges meant to protect them from rejection and win a few emotional tablescraps in return.
Again, my toughest clients.
There are two reasons for this.
The first: narcissists are terrified. The starvation they suffered as kids left them convinced there was something wrong with them, and they’ve carried that belief ever since. The false self they construct and show the world – be it codependent or Trumpesque – was built to hide their shame, sense of incompleteness, and their secret conviction they’re unlovable. It’s hard to do therapy with them, because therapy requires trust, and many of them trust no one. (How trust others if you can’t trust your parents? If you can’t trust yourself?) Many are just too frightened to come out of hiding and reveal the person inside. Some have hidden behind their false front for so long they can no longer distinguish it from their real self.
The second reason: I’m a me-monkey myself.
Earlier I mentioned that it was Bert’s idea I become a therapist. A nifty way, he thought, to put my codependent Plan A to work. I would help others solve their problems, win narcissistic supplies in return, and get my emotional needs met without having to reveal either my needs or my emotions.
That was decades ago. I’m well into my Plan B now, which is less about image and insulation than honesty and risk.
But every Plan B is an ongoing project, and I still have plenty of work to do on mine.
We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses…. If a doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is. Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is…the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.*
We teach what we want to learn.
*Quoted in Psychotherapy East and West by Alan Watts (Ballantine Books, 1961).
When I first opened my private practice I needed clients, so I went into local high schools to give talks about parenting.
Everyone’s favorite talk was titled “How to Parent Your Child Through Adolescence Without Committing Murder.” Each delivery generated new clients.
But most of them weren’t parents. They were teenagers, nervous and sullen, dropped off in my waiting room by Mom or Dad with a tag tied to their toe:
Fix my kid.
I jest. Well, partly.
Adolescence brings out the worst in many parents, for a reason which by now should be obvious: it challenges their sense of control.
Before this they could convince themselves they were in charge. Eat your broccoli, they’d say, and Junior complied. It’s late, come in now, and here comes Junior.
Or they could kiss the booboo and give Junior a hug and Junior would stop crying and hug them back. Problem solved.
Then Junior hits puberty and everything changes.
The kid starts acting strangely. Refuses your broccoli; won’t even touch your dinner. Comes home late, or not at all. Stops giggling at your jokes. Acts like you’re a moron. Rude, defiant, loud, silent, stubborn, irresponsible, self-centered and incredibly sloppy.
Mom’s baby has morphed into an Orc.
This predictable family crisis is called separation and individuation. It’s a psychological threshold kids need to cross. Once they do they start detaching from their parents, develop their own identity, express their own views and values, and start feeling and functioning like grownups.
All this is essential to healthy adult functioning. Without it, no matter how old or how big someone gets, inside they feel incomplete and childish.
But many parents misunderstand separation and individuation. Even those that do understand usually find it uncomfortable.
And to parents with control issues, it can feel like an earthquake.
Some misread this normal developmental stage as disrespect, disloyalty, rejection, parental incompetence, or a sign their kid no longer loves them.
Some misinterpret it as psychopathology. They start hunting for signs of substance abuse, or Googling bipolar disorder.
Some panic. Often these are people for whom parenting was the one part of life where they felt somewhat in command, could expect to be respected and admired, listened to and obeyed. To such parents a child’s defiant No can feel like being tossed into deep water without a life preserver.
Some react with hurt, anger, judgment or withdrawal.
Some try to regain control by imposing new rules, demands or punishments.
Some become emotionally or verbally abusive.
Some become violent.
Some fight with their spouses about it. Some get divorced.
Some get depressed, or develop anxiety disorders.
Some drink, drug or overeat.
And some enter therapy.
Where, if they’re lucky, they start to learn alternatives to monkeyparenting.
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.
After the workshop described in chapter 13 — the one where I redefined codependency as control addiction — I went back to doing therapy with clinic clients.
Mine was still a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the same problems every therapist faces.
But now something was different.
Did you ever buy a new car — a new Honda, say — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas? Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.
That’s what happened to me.
Suddenly my caseload was filled with control addicts.
The clients hadn’t changed, of course. I had. It’s like I’d put on new eyeglasses. My vision had refocused or sharpened or something, and now I couldn’t help seeing how relentlessly and self-destructively controlling they all were.
They? I mean we. Everyone.
Controlling, I realized, was a universal addiction. It was everywhere I looked. Not just in clients I’d labeled codependent, but in every client. Not just in clients, but in colleagues, and friends, and family, and on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watched on tv or in the movies.
And, of course, in myself. (I’d discovered Bert.)
Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snaked through every problem, every motive, every personality, every life.
Most surprisingly, I noticed that the five most common problems clients brought to therapy all had compulsive controlling in common.
Anxiety, depression, addiction, relationship problems and problems with parenting — all seemed to grow out of the same dysfunctional urge to control what either couldn’t or shouldn’t be controlled.
Like five weeds growing out of the same root.
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.
By now you may have noticed the most interesting thing about monkeytraps:
They’re not really traps at all.
They’re just invitations to trap yourself.
They succeed because of a part of the human personality I call the inner monkey.
This is the part dominated by monkeymind, the addicted part, the compulsive part. The scared part that grabs on, and panics, and then can’t let go.
I have an inner monkey.
We grew up together.
I call him Bert.
It was my lifelong relationship with Bert that led me to create Monkeytraps: A blog about control.
In one of my first blog posts I invited Bert to introduce himself to my readers.
He wrote this:
I entered Steve’s life early, probably well before kindergarten. Probably before he could even talk.
To protect him.
Scary situations. Painful feelings. Discomfort of every sort.
Rejection. Failure. Disappointment. Frustration. Rejection. Conflict. Sadness.
(Just noticed I listed “rejection” twice. Sorry. I really really hate rejection.)
I did it mainly by searching relentlessly for ways to change things, things both outside and inside him. To somehow move them closer to what he wanted, or needed, or preferred.
I also taught him tricks. Coping tricks, like avoiding feelings and emotional risks. And relationship tricks, like hiding who he really was and pretending to like people he hated. Even perceptual tricks, like selective memory and trying to guess the future or read other people’s minds
None of these works over time. But they gave him temporary comfort, and we grew close quickly.
I became his constant companion, trusted advisor and, he thought, very best friend.
I meant well. And at times I’ve been useful, even helped him out of some bad spots.
But in the end ours has been an unhealthy relationship.
Why? Because in the end my need for control set Steve at odds with reality, instead of teaching him how to accept and adapt to it.
And because, instead of making him feel safer and accepted by other people, my controlling left him scared and disconnected.
It’s like that with us inner monkeys.
We mean well. We really do.
But we’re also, well, kind of stupid.
Some of you already know that the title of this blog refers to a method used to trap monkeys, where fruit is placed in a weighted jar or bottle and the monkey traps himself by grabbing the fruit and refusing to let go.
That’s what I do. I grab hold and refuse to let go.
I do this all the time, even when part of me knows it’s not working.
I can’t help myself.
One last word:
I’m betting you have one of my brothers or sisters inside you.
You have it as surely as you have fears, and a monkeymind that whispers and worries and scares you.
You may not have noticed this secret tenant before.
But look anyway.
Because monkeytraps are just invitations.
They work only because of what monkeyminded humans do:
Set traps, then reach into them.
Build cages, then move in and set up housekeeping.
For a detailed description of the traps and cages, read on.
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.
Perhaps most importantly:
Controlling may be either functional or dysfunctional.
Functional controlling is in some way necessary, appropriate or need-satisfying.
Dysfunctional controlling — a.k.a. dyscontrol — is none of those things.
Distinguishing the two can be tricky. Dysfunctional control often seems, in the moment, to be an effective way of coping.
Remember the list of controlling behaviors I offered in Chapter 7? Do you ever lie? Go along to get along? Hide your true thoughts and feelings? Most of us find it impossible to never engage in some of that stuff.
But eventually all forms of dyscontrol fail.
That’s because, where functional controlling represents an attempt to face and solve a problem, dyscontrol is a fear-based response whose main goal is to avoid anxiety or discomfort.
We’ll examine specific examples of this in Part 2: Dysfunction. They include anxiety, depression, addiction, and most relationship problems.
For now it’s enough to define dyscontrol as any controlling that ends up frustrating needs instead of meeting them.
Even Edith Bunker came to recognize this. Eventually she saw she needed to stand up to Archie, to stop appeasing him and simply say No.
(Haven’t seen that particular episode? Please do.* And notice the studio audience’s reaction.)
*All in the Family, Season 6, Episode 8: “Edith Breaks Out” (YouTube)
Jump to 12:00.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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: email@example.com.