Tag Archives: illusion of control
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).
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.
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.
How are your holidays going?
Bert and I guessed you could use this refresher:
In Asia they trap monkeys by placing bait in a heavy jar with a narrow neck. The monkey smells the bait, reaches in to grab it, and traps himself by refusing to let go.
A psychological monkeytrap is any situation that triggers you into compulsive controlling — into holding on when you really should let go.
And how can you tell when you’re at risk of entrapment?
Notice where you’re uncomfortable.
We’re controlling whenever we need or want to change some piece of reality instead of accepting it or adapting to it as is. And we’re most likely to want to change realities that make us uncomfortable. So it makes sense that our discomfort zones are where we’re most likely to get monkeytrapped.
Bert: Me, I hate rejection. So I’m most controlling with people I think might reject me. I hide feelings I think will upset them, pretend to agree when I really don’t, laugh at stupid jokes, avoid confronting behavior I dislike, try to read their minds, and so on and so on. Keeps me busy.
Notice where you’re stuck.
Stuck as in not learning, healing or growing — struggling with the same damn problem over and over. You know you’re monkeytrapped whenever you find yourself doing what you already know doesn’t work.
Bert: All that controlling I just described traps me because it (a) stops me from being myself, which (b) prevents me from ever getting accepted as myself, which (c) keeps me chronically scared of rejection, which brings me right back to (a). Like riding an endless merry-go-round.
Notice where you’re scared.
Like all addictions, compulsive controlling is anxiety-driven. We stay monkeytrapped because we’re scared to do anything else. Often even the thought of giving up control in such situations is enough to scare us silly.
Bert: Took me a long time to see that controlling doesn’t work. Or it does, but only for five minutes. Then another scary thing comes along and I have to control that. And life being what it is, there’s no end to scary things. So as an anxiety-reduction tactic controlling is a total flop.
The most frightened people are the most controlling people, and the most controlling people stay the most frightened.
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.”
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.
Whenever a new member joins one of my therapy groups I ask all the current members to introduce themselves.
And in the course of doing so I ask each one to define what they’re working on in group.
identifying and expressing feelings,
not losing myself in relationships,
giving up compulsive controlling,
coming out of hiding in group
are some of the answers I get.
Occasionally a member can’t answer the question.
When that happens, I take it to mean somebody hasn’t done their job.
It might be me. It’s the therapist’s job to help clients define their work — their issues and what they must do to resolve them — and then help them stay focused on it.
Or it might be the client. Some clients come to therapy not to work, but to be comforted or rescued or parented. Some spend years avoiding the work they need to do.
One thing’s sure, though.
Unless and until the work gets defined, it can never get done.
In times of crisis she calls herself names.
“I’m so stupid,” she’ll say. Or “I’m crazy.”
But when I offer her a diagnosis – suggest she has an anxiety disorder, say – she rejects it:
“I don’t like labels.”
Puzzling. What are stupid and crazy if not labels?
It reminds me of something many addicts say when I suggest medication:
“I don’t want to need a pill to make me feel good.”
I hear this regularly from people already dependent on pot, street drugs or alcohol.
How explain this inconsistency?
To some people, accepting a diagnosis or medication feels like a loss of control.
I sympathize. Nobody likes to feel defined or directed by somebody else.
But resisting diagnosis and treatment usually leaves such people feeling neither freer nor stronger.
Not more in control, but more helpless.
Another reminder of what I call the First Paradox.
The greater your need to feel in control, the less in control you’re likely to feel.
But there’s good news too. The aging AC in my building finally expired, transforming my office into a sauna with sofas. So I had to stay home.
Like a snow day, but with sweat.
Anyway, I’m sitting here at my desk with a fan at my elbow, reading chirpy blogs filled with excellent advice about how to transform my neuroses and finances, when I hear footsteps.
Guess who? Bert growls.
Oh, please. Take the day off, can’t you?
I want to chat.
About the other day. After we talked I felt better.
Great. You’re welcome. Go take a nap.
Planning on it. First I have a question.
Of course you do.
Patience, please. Your monkey’s your monkey.
(Sigh.) What’s your question?
Why did I feel better?
Nothing changed. All the stuff I was complaining about stayed exactly the same. I felt better anyway. Why? What did you do?
I helped you detach from the illusion of control.
Oh. (Pause.) What the hell does that mean?
You were attached to an idea that was making you unhappy. I just helped you move your attention elsewhere.
What idea was I attached to?
That you had to solve your problems.
But I did have to. I still do.
Not in order to feel better. For that you had to detach.
Let go of.
How does that help?
How does it help to put down any load you’re carrying?
Oh. Okay. But the problems are still there.
I still have to solve them.
Let’s say you do that. What then?
I don’t follow.
You’ve solved all your problems. What do you do now?
That’s silly. Nobody can solve all their problems.
Exactly. At best we exchange old ones for new ones. And to believe anything else is an illusion.
The illusion of control.
And you believe that? Control is an illusion?
Most of the time, yes.
But wait. Some problems are solvable, right?
So we can have some control.
I’d say it differently. I’d say there are times when we’re able to stop chasing control. That’s not the same as actually having it.
You lost me.
Yes, that happens.
(Pause.) Let me ask it another way. Why do you believe control is an illusion?
Why do you think?
I don’t know. Anyway, I’m not convinced it is.
Oh? Have enough control, do you?
No. Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Right. You just have to try a bit harder.
Do you know anybody who has enough control?
I’ve never asked. But I doubt it.
Me too. So why assume control is possible?
Well, it must be.
Look. The idea of control is what might be called a necessary fiction. It’s a myth, a story we tell ourselves in order to go on.
Go on living.
Yes. It gives us a sense of security and a sense of direction. And it really is necessary, because facing our lack of control is terrifying for most people. But it really is a fiction too.
But why? Why can’t I ever have control?
Do you remember the four laws?
Yes and no. I mean I do, but I keep forgetting them.
Yes, that’s normal. The third law is
3. Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.
Yes, I remember now.
And that’s why control is mostly an illusion.
Because feelings are mostly uncontrollable.
Wait. That’s not true. If it were, we’d all run amuck. I’d punch out everyone that makes me angry, or seduce every woman I find attractive, or…
You’re confusing feelings with behavior.
Sure, behavior is controllable. Sure, we can choose to express our feelings or hold them in. We can split ourselves into controller and controlled.
What I’m saying is, ultimately feelings are stronger. Ultimately emotional life is beyond our control. No one stays in control of their emotional life.
But you know this. You sit with me in that consulting room every day. You know what happens to people who rely on control.
They get sick.
Right. Anxious, depressed, addicted.
So what’s the alternative?
To controlling your emotional life?
You know that too.
Can you control the weather?
Of course not.
Is that a problem?
Because I can handle the weather. I know how to respond to it. It rains, I wear a raincoat. It snows, I wear galoshes. It’s hot and the office AC crashes, I stay home with a fan in my face.
Exactly. Feelings are like weather. Not a problem when you learn how to respond to them.
Respond to. Not control.
Well, it starts with listening to them. Listening for instructions, I call it. Which I’m about to do.
By ending this conversation. We just passed 800 words.
Oh. Crap. Lost some readers, I imagine.
That’s okay. The ones who are interested will come back.
Can I come back?
I expect you will, whether or not I give you permission.
(To be continued.)
Thanks. What’s a monkey trap?
Wikipedia defines it as “A cage containing a banana with a hole large enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, but not large enough for a monkey’s fist (clutching a banana) to come out. Used to catch monkeys that lack the intellect to let go of the banana and run away.” A bit harsh towards monkeys, but you get the idea. Other versions use heavy bottles or anchored coconuts to hold the banana.
And this is what you’re blogging about? Catching monkeys?
No. It’s a metaphor.
Psychological traps. The sort we all get stuck in.
More specific, please.
A monkeytrap is any situation that pulls you into holding on when you really need to let go. I know I’m in one whenever I find myself trying to control something that can’t or shouldn’t be controlled.
Well, feelings are monkeytraps. So are relationships. So are stressful situations of all sorts. Anything that scares us or confuses us or makes us uncomfortable. Come to think of it, life itself is pretty much one monkeytrap after another.
Realistic, I think.
And you’re writing about this because?
I’m a shrink. Twenty years of doing therapy have convinced me that just about every emotional problem is rooted in some sort of monkeytrap. Anxiety, depression, addictions, relationship problems, parenting problems, all of them usually turn out to be caused by someone holding onto something when they really should let go.
Too much control makes us sick?
No. Too much controlling. Control itself, that’s usually an illusion.
Beg your pardon?
I know. Radical thought. But think about it. What in your life can you finally, absolutely control?
Exactly. We spend our lives grabbing for it anyway. Control is like a mirage that vanishes when you walk up to it, or a train you chase but never catch. Most of the time we don’t even know we’re chasing it. “Ideas we have, but don’t know we have, have us,” James Hillman said. Control is just such an idea.
Like an addiction.
Exactly. We’re all addicted to control. I know I am.
How can you tell?
Because the opposite of control is the ablity to accept the reality you’ve got instead of trying to replace it with the one you want. (The reality you want, that’s the banana.) It means being able to relax, and do nothing, and trust that everything will work out okay. I’m not able to do that much. You?
No. Who is?
Nobody I know. I’ve known some people who could do it occasionally. I’ve never known anyone who could do it all the time. I doubt any human being can. We’re the monkeys who simply must control things, or die trying. It’s one of the reasons I avoid the term “control freak.” There’s nothing freakish about controlling. What’s freakish is being able to stop.
Why is that?
Why is one of the questions I hope to explore in this blog. I have some ideas about it. I have ideas, too, about how to better understand and deal with this universal addiction. I created Monkeytraps as a way to road test those ideas.
Road test how?
Unpack them in public, ask readers to think and talk about them. Start a conversation about all this.
Okay. Anything else I should know?
Lots. But I’m trying to keep these things bite-sized, and I just passed my 500-word limit. So come back tomorrow. (Or whenever I do this next. Sign up below, I’ll let you know). Bring your banana.