Hot-air Baloon

Ch-6: From External to Internal Control of Your Life

Part 1: Internal-External Control Questions

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 6,  Part 1,  from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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Are you more internally or externally controlled?

 Overcoming a fear of being alone


Abraham Maslow found autonomy and "independence of culture and environment" to be primary characteristics of self-actualizing people.

. . .self-actualizing people are not so dependent for their main satisfactions on the real world, or other people or culture or means to ends or, in general, on extrinsic satisfaction. . .

They would maintain relative serenity in the midst of circumstances 
that would lead other people to suicide. . .

The determinants of their motivation and the good life are for them
 now inner-individual and not social. . .
The honors, the status, the rewards, the popularity, the prestige, and the love they can bestow 
have become less important than self-development and inner growth.

(Abraham Maslow, 1954, p. 162)

Research has consistently associated autonomy, internal locus of control, independence, and similar personality dimensions with mental health and many types of success. Too much external control is one of the most common problems I see among clients. It is a major underlying problem contributing to such diverse problems as chronic anxiety and depression, nonassertiveness, performance anxiety, addictive behavior patterns, phobias, intimacy and relationship problems, and dysfunctional family problems.

What is this pervasive problem that seems to interfere with the lives of so many people? Why do so many of us have it? The underlying issue about internal versus external control concerns the relative importance of self-developed, internal guides versus externally-developed guides to decision-making. When we are about to make a decision, are we being more influenced by our own well-thought out beliefs, values, standards, and goals? Or are we more influenced by what we think others expect or want us to do? Examine yourself with the following ten questions.

1. Do you use external OR internal expectations to evaluate yourself?

2. Do you do what others want to do most of the time?

3. Do you seek approval so much that it is a "must," OR is it a pleasant "bonus"?

4. Do you try to impress others, or are you comfortable about yourself?

5. Do you worry about being "popular" and pleasing everyone OR focus more on taking good care of yourself and those closest to you?

6. Do you frequently want to do the opposite of what others want you to do--no matter what they want?

7. Do you often let others make decisions for you?

8. Do you let others take care of you (emotionally, financially, socially, etc.)?

9. Do you worry about taking care of others' needs or feelings more than you take care of your own?

10. Do you constantly "should" all over yourself OR do what you "want" to do?

The external control answer for all of the above questions was the first alternative or a "yes" answer. If you answered the external control answer to any of these questions, then external control is almost certainly a significant cause of unhappiness in your life! A section below will be devoted to each question. If you scored a perfect "internal control," then perhaps you do not need to read this chapter.

PRACTICE: Think of a situation or person where you are under more external control. Think of some areas of your life where you feel more secure and confident and are more internally controlled. Think of at least one area of your life where you feel less secure and think that you are more externally controlled. Or think of a person (or type of person) with whom you tend to be more externally controlled (authorities, strangers, spouse, friends, etc.). Then focus on that area (or person) when I describe external control dynamics in the sections below.

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We may not see ourselves as being externally controlled at all. For example, people who are rebellious usually see themselves as "free" and "independent." However, true rebels are externally controlled people. The word "rebel" implies that they are rebelling against something. True rebels do the opposite of what others want or expect. They are motivated by getting disapproval, surprise, or some other negative reaction from others. Consequently, they are externally controlled by the expectations of others.

Conformists do exactly what others expect.
Rebels do exactly the opposite of what others expect.
Internally controlled people make their decisions based upon
their own values and expectations--independent of what others expect.

Who is to be the final judge of what you do in a particular situation? Who are you really trying to please? Whose standards are you using to evaluate your behavior? Who are your judges and how important are they? The more you judge yourself by your Higher Self and what is beneficial to yourself and others, the more you are internally controlled. The more you allow yourself to be judged by others--especially those who are not contributing to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others--the more you are externally controlled.

External control is often related to lack of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence. If you do not love yourself enough, do not respect yourself, and do not trust your own intelligence and judgment, then why would you trust yourself to judge or to decide?

I once read a card that said, "You don't have an inferiority complex, you're just inferior." Down deep many people with low self-esteem believe that about themselves. They may believe that they have some basic defect (such as an "emotional disorder" or "low IQ") that means they cannot trust their own opinions or judgments. Therefore, they always defer to others' reasoning and opinions.

Your own needs, expectations, and opinions are important. The U.S. Constitution does not require that people have an IQ of 120 or pass a battery of psychological tests to vote. It presumes that no matter what a citizen's IQ or emotional heath status (except extreme cases), they should be allowed to vote; because each person's needs are important and each person can best speak for his or herself.

It doesn't matter whether or not you are the most important, intelligent, or emotionally mature person in the room, your needs and views are as important as anyone else's! Remind yourself of the U. S. Constitution when your old messages tell you that your point of view may not be important.

When it comes to judging yourself, your expectations are the most important ones, because you are the one who is most affected most by those expectations.

We will only learn to make good judgments and decisions by judging and deciding. We will never learn if we do not practice. To learn to make good judgments or decisions, it is necessary to practice making judgments and decisions. Remind yourself of that when you are tempted to defer to others. Listen to others, but make the final judgments and decisions yourself!
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How do you balance your own wants and needs with the wants and needs of others? Do you tend to constantly focus on others' needs and wants at the expense of your own? When you disagree, do you always end up losing? Is the overall balance of control (who gets their way?) with each person in your life about 50-50%. Or is it disproportionate in some cases (such as 70-30%)? How often are decisions and disagreements settled by "I win--you win" outcomes--in which both people are happy? How often are the outcomes "I lose--you win" or "I win--you lose" types?

The United States constitution asserts that you each have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same. I like that principle. This assertion is basically permissive and says we can do anything we want to pursue happiness so long as it does not hurt others.

Jesus, in the New Testament, asserted that we should love others as we love ourselves. He seemed to assume that we love ourselves (and therefore will take good care of ourselves) and will ideally love others as much as we love ourselves and care for their needs almost as if they were your own. This is a great contrast to the belief of many churchgoers--"always put others first."

Your Higher Self automatically cares about you and other people. You cannot be maximally happy without making contributions to others' happiness in addition to your own--not "in place of" your own.

If you are in the habit of focusing on other people's needs and worrying about their feelings before your own, then you need to reverse this trend. Start focusing on your own goals first. Remember, you are most responsible for your needs and feelings, and they are most responsible for their's.


Are you constantly seeking others' approval? Are you worried about being popular? Does it seem important that everyone like you, agree with you, or approve of what you do? If you don't get approval and respect from nearly everyone, can you accept yourself? Are you afraid that if others don't approve, some "disaster" will occur--such as total rejection, a terrible conflict, or worse?

These are all signs of external control. They are based on assumptions that you must have other people's approval to be an ok person or get your basic needs met. People with more internal control are not so concerned about approval. They do not believe that they must have others' approval. Instead they are concerned primarily about their own internal standards and their approval of themselves. They may enjoy other people's attention, respect, liking, and approval; but they view these external signs of approval as bonuses--unnecessary additions to their own self-approval. Following are some possible underlying causes of a high need for approval.

A powerful fear of being alone (that makes approval a "must"). Do you fear being alone for extended periods of time? Do you fear living alone indefinitely or never having your own family? Those types of fears may underlie a high need for approval.

It is important to remember that many people are happy alone. I have met many people who overcame overwhelming fears of living alone. They thought they would never be happy alone or get over their fear of living alone. I have had many clients who have successfully made this transition. Many of them had previously stayed in bad, unhappy relationships due to this fear.

Overcoming a fear of being alone by learning "to take care of myself." These clients overcame their fears of being alone by gradually learning how to take care of their own needs and feelings--without depending upon a partner.

They learned to do everything for themselves--pay bills, cook, do the laundry, get the car fixed, entertain themselves, find new friends, get a job and support themselves, make a cozy home for themselves, and take care of their own sexual and emotional needs. They learned to overcome their fears of going places alone (and their fears of what others would think of their "being alone" or "a loser"). They learned to really enjoy taking themselves out to dinner or a movie--alone.

A key to overcoming this fear is to develop mentally stimulating activities alone--to overcome the boredom (and depression). People who learned to feel comfortable alone have usually learned how to entertain themselves without spending much money. Music, reading, TV, computer-related activities, do-it-yourself projects, and art are only a few examples.

People living alone often complain about feeling "lonely" and want emotional support from others. Some people who are happy alone have friends or family to whom they go to for emotional support. However, many people do not have any close friends or family available. What can they do for support? They can learn how to give themselves support. They can support themselves in many ways. Following are a few suggestions that have worked for others:

 Get in touch with your Higher Self and related beliefs. Reassure yourself that you and your happiness are important--unconditionally. Remind yourself that there are many routes to happiness in any situation. If you face failure or loss, these reminders can crucial.

 If you believe in a higher power or God, then use prayer or talk with that higher power to get comfort. Develop your relationship. Don't just talk, but also take time to listen.

 Imagine getting a big hug. Imagine giving yourself a big hug--or do it--when you need one. Or imagine getting a hug from someone you love or an image of someone you ideally want to meet in the future. One client imagined God putting His arms around her and giving her a big hug.

 Read comforting passages from books that get you in touch with your basic beliefs, such as the Bible or your favorite self-help book. Poetry and music lyrics can be especially helpful.

 Recall times when you have received positive attention, support, or affection from others who really cared about you. Really "get into" the memory so that you can feel the support and warmth. Positive visualizations can be very helpful.

  PRACTICE: Use your own ideas to make a list of comforting activities now.

Once my clients became more self-sufficient, they no longer "had" to be in a relationship. One client said that in years past she had lost two men that she really loved; her "neediness" had driven them away. Then she spent three years learning how to take care of herself and her own happiness. She went back to school, got her career going, made friends, learned new hobbies, and learned how to entertain and support herself emotionally.

The irony is that since she has been happy alone and stopped "needing" anyone to make her a whole person, she has had many more opportunities to get involved with desirable men. She can now be in a beautiful, intimate, equal relationship with someone she really loves. She had to wait until now, because only now is she the person she wants to be (and the person a man desiring equality and independence wants to find). She no longer has to settle for men who want to dominate her or own her. Domination had been the price for finding someone to take care of her.

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Seeking a high degree of approval from others may mean that inside we do not feel secure enough about ourselves (in at least one life area). We may lack self-confidence and not trust our own competence--possibly because we are too inexperienced in that area.

Or, we may lack self-confidence because of deeper doubts about our overall competence or value as a person. Inside we may fear something is seriously wrong with our personality or intelligence. Or we may fear that we have a moral or character defect--that we are weak, bad, stupid, a loser, lazy, damaged, dirty, or have low self-esteem.

These fears may have originated from other people's comments (parents, peers, or authorities). These negative comments may have some element of truth, but our critics may exaggerate the negative aspect. In the process they may teach us their negative cognitive bias styles (overgeneralization, exaggerations, selective abstraction, or negative bias). Thus, we may learn to exaggerate our own deficiencies whenever we make any kind of mistake or anyone criticizes us. The result of this biased input from others and ourselves is a strong belief--"deep inside something is terribly wrong with me."

Taking a public-opinion poll on our worth doesn't work. Every encounter with another person may represent a battle between the positive and negative parts of ourselves. Each part seeks victory. If we get approval, respect, love, attention, or whatever feedback we seek that validates our belief that we are ok, then it is a victory for the positive side. That inner part may generate all sorts of positive thoughts about how great we are.

If on the other hand, if we get disapproval, rejection, or criticism, then the negative part feels validated and takes temporary control. Focusing on this negative input generates feelings such as hurt, anger, anxiety, guilt, or depression. It generates negative thoughts such as "I'm a failure," "I'm stupid," "I'm no good," or "nobody would want me."

I have seen many clients whose mental and emotional life consists of playing out this war between their positive and negative parts for years. They will never get an answer to whether they are worthy or not by taking a public opinion poll--which is what they have been doing. If a person "votes" that they are ok, they feel good. If someone "votes" that they aren't-ok, they feel terrible.

Become more dependent upon internal validation. Part of the answer to overcoming this conflict is to develop a stronger Higher Self. Recall how the Higher Self gains power as we choose to unconditionally love ourselves and value our own and others' happiness. Our final judge is the Higher Self. As long as we believe that our happiness or opinion of ourselves is dependent upon something only others can give us, we are at their mercy.

If they are negative or controlling persons, they have us by the throat, because they can control us by giving or withholding approval. Therefore, to be internally controlled, we must consistently choose to value our own happiness and other mental or spiritual values above money, above other people's opinions, above being loved, above respect, and above any other value that is external or in the control of other people.

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Seek healthy inputs and reprogram cognitive biases. Instead of exposing ourselves to negative inputs and negative people or media, we can expose ourselves to healthier, more positive inputs. Spend more time with happier, healthier people. Spend more time with media providing constructive, positive points of view.

To get control over inner subparts that say we are bad, we can choose to listen and to do what our healthier parts say. We can validate Higher Self empathy and love. Just keep choosing the alternative that will make you the happiest and contribute most to other people's happiness. Choosing it increases its power. Choosing the way of the negative part increases its power. Almost every choice you make empowers one or the other!

Choosing internal control often means getting far away from family or other people who have dysfunctional needs to "hold on to" and control their adult children or loved ones. It means being assertive about both how often you see them and the nature of your interactions when you are together. Structuring time together so that there is minimal opportunity for the negative interactions can help. Examples include small talk, TV, going to public places, and keeping busy.

I have seen many clients who literally had to escape the powerful family system forces in order to choose mental health over severe psychological dysfunction and unhappiness. For many people the choice is to be in this relationship and continue to be dysfunctional and miserable or to leave it to eventually find health and happiness.

Do you seek approval because you do not trust in your own perception, competence, or judgment? Perhaps you do not trust your own intelligence, judgment, or competence. Therefore, you may trust someone else's more. Sometimes, trusting another's judgment more than our own makes sense. If I were going to receive heart surgery, I would certainly trust my surgeon's knowledge about the heart more than my own. However, that trust does not mean that I would automatically take his advice about whether to have surgery or not. I would probably get at least one additional opinion, learn all I could about my heart, and make the final decision myself.

I see many people who do not even trust their own senses, memory, or perceptions as much as they trust someone else's statements. Statements like "you can't be upset over that," "how could you possibly feel . . .," or "you can't possibly feel . . ." to someone about how they are feeling may mean that the outside observer either misunderstands how the person feels or wants to change how the person is feeling. They may not like or want to accept that this is how the person really is feeling.

The person experiencing the feeling almost always knows what they are feeling better than the outside observer. Yet many people ignore, deny, or describe their own feelings in such a way as to agree with the outside observer instead of trusting their own senses. They might even really become persuaded that they couldn't possibly feel that way.

If any of these are problems for you, then it is important that you practice tuning into your own senses and perceptions. If you are unsure about what your perception is, then you can at least say something like, "I think that I am feeling resentment" and stick to it.

Do you seek approval because you are afraid people only tolerate you? Do you believe deep inside that people would not like you if they really knew all about you? So you try to present yourself in a way that you think they would like--you present a facade. How much do you distort the truth because you think they would not respect or like you if they knew the truth?

One of my solutions is that if they do not like me the way that I am, then I would not want to get close to them. Why would I want to get too close to anyone who can't accept me the way I am?

Perhaps you believe that no one could accept or like you the way you really are. In one of his roles Groucho Marx once said that he wouldn't want anyone as a friend who would want someone like him as a friend.

Who do you want to be closest to? Who is most important that you be accepted by? If you are concerned about your ability to make friends or be liked, then focus most on the people who you want to be friends with. So what if the others don't like you!

Do you feel that the people most important to you would accept you? If so, then remember this at times when you are starting to worry about seeking others' approval--especially people who are not so important. If you do not think that the people who are most important to you would accept you the way you really are, then perhaps you need to begin a self-improvement program or change your reference group.

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What if you are afraid to accept some awful truth about yourself? Another possible reason that you might seek approval so much is that you do not accept some truth about yourself. Maybe your fear of this awful truth causes you to be more externally controlled.

There are two general solutions to a problem--fix it or accept it. The philosopher Reinhold Niehbuhr initiated the famous serenity prayer,

God, give me the power to change that which I can change,
the power to accept that which I cannot change,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

If we love ourselves unconditionally, we can accept any truth about ourselves. The first step in 12-step programs for people addicted to alcohol or drugs is to privately and publicly accept the truth that they are alcoholic.

However, once you really allow yourself to explore some awful truth fear about yourself, you may find that it is not true after all. Other people (such as parents or peers) may have convinced you that something is basically wrong with you--even though it is really not true! If self-acceptance or facing some negative self-label is part of your problem, read the self-acceptance section in chapter 5.


One of the sad things about trying to get everyone to like us is that we can end up hurting those we care most for. We may take our own needs and the needs of those we love most for granted, while we are spending our energy trying to please those for whom we care less (and who care less for us).

The more internally directed person has little need for being popular. Maslow's self-actualized people were often famous leaders, but the goal of being popular was unimportant to them. They were much more concerned about their own happiness and goals for making the world a better place. They usually only had a small number of close friends, and other people's opinions of them mattered relatively little.

Internally controlled people realize that their time and energy are limited. They tend to focus their time and energy more on their own and their loved ones' needs. Even when turning their attention to other people outside their inner circle, they focus on other people's real needs and values--not on being liked or popular.

An outstanding leader is one who wants to provide real benefits to those they are leading--not just get their short-term approval so that they can continue leading. Too many political and organizational leaders do not seem to understand this important principle of good leadership.

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To his friends and supporters a male leader might be viewed as strong and decisive. To his enemies, the same quality might be viewed as stubborn and domineering. His friends see him as progressive, farsighted, and a man of change. His enemies describe the same behaviors as too idealistic, foolish, reckless, and impulsive.

Everyone makes different impressions on different people. Even when the observers agree on the behaviors of the person, they will have different interpretations--and some will disapprove. No matter what we do, some people will disapprove! It is impossible to avoid disapproval. We may not always be aware of it, but we each have had lots of disapproval and will continue to have it the rest of our lives.

Therefore, if we want to be maximally happy, we must learn to accept disapproval as a natural event that is ok. Even great leaders have experienced extreme rejection and persecution. Sometimes the more advanced a person is, the greater his or her rejection. Galileo spoke of the earth being round--not flat like everyone believed. His radical idea led to condemnation by the Catholic Church and social ostracism.

Get better acquainted with disapproval so that you can learn to be comfortable with it. Start looking at disapproval as a good friend--at least by those who least understand you. Their disapproval might be positive feedback that you are becoming more internally controlled and standing up for your beliefs. If you are in a manipulative or codependent relationship, strong disapproval may mean that you are confronting core aspects of your partner's dysfunctional beliefs.

Being overly apologetic versus apologizing only if you internally validate your mistake. If you receive disapproval, do you apologize automatically? Do you apologize without even thinking about whether you might be right? Do you usually assume that you are to blame for something that goes wrong? Do you automatically focus inward when a problem arises-as if you assume you caused it or have to fix it? Does it seem strange to focus on what the other person has done? Do you tend to assume that they are smarter, know more, are more competent, or are better in some way than you are?

These are signs of giving others external control. Are you giving them the benefit of the doubt because of low self-confidence or because you want them to guide you? Or, maybe you would rather take the blame than have a conflict with the other person. Are you afraid of dealing with conflict? Are you afraid of being rejected or hurt by the person if you stand up to them? What can you do instead?

Use your inner observer to rise above the situation and be more objective. Pretend that a part of you is an outside observer who is not involved. Let it look carefully to see what each party has thought, felt, and done leading up to the problem. Avoid the concept of blame entirely and avoid blaming language. Focus on events 1, 2, and 3 that preceded the problem. And focus on constructive solutions to the problem. Additionally, try some of the following.

  • Notice when you automatically assume the other is right. Talk to yourself when you catch yourself starting to apologize. Stop looking only at yourself for the source of the problem.
  • Stop assuming that questioning them will lead to conflict or rejection. Instead, find a way to speak to them in an understanding, kind--but firm--way. Use diplomacy!
  • Learn what your underlying motives and assumptions are.
  • Seek appropriate alternative beliefs based on your Higher Self beliefs.

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How often do you let others make decisions for you? How often do you seek help without making a determined effort to make your own decision? How often do you let others just assume what you want--even though it is not what you most want? How often do others make decisions with significant effects on you--yet you never tell them that you want something else?

Many of the same underlying causes for seeking approval also cause us to let others make decisions for us. We want approval, acceptance, conflict avoidance, or some reward from them. So, we don't speak up, we let them make the decisions and get their way most of the time.

Perhaps we give in because we are dealing with an exceptionally dominating and controlling person, or perhaps we give in because we feel more comfortable not making the decisions ourselves.

If you have a problem making decisions--either with other people or alone, then any of the following factors could be a cause. Following are suggestions for improvement.

>Lack of practice. You have not had much practice making important decisions alone. To improve, start making decisions--right or wrong--to get practice. You'll never learn to do it, unless you start!

>Fear of decision-making incompetence. You do not have much knowledge about the decision-area or about decision-making in general. To improve, learn! Read, consult people who are good at it, think it through yourself, get counseling, read, and again, practice. Learn a step-by-step decision-making process such as the one below:




1-Gather INFORMATION–the best available!

2-Generate and explore ALTERNATIVES.

3-List your CRITERIA and weigh pluses and minuses on each alternative (for each criterion).

4-DECIDE–choose the alternative leading to the greatest happiness for self and others.

5-PLAN how to do it.

6-ACTION--Just do it.

7-FEEDBACK--gather feedback about results, and revise ´┐Żyour plan as needed.


>Fear of failure or consequences. Do you fear making bad decisions or fear the consequences of bad decisions? Do you focus too much on possible negative consequences or feel too responsible? To improve, practice, and make mistakes. Some doctors make life or death decisions every day; what if they refused to make them? Explore and find the underlying negative outcomes you are so afraid of. Then find a new way of looking at the situation. For example if you fear being a failure, self-acceptance may be the problem (see self-esteem chapter 5).

>Fear of criticism. Do you fear making decisions because of what others will think of you or what you will think of yourself? To improve, if you are primarily afraid of what others will think, explore your underlying worst fears. For example, are you afraid they will fire you or leave you? Develop a plan for coping with the worst possible outcomes.

If you are more afraid of what you will think, it is a self-acceptance problem. Do you have unconditional self-love? Are you making happiness your ultimate concern? Or are you making your status on some social ranking scale (such as income, education, position, or class) your number one concern in life? Making social ranking, a high priority creates vulnerability to other people's views of you.

>Fear of conflict. Perhaps you have a history of unpleasant memories associated with conflict or perhaps you have little experience dealing with conflict. => In either case, you may fear shouting, name-calling, physical or psychological abuse, or rejection. Learning assertive conflict resolution skills will allow you to diplomatically stand up for you point of view. This assertive style minimizes the potential of aggression or manipulation. If the other person uses an aggressive style, assertiveness skills will help you deal with that style more effectively.

>Seeking sympathy or passive control. Giving in or appearing weak, dependent, or incompetent can be rewarding. Perhaps other people feel sorry for you, feel guilty, feel protective, or feel responsible for you when you give in. Consequently, they ultimately give you what you want. To improve, try being honest with yourself and others. Remind yourself that when you act weak, you lower your self-esteem by giving yourself subtle messages that you really are weak. You also keep yourself in a submissive role with other people and reinforce their domination.

Often, nonassertiveness is caused by a lack of confidence in our own competence, a nonassertive belief system, or a lack of control by the Higher Self. Assertion training (or other types of interpersonal conflict-resolution skills training) can help you become more confident and effective dealing with interpersonal problems, decisions, and conflicts.

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Not consulting others can also result from a high need for approval or insecurity. Often someone who is too externally controlled will go to the other extreme--making decisions without ever consulting other people--even when it would be wise. I used to be afraid that if I went to others for help making a decision, that I would be too influenced by them or that I was being weak by not making my own decisions.

I learned that the wisest decision-makers effectively seek other people's opinions. They consult with people who will be affected by their decisions to see what reactions those people will have. Otherwise, their decisions may have unintended consequences and are not really democratic in style. They also consult with experts or people who have been successful at the task at hand.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that getting information and advice from others is different than letting them make the decision. Other people have valuable information. When making an important decision, I seek input from others. Yet, I am the one in charge of the decision-making process, and I am the one who makes the final decision. I look at all of the alternatives and compare them on all of the relevant criteria myself. I decide which alternative I think will contribute most to my own and other people's happiness. Then, I make the decision.

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LETTING NEEDY OTHERS DOMINATE YOU--Believing you are responsible for others' needs and feelings

Many people who think of themselves as independent are actually being dominated without knowing it. They are being dominated by people they think are too needy to take care of themselves. Others may try to tell them that they are sacrificing too much for the needy people, but they will not listen.

They have some underlying belief or need that is too strong to allow them to let go of being responsible for these needy others. They may be convinced that they have a powerful duty to take care of them. They may base this duty on religious beliefs, on being a close relative, or on being the only person that can be depended upon. Or, they may get some hidden reinforcement for taking care of the other person--such as companionship or approval. Occasionally, they may foster dependence so that the needy person will become so dependent on them that he or she will never leave them. Are you being dominated by a dependent person--in at least one relationship?

The Codependence Trap--"I take care of your feelings and you take care of mine." Melodie Beattie, in her book Codependent No More, describes the dynamics of codependent relationships and their relationship to addictive behaviors. In most cases there is a "responsible" party who takes care of family needs such as work, finances, and relationships, and there is an "irresponsible" party, who has a serious addiction or other problem. These addictions can be to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or even work.

One of the hallmarks of codependent relationships is a shared belief system that people should take care of each other's needs and feelings. But, if we are responsible for each other's needs and feelings, then the implication is that we are not responsible for our own needs and feelings. This is the codependent script, "I take care of your feelings and you take care of mine (because we cannot--or should not--take care of our own)."

No wonder that both parties in a codependent relationship tend to be irresponsible for some of their own needs and feelings. It is usually obvious that the irresponsible party is not responsible in areas such as substance abuse, work, finances, honesty, or abusive behavior. What may not be so obvious is that the responsible parties may not be responsible for taking care of their own happiness. They make their happiness dependent upon reforming the irresponsible party.

For example, consider a woman I met whose son had had a serious drug problem. He also could not keep a job and was failing in college. She was more worried about his drugs, school, and finances than he was. This is another symptom of codependence. She was the one who was taking responsibility for his drugs, school, and money--not him. Since she was taking responsibility for his drinking--why should he?

She repeatedly threatened to make him move out unless he stopped using drugs and started making progress in college or got a job. However, she never fulfilled her threats. She loved him and was terrified that he might end up in prison, dead of a drug overdose, or homeless if she did not keep supplying him with money, food, and a home. He knew that he didn't have to worry about these terrible consequences, because his mom was so worried about them.

She believed that it was her responsibility to make sure none of these consequences happened. She did not understand that most addicts have to hit bottom before they really begin to take responsibility for their behavior and begin the road to recovery.

She worried about keeping his stress low so that he would not get too upset and take drugs. By taking this responsibility for his feelings, she protected him from the natural consequences of his behavior. In that way, she actually encouraged him to keep taking drugs and to keep failing in his career.

Eventually, she was given an outstanding job offer, which meant moving to the Netherlands. It was also an opportunity to escape this mess. Her son was 20 years old and she decided to give up and let him be responsible for himself. She informed him of her decision, left him with some money, and moved to Holland.

Internal-external control image  

She did not hear from him for three years. She came back to visit and found him. He was off drugs, was supporting himself, and was succeeding in college. He told her that the best thing she ever did for him was to go to the Netherlands. He said that at first he was in a state of shock. He realized that she was no longer there to take care of him. He knew that he had to start taking care of himself or he would be on the streets--or dead. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and began his recovery.

An interesting addition to this story is that through the entire relationship, the mother had also been depending upon her son to take care of her social needs. She was shy and hadn't had much social life since her divorce. She had become socially dependent upon her son's companionship. She hated to admit it, but she was allowing him to be responsible for her social needs in ways that were similar to how she was being responsible for his drugs and career.

She covered up her loneliness and rather dull existence by a work addiction that helped her avoid feelings of loneliness and depression in her personal life. Once she went to Europe and lived alone, she couldn't depend on her son for companionship. She took responsibility for her own social and personal life.

To summarize, both mother and son were living by the same life script that included taking responsibility for the other--while avoiding responsibility for themselves. Each used addictive behaviors to cover up the resultant bad feelings. The solution was for each to take primary responsibility for their own needs and feelings.

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How do you know if you are in a codependent relationship? Be alert for manipulation or domination by the needy whenever you habitually sacrifice your own happiness for another person's. Ask yourself whether you or the other person is doing any of the following.

  • Being dishonest, giving double messages, or hiding the truth?
  • Protecting some addiction, weakness, or other bad habit?
  • Protecting the other person from facing natural consequences of their bad habits? Are you (or the other) in effect contributing to the maintenance of their bad habits?
  • Not finding some other way to meet their needs because the bad habit (or your help) is easier? Consider this question carefully, since they may have fooled you into believing they are incapable of caring for their own basic needs.
  • Are you more worried about them than they are worried about themselves? This is the ultimate test of who is taking the most responsibility for their welfare. If it is you, then it is time for a change!

A "Yes" answer to any of the questions above is a sign of manipulation or codependence--whether either party intends codependency or not.
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Good parenting teaches children to be independent--not codependent. A client came in very upset about her relationship with her mother. Her mother was alone and lonely. My client believed that "Mom is miserable if I don't visit her." Her mom wanted her to visit her many hours each week. Yet my client was working half-time, was a full-time student, and was in a relationship. She felt extremely guilty about not spending more time with her mom and felt she owed it to her because mom had done so much for her. Out of guilt, she spent much more time than she could afford with her mother.

Yet, still, her mom would say, "Do you care about what happens to me?" "I'm so lonely when you're not here." "I'm too old to try to make new friends." "I want to be with my family, and you're the only family I have."

How would you feel, if your mother said that to you? My client felt guilty and responsible for her mother's happiness. Yet, her mother's requests for attention seemed like a bottomless pit. She could never satisfy mom. What could she do to quit feeling so guilty?

The problem was in the beliefs--or script--shared by mother and daughter. The codependent script was, "Parents raise their children, then the children are obligated to take care of their parents--at least socially." On the other hand, an independence script says, "Good parents facilitate their children's development into healthy adulthood. They facilitate their children's journey toward self-actualization and toward a happy, independent life. The children owe their parents little but to pass this freedom to the next generation."

Dysfunctional parents train their children to be dependent and enmeshed in family matters indefinitely. Family life becomes a quagmire of quicksand from which children can never escape and lead independent lives. These parents train their children to take care of the parents' needs--not their children's own needs. Ironically, these parents often call their children selfish when their children want to become independent. Yet, it is the parents who constantly use their children to take care of their own needs--at the expense of the children--who are being selfish.

More functional parents give the gift of independence and happiness to their children. My client's mother believed that children have an obligation to take care of their parents and passed that codependence script to my client. Belief in that obligation was the underlying cause of my client's guilt feelings. It was her own belief--not her mothers--that was now her problem.

According to my client's new independence script, her mom was unhappy and it was primarily her mom's responsibility to take care of her own happiness. In fact, mom had many options for developing new interests and friends so that she wouldn't be so bored and lonely. That was her responsibility--not her daughters. Yet, she chose not to do any of those things, because it was more comfortable to call her daughter. Why should her daughter suffer for her mother's choices by constantly feeling guilty and being at her beck and call?

Once she strengthened her new beliefs and discussed her beliefs with her mother, she felt less guilty. She quit responding to her mother's needy, controlling comments. She spent time with her mother when she really wanted to. Her mother also began to understand my client's point of view better and became less demanding. She began to feel closer and more loving toward her mother, because she was less plagued by guilt and manipulation.

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Do not take primary responsibility for anyone but yourself. Saying, "Everyone is primarily responsible for their own self and own feelings" does not mean that we are not responsible for caring about others or for helping them. It means giving them primary responsibility for their own happiness and not sacrificing too much of our own happiness to protect them from the consequences of their choices.

PRACTICE: Examine possible codependent relationships.  
1-Identify any relationships you have that might be codependent. If you feel guilt or responsibility for another, protect them, or take care of them, compare the dynamics to those you have just read about.

2-Underlying Beliefs and Scripts. What is the underlying script and your underlying beliefs related to your duty or responsibility? What dependencies, weaknesses, or inadequacies do they have which seem to keep you hooked? What would happen if you gave them responsibility and let them take the consequences? Think it through, consult with an expert, read Codependent No More, devise a plan, and try it!

3-Make two lists--"What I can think and do to give them more freedom to be responsible for selves and take consequences for own choices" and "What I can do to take more responsibility for my own happiness (especially where I have been dependent on them)."

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We have just examined cases where the focus was on our taking care of others. Now I will reverse the focus. What are ways that you are not taking care of yourself and are depending upon others to do it for you? In both cases, the underlying script supports external control--one person takes primary responsibility for another.

Take charge of life areas where you are too dependent upon others. We may feel low self-confidence or feel helpless to provide for ourselves in certain life areas. We may depend almost totally on one or more people to take over that area of our lives.

In return, we may covertly agree to give them control over that area; we let them do all of the thinking, decision-making, and planning. One problem is that if they take control, we may never get involved, motivated, or competent in that area. Continued low knowledge of an area can increase our dependence and external control and keep us under their thumb indefinitely.

People can become too dependent upon another to meet any kind of need. Check each of the following to see if you have become too dependent in any area.

  • love  
  • attention  
  • play  
  • comfort  
  • emotional support
  • sex  
  • money  
  • household chores  
  • planning social events
  • career guidance  
  • paying bills  
  • car repair or fixing things
  • place to live  
  • social contacts  
  • transportation

Taking care of yourself in each area means questioning your expectation that others should provide you with what you need. In the future, you will expect primarily yourself to take care of that need area. Taking care of at least your minimal needs yourself will increase your self-confidence and independence. You will quit being so needy, dependent, and demanding in that need area. You will have no need to get hooked into unhappy relationships just because that person takes responsibility for some area (where you feel helpless and dependent). One client said, "I can't believe how long I stayed in that miserable marriage just because I was afraid to support myself and to get the car fixed. If I'd known how happy I'd be, I'd left years ago."
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Spreading your dependencies. One additional way to prevent being too dependent on any one particular person is to make sure that we have a network of people. This network can assist us as we provide for ourselves. George Kelly called this strategy "spreading our dependencies." If we are dependent upon a variety of people, then we are unlikely to let any one person get too much control.

If dependence is a problem, break the pattern of dependence to get more internal control. Spending more time away from the family, getting involved in activities outside the family, making new friends, and advancing your education and career can help.

Becoming more independent of those who overly influence your thinking and important beliefs is especially important to gain more internal control. Expose yourself to points of view and ideas that are different. Identify beliefs that you suspect are dysfunctional and foster dependence. Find healthier ways of thinking from good role models, counseling, groups, and self-help books.

PRACTICE: Check your dependencies in each life area.  
1-Self-test: How dependent are you on other people for meeting your needs? How much do you expect other people to make you feel good? Check each life area and each important relationship--especially with family members.

2-Alternatives: Think of new ways that you can start taking responsibility for yourself in those areas. What would be the costs to you (such as rejection, financial, extra effort, social risks, or career)? What would be the gains for increased independence (such as self-esteem, growth, freedom, new opportunities)?

3-Plan: List (and display) new self-commitments to increase independence.

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"I SHOULD" versus "I WANT"

Do you keep "musterbating" or "shoulding" all over yourself? Normally, we use the words "should" and "must" to mean that some part of us is committed to following some rule or set of rules. If we follow the rule, we feel good and if we break it, we feel guilty. Rules in themselves are neither good nor bad. We all have rules we live by. But problems occur when two rules conflict and we obey a less important rule over a more important one.

Two sisters--Suzy and Eileen--illustrate this dynamic well. Their father was a minister who lived by an extensive set of narrow rules (like the apostle Paul when he was a Pharisee) instead of living by empathy and love. The mother shared these rules and was as rule-bound as her husband. The parents taught both daughters this intricate set of rules about how to be a good Christian.

In fact, neither daughter really strongly believed in the rules, or strongly felt that they were beneficial for their own happiness. As adults, both sisters thought many of the rules made no sense. However, their parents' love, acceptance, financial help, and praise depended upon how well they obeyed these rules.

Eileen chose to conform to her parents' expectations and to her internal parent that represented those rules. As a result, her parents were moderately happy with her. Her parents gave her lots of financial assistance and were usually pleasant to her. However, she still felt guilty, because she still fell short of meeting their expectations perfectly, and sometimes the rubbed it in.

While Eileen was glad to receive parental benefits, inside she felt a great conflict and was often depressed. She felt that she could never live the life that she wanted. She felt trapped and helpless. She felt extremely dependent upon her parents and her self-esteem was low.

On the other hand, Suzy chose to rebel from the parental rules. As a teenager, she went wild--drinking, partying, and breaking her parents' rules. As a result, her parents practically disowned her. They openly ridiculed her, cut off financial help, and told her she was "evil" and "going to hell." Inside, part of Suzy felt happy that she could go her own way in life. She didn't feel trapped like her sister, and developed a lot of self-reliance from supporting herself and surviving on her own. However, another part felt tremendous guilt, because it still believed her parents' rules. Also, Suzy still wanted to receive her parents' acceptance, praise, and respect. She was torn by inner conflict.

Both sisters shoulded all over themselves constantly. Eileen obeyed the shoulds and felt little guilt. But she denied other parts of herself begging for expression. Her playful, sexual, creative, and even professional interests were blocked, because they collided with parental rules. Repressing these playful parts of herself caused her depression and feelings of helplessness. On the other hand, Suzy didn't follow the rules, and felt guilty as a result--constantly being haunted by messages from her internalized parents, "I'm a bad person, and I'm going to go to hell."

What is the solution for these two sisters? Neither following the rules nor breaking them worked. They are "damned if they do and damned if they don't." First, they can commit themselves to some new higher rules--the ultimate concerns of happiness and love. Second, reexamine the old rules from the perspective of the new ultimate concern. Each time an old rule or should pops into mind, they could ask themselves, "What will maximize happiness for self and others--following this rule or some new action?" Ask yourself, "What do I really want to do?" given my new philosophy.

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Your Higher Self produces "wants" not "shoulds." When we feel shoulds, the rule-source parts are demanding we follow the rules. On the other hand, if the executive self becomes convinced that the should is important to our happiness, then we suddenly feel like we want to do it. The inner conflict disappears. Our shoulds usually come from internalized parents or other belief systems that we have not integrated into our Higher Self.

To the degree that these internalized belief systems are not integrated with higher parts of ourselves, we may experience painful conflicts between shoulds and wants. These conflicts can become so awful that we rarely enjoy anything. Like Suzy, if we choose a want activity, our guilt undermines our fun; or like Eileen, if we choose a should, resentment or depression take over.

Converting a "should" into a "want." Learning how to convert a should into something meaningful, interesting, or fun is a skill that can help reduce conflicts between shoulds and wants. An important part of converting a should into a want is focusing on the subpart that really wants to do it. Just ask yourself, "Does some part of me really want this?" If so, get in touch with its beliefs, goals, and desires. Let it talk to your executive self and try to persuade it--not coerce it with shoulds. The best arguments are (1) that it will eventually be satisfied and (2) that it can contribute to your overall happiness and the happiness of others.

As soon as you see a direct connection between an action and
becoming happier, you automatically want to do it.

One way to convert a should into a want is to make it more interesting and fun. If it is boring, make it
more challenging. Make a game of it or set higher goals. Get more personally involved. If it is too
difficult or stressful, try simplifying it. The harmonious functioning chapters explain many ways to get into the zone and to turn unpleasant situations into interesting ones. Again, we can find many routes to happiness even in the most boring or stressful situations.

==> For more about overcoming shoulds and empowering your Higher Self go to Chapter 3

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