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Control Theory by William Glasser

Updated, April 2020. Over 11 years have passed since I first read this book (Originally published Feb. 18, 2009), yet I still reflect on the ideas Glasser set forth in it, applying those ideas in my own life and sharing them with others.

Control Theory by William Glasser

This review covers many components of William Glasser’s 1985 book Control Theory, “A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives.”

Control Theory details a framework for understanding how humans choose behaviors to assert control over the world. Emphasis on framework. Glasser doesn’t delve into the science of the brain. Rather, he offers a way to model why people do what they do—and how behavior maps to the desire to control the environment.

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Staying Together by William Glasser

Staying Together by William Glasser

Continuing with my trend of reading books on reality therapy or control/choice theory by William Glasser, I picked up a used copy of Staying Together. This book is subtitled “A control theory guide to a lasting marriage,” and as you might expect, discusses the application of control theory to relationships, specifically marriage.

Dr. Glasser was married to his first wife for 46 years before she died of cancer in 1992. From my perspective, this is anecdotal evidence that control theory can improve the odds that your marriage will be a lasting one.

Having said that, I did not find Staying Together to be as useful as the more detailed and process-oriented Control Theory or the more thought-provoking Positive Addiction. This isn’t to say that there aren’t applicable ideas in Staying Together — there are; however, I’m not sure there is a lot here that can’t be found in Control Theory.

ST is a quick read at around 130 pages. One of the more illuminating quotes from the book is when Glasser discusses “sexual love” and criticism, the latter of which is one of the bigger “no nos” in control theory. First, here is Glasser describing sexual love:

If we can find someone we love who loves us, and if we are able to combine this love with sex, there is a good chance we will enjoy what many people believe is the ultimate intimate experience: sexual love. Finding this is a lot more difficult than just finding sex because it can be experienced only in relationships where the lovers are very good friends. . . .

Friendship is based on sharing common interests, being able to say what’s on your mind without fear of rejection or criticism, planning and building a life together, and most of all looking forward to being with each other when there is nothing pressing to do. And a good friend supports the interests of a partner even when they are not shared. Someone you can talk with anytime about anything is the ultimate in marital friendship. There are too many married strangers.

Glasser goes on to describe how criticism kills sexual love:

More than anything else, hoping yoru partner will change or actively trying to change him or her desroys sexual love. that your dissatisfaction is justified makes no difference. You can be “right” and still kill your relationship. In practice, what this all adds up to is criticism. The criticism may be silent—a look, an inattention, a failure to do something—or it may be open and outspoken. but whatever it is, if your partner perceives it as criticism, your relationship is in trouble.

There is no such thing as constructive criticism. All criticism is destructive, and when it occurs in a relationship, it quickly kills sexual love. . . .

What I try to teach is how to express dissatisfaction without criticizing.

Glasser suggests framing one’s own dissatisfaction in such a way as to put the onus of change on you, not your partner. He says:

This is not criticism because it is not demanding that the other do anything different. It is saying hekllp me to do something better than what I am doing now. . . .

It also says clearly that all problems are our problems; neither of us is perfect, but let’s try to help each other work things out. IT also says what is so basic to control theory: All each of us can do is control our own behavior; I can’t control you and you can’t control me, and I don’t want to continue to waste time trying.

Not surprisingly, the application of control theory is one of two pivotal points in ST. The other pivotal point is that individuals in successful relationships manage to share a commonality in their outlook on the world. This is evidenced in two ways. First, Glasser distills everything down to five fundamental needs that each vary in strength. These needs are survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. The strength of these needs dictates our personality. Without going into detail, he suggests figuring out on a scale of 1-5 where you and your partner fall in strength on these five needs. From this personality profile, you should be able to discern the strengths and weaknesses in your relationship. It’s an interesting exercise, but I feel like his five categories aren’t exactly right. They approximate our needs, but for example, the need for power and freedom seem to overlap in my mind.

Personality is too complex to be summed up in a five need system. Regardless, our personalities clearly dictate a lot of our compatibility with mates. To the extent we can recognize where we are incompatible and mitigate these differences rather than trying to change our partners, we can strengthen our relationships.

Second, Glasser discusses a concept on which he goes into considerably greater detail in Control Theory: this is the notion that we have certain “pictures in our head,” which combine to form our “Quality World.” Essentially, these “pictures” are things, experiences, activities that satisfy our ever-changing desires. To the extent that we share common pictures with our significant others, we increase our chance of marital success. Thus, successful marriages tend to have partners who actively share common pictures, compromise when one partner has a strong picture the other doesn’t, and creatively seek out new common pictures to share.

I’d also like to note that Glasser writes at length regarding the importance of fun and creativity in a marriage. No doubt the married couple that laughs and plays together will end up staying together.

Finally, I want to include one more quote from the book as it almost sums up the importance of not controlling your partner in your marriage:

Of all tasks we attempt in life, successfully managing another person or other people is the most difficult. In marriage, it should not be attempted at all—it is a marriage killer.

On a more general note, and this pervades Glasser’s school of thought, control theory is not about controlling others. It is about controlling yourself and how you behave in the world.

So in sum, I ask myself: how can I better act to improve my relationships by changing the only thing I have control over — my behavior.

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.
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Positive Addiction by William Glasser

Positive Addiction by William Glasser

Finally and most important, to find happiness we need others, but an addict needs only himself. Dependent only upon himself and knowing he can pursue his addiction, he does so with a single-minded devotion that is remarkable to behold. But what if there were addictions that, instead of making you weaker, made you stronger?

Breezed through William Glasser’s Positive Addiction. At around 150 pages (the 1976 edition), it is a quick and thought-provoking overview of Glasser’s conclusion that there are activities that enable a person to achieve a transcendent, trance-like, meditative state where the mind can “spin free.” Positive addictions are activities that fairly predictably take a person to this mental state, are addictive in that missing the activity results in various symptoms of withdrawal (anxiety, depression, etc.), and are positive in that they are a creative, in-control time that endows an individual with strength in the form of both mental capacity and increased neurological horsepower. These strength gains carry over into all other aspects of life.

It sounds mystical in nature, but Glasser believes (and I have no reason to suspect otherwise) that the state of mind reached via positive addictions is natural and maybe even primal — a reversion to animalistic mental processes, perhaps.

What is the PA state? My understanding is that when you reach the PA state, your mind drifts, wandering effortlessly from random thought to observation to idea. This “spun out” or “free spinning” state is creative, relaxed, unforced, and difficult to intentionally maintain.

Though Glasser alludes to other possibly PA activities, running dominated his research which involved sending out a survey request in a running magazine. One response to Glasser’s survey helps describe the mental state:

When I am settled into my run I concentrate on running as much as possible but the mind wanders to thoughts of most anything. The state of mind is one of almost total complacency and privacy. Although you are in sight of people, cars, buses, school kids, dogs, etc., I feel a very privateness when I run. People may yell at me or a kid may bug me for a few hundred yards but due to the nature of running (it is hard and physically demanding) you are pretty much left to yourself and no one can invade your runner’s world because they physically are not able.

The above runner’s description may conjure up imagery of the well-known (Today but not when the book was written) phenomenon of a “runner’s high”. A runner’s high is the effect felt as the body releases endorphins to weaken the physical pain caused by high-impact nature of running. Though Glasser does not address this connection in Positive Addiction, given the numerous alternative means to reach the PA state, I am not convinced endorphins are fundamental — they may merely be an ancillary effect of higher-endurance activities. It seems to me based on personal experience that the meditative state achieved through repetitive, non-critical physical activity is separate from endorphin release.

Transcendental meditation is another way to achieve the PA state though Glasser concludes from his research that TM rarely becomes addictive because it tends to only induce the PA state infrequently.

Aside from regularly running, Glasser alludes to other possible methods that may achieve the PA state. His research into PA discovered subjects that appeared to be positively addicted to gardening, juggling, swinging a bat, bathing, creative but non-critical writing, and knitting. The PA state elicits in me the diminished, wandering awareness reached almost immediately prior to falling asleep; could the PA state be akin to dreaming while still awake? It also reminds me of how I (and many people I know) feel during a morning hot shower.

In Positive Addiction Glasser outlines six steps or requirements of a PA activity. If you’re looking for a potential PA, the steps as pulled from the book are:

  1. It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote an hour (approximately) a day to it.
  2. It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental effort to do it well.
  3. You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it.
  4. You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you.
  5. You believe that if you persist at it you will improve, but this is completely subjective—you need to be the only one who measures that improvement.
  6. The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can’t accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting. This is why it is so important that the activity can be done alone.

Glasser’s default recommendation for those interested in reaching PA is to run. He cautions that getting to the point where you can run for an hour for five to six days a week could take up to six months, and even then, it may still take up to two years to get to the point where running is a positive addiction.

Self-experimentation — as I am more or less convinced of the benefits of positive addiction; however, in order to see if its something real and useful for me, I need to conduct some self-experimentation, introspection, and observation. Since I am not a runner (or jogger), I am interested in finding other means to achieve the PA state. I believe that I have reached the PA state at various times while working out. I have noticed symptoms of withdrawal when I miss workouts. Finally, I’ve noticed that working out with others tends to diminish my enjoyment severely even though weight-lifting often requires a workout partner (and I do suspect weight-lifting can be a positive addiction).

If you wish to follow my experimentation with achieving PA via alternatives to running. Right out the gate I suspect that PA can be reached through kettlebell drills such as the kettlebell swing. Additionally, as I somewhat regularly bike (both mountain and road), I will be experimenting with positive addiction there, as well, though I’m nearly positive I have noticed the PA state while biking.

Further reading — This is the second book by William Glasser that I have read. The first was Control Theory. Glasser’s style of therapy has been termed “Choice Theory” or “Reality Therapy.” I have one other book of his that I plan on reading. I have enjoyed Glasser’s writing style and particularly his inquisitive mind and search for useful, testable and easy to apply methods to improve mental health. Working to improve your mind is something healthy individuals do not do enough. This is despite the obvious conclusion that just like it is healthy to strengthen your body via lifting weights and routine physical activity, it is also healthy to take efforts to strengthen the mind. As it is, positive addiction may increase both physical and mental well-being at the same time.

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.