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Freedom From Stress


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    About Ed Ford      




Foreword by William T. Powers




Introduction xii  
1 Misery 1  
2 The Making of Our Own World 11  
3 Evaluating Values, Priorities, and Standards 29  
4 Resolving the First of Many Conflicts 45  
5 Dealing with Feelings 63  
6 Conflict: The Heart of Stress 81  
7 Reorganization: The Mind's Repair Kit 91  
8 A Time to Recharge 107  
9 Learning to Deal with Others 123  
10 Setting Standards at Home and at Work 141  
11 Teaching People to Work Together 159  
  A Personal Afterword 173  
  Appendix 1.
Complete Control Theory Chart
  Appendix 2.
Applying Perceptual Control Theory to Education and Parenting
  Appendix 3.
Perceptual Control Theory Resources

Foreword, William T. Powers




Ed Ford is a charter member of an odd collection of scientists and professionals called the Control Systems Group. The basic theme that holds this group together is a conception of human behavior that grew out of cybernetics in the early 1950s. For many years, perceptual control theory (as the new idea is called, at least by me, this week) was nursed along and developed by a very small handful of people. It wasn't very popular among psychologists for two main reasons. The first was that it sounded too much like engineering and not enough like real people. The second was that when most psychologists began to get a glimmer of what it is about, they would slam the door and pull the shutters closed. It was perfectly clear that if the concepts in perceptual control theory are right, not much that psychologists have believed would survive.

Slowly, however, understanding of this new idea spread. The main lines of development still didn't look very promising as a realistic picture of how people work, because the experiments being done were very simple, tending to involve a person sitting in front of a computer screen wiggling a joystick. There were, however, a few people like Ed who kept insisting that perceptual control theory—or just control theory for short—had to be made understandable to everyone, not just to mathematicians, engineers, and psychologists. When Ed got tired of insisting, he decided he would have to do it himself. That is how this book and the one that preceded it came into existence.

Ed is not an amateur, but a Master of Social Work with a long history of experience as a successful counselor. But his background was in practical dealings with human affairs, not with abstract theories. His own struggles to translate ideas from one world into another for himself have turned into a growing skill in translating those ideas into common and understandable terms.

That is why he is a valued member of a group that is rather heavy with abstract thinkers and academic types. Ed's role is to make these people explain clearly and simply what they mean, often with the result that they come to understand their own ideas better. After he has made them do this, he turns around and writes books like Freedom from Stress. The academics in the Control Systems Group might look at a book of this sort and say, "Well, I wouldn't write it that way." After they read it carefully, however, they must admit that all the ideas are there, properly expressed, sounding like nothing more than good common sense. I think this is quite an achievement. I also think that Ed attests to one of the main strengths of the Control Systems Group: it is free of intellectual snobbery, demonstrating through work like that of Ed's the advantages of openness.

Stress is often described in a way that makes it sound something like measles—a disease that you catch, something that gets inside you and causes troubles like an invading microorganism. The principles of control theory, however, teach us that human beings and other organisms are complex systems run more by inner motivations and networks of goals than by external forces. They are so complex that they can get themselves into trouble, one part of the whole system coming into conflict with another part. Control theorists think that stress is a condition in which a person is at war internally, one desire thwarting another desire, one goal canceling another goal. A human being, in other words, creates the stress in an attempt to deal with the problems of life in a way that's not internally consistent.

It's not pleasant to be told, in effect, "You're doing it to yourself." But from another point of view, that is a very encouraging judgment—if you're doing it to yourself, then you can also stop doing it to yourself. The catch, of course, is that you're not aware of doing this to yourself; if you were, you wouldn't have the problem because then you would just stop doing whatever is clearly causing the problem. If you're doing it to yourself, but don't see how, this means that you have to learn something about how your body and mind work. Only then can you see the indirect and subtle ways in which inner conflict can arise; then you can change the goals and perceptions that led to the conflict that generates the symptoms we call stress.

Ed's aim in this book is first to teach control theory in terms that are relevant to ordinary life and the problems of real people who aren't theoreticians. That's the main theme in his current writings. But in this book he slants the message toward the specific problem of stress: what it is and what people can do to free themselves of this difficulty. He is convinced, and I agree, that the basic task is to understand what is going on, not to prescribe some pill or procedure that will work like a cold remedy. Out of understanding will come awareness of what has to change. And then the change will come about naturally.

Control theory is not the perfect final answer to everything; it simply represents what many reasonable people think is the best current guess about how we work. Ed tells you here enough about this theory so you can make up your own mind, check out what he says for yourself. No book can substitute for a personal relationship with a helpful and experienced counselor, but this book may give you a head start in solving the kinds of problems meant by the word stress.

About Bill Powers






Most books on stress deal with its physiological symptoms—high blood pressure, stomach upset, stiff necks, back pain, headaches, inability to relax, insomnia—and with the subsequent feelings of anxiety, irritability, anger, depression, and tension. These symptoms are real and very painful. This book, on the other hand, describes the causes of those stress symptoms and what we can do about them. Presented here are solutions that offer struggling human beings ways to restore internal harmony within their own lives, regardless of the environment in which they find themselves—whether at work, at home, or elsewhere.

At the very heart of this book is perceptual control theory, which is a complex model for describing how people think and why they behave as they do. Control theory teaches that we create our own unique world through a hierarchy of control systems and store them in our memory. From these created perceptions, we build our own systems of values and standards, which form the basis for how we make decisions and deal with both ourselves and others so that we can create satisfying lives.

Unlike other theories, control theory is concerned solely with feedback, that is, the result of our actions, not with the actions themselves. Our system of values and standards continually operates as a closed-loop control system to satisfy our internal goals by trying to reduce the difference between what we want and how we perceive the outcome of our efforts, which is the input.

We always deal with the external world to satisfy our own internal goals, never the goals of others. Regardless of what happens to us as we interact with the environment, the ultimate reason for our actions is our attempts to satisfy our own individually-set values, priorities, and standards. No one else creates our goals—nor sets them. We do.

Most behavioral scientists teach otherwise. These scientists don't think in terms of a closed-loop system. They see the perceptual inputs as causing the organism to produce behavioral outputs. Stimulus simply produces response. They recognize that actions do have effects on future stimulation, but they see this as something separate, not a part


Edward E. Ford, M.S.W.
Phoenix, Arizona
March 7, 1989


Chapter 1    Misery




"Bob? Come on in. Please sit down." I gestured to a chair. "What can I do for you?"

Bob slumped down in the chair opposite mine. "At this point, I don't know where to begin or even if anyone can help me. I'm so stressed out! I just don't know what to do. I've got problems at home, problems at work. I'm miserable all the time."

"You've come to the right place, Bob," I said reassuringly. "I teach people how to deal with their problems."

"That's what Jim said," Bob commented hopefully. "He's my brother. He said you were different."

"What do you do for a living?"

"Well, if you ask my boss—not very much," Bob answered. "He's one of the problems. I have a boss who is never satisfied—constantly on my back criticizing what I do and what I haven't done."

"What do you do?"

"I'm plant manager at Willard Manufacturing," he replied. "We make electrical components for various manufacturers and contractors. My boss is vice president of operations for the company."

"Do you like the kind of work you do?"

"It's all right, I guess. It's a job, but I don't enjoy it like I used to. Besides, no one wants to work any more. Not only do I have trouble with my boss, I'm also fed up with my employees. They always have an excuse for everything. I've tried yelling at them, criticizing them, and even playing Mr. Nice Guy. Nothing works."

"What's your situation at home?"

"Worse," he said, frustration showing in his voice. "Betty and I have really drifted apart over the past few years."

"You are married to Betty?"

"Yeah, if you want to call it that," he said bitterly. "All she does is whine about how I don't care about her anymore. I find myself disliking


Chapter 2    The making of our own world




"First, Bob, I'd like to know those things that are important to you. Let me list them here on the chalkboard."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"I'd like to hear from you all those things that you consider important in your life."

"Well, being successful at my job is very important," he began, "I need the money. Having good mental and physical health is critical, and I get that through sports. So, sports are important. Obviously, my family life, my wife and kids, they should be on the list. Then there's my parents, my older brother, kid sister, and my friends. I guess I would include a nice house."

"Okay, Bob," I said, writing the list on my chalkboard. "Is there anything else that comes to your mind?"

"No," he answered. "I guess that's about it."

"Now I want you to evaluate this list in order of importance. What would be your top priority?"

"Well, success at work has always been uppermost in my mind," he said. "That would be number one."

"All right, what's second?"

"Well, my health is important," Bob said. "I play golf several times a week and try to stay in shape. I suppose my wife and children should be second, but, if you don't have your health, you aren't much good to your family. Let's make health second and then my wife and children third."

"How about the rest?" I asked.

"I guess they come in the order that you have listed on the board," Bob answered as I jotted down the numbers.

I pointed to the chalkboard. "Is this the way you perceive your priorities?"


Chapter 3    Evaluating values, priorities, and standards




"To help us build our own perceptions of the world, nature has provided us with a storage facility called memory. As we observe, experience, and think about our environment, we store in our memories our own created versions of events and then recall them when we have the need. During your development, you constructed your idea of what marriage is supposed to be, and, when you got married, you implemented that concept."

"But I really didn't want the kind of marriage I have," Bob protested.

"I'm sure that's true. You built your world by using your perceptual system. Then you stored what you built in your memory. Anytime your system senses a lack of satisfaction, you draw from your memory those perceptions that seem best to meet your demands. You really can't want anything unless you've created it in your perceptual system and stored it in your memory. You can't want a certain model car unless you are aware of it. Nor can you look forward to eating a mango unless you have already tasted one.

"One problem with not being able to create a satisfactory marriage is that you may not know how to build the kind of marriage you want. That's something we'll talk about later. Another problem—one that many people have—is that you have a lot of other unsatisfied areas of importance that you've wanted to improve. Since you are limited in time and energy, you have been forced to decide that some things were more important than others."

"My priorities," Bob said. "That's why you asked me to examine my priorities."

"That's right, Bob. The lower the priority, the less likely you are to satisfy that desire. Your family was number three on your list, giving


Chapter 4    Resolving the first of many conflicts




"Bob, what is your idea of 'Woman'?" I asked, tracing quotation marks in the air with two fingers of each hand.

"I don't know. I've never even thought of 'Woman' as an idea before." Bob mimicked my gesture. "What do you mean?"

"Well, except for the obvious physical differences, do you see women as an essential part of your life—socially and professionally?"

"I guess, when it comes to work, I'd rather not have to deal with too many of them," he admitted ruefully. "They seem more aggressive than men and not as easy to kid with. You know, you have to be careful you don't say something offensive, things like that. They're too emotional. Don't get me wrong, Ed, I'm not against them working—equal rights and that stuff. I'm just more comfortable dealing with men.

"As far as my marriage goes, I see Betty more as a partner, both of us trying to do our best to make ends meet and to get along. What with the expenses of raising kids today, she and I both have to work. She's my wife, we live together although we aren't very close. I usually can't talk to her like when we were first married. We should be getting along better, that's for sure."

"Do you see her as someone you would like to be closer with, more intimate?"

"I'd like to get along with her better," he answered, "but I've never been real close with anyone before—except for my dad. Well, there is Tom, a friend I had in high school. We were real close, did everything together. He's still around, and we play golf at least once a week. We're still good friends."

"So you never saw a woman as someone you'd like to be really close with, is that right?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Bob said thoughtfully. "I'm attracted to women, you know, but they're different and I feel more comfortable


Chapter 5    Dealing with feelings




Betty appeared at my office door at precisely the time we had set the previous day. "Betty, I'm glad to see you." I smiled as we shook hands.

"Thank you, Ed. It's nice to meet you," she said, somewhat formally. She sat down, posture erect.

"How can I help you?"

"I don't know what Bob has told you," she began. "This may be hopeless. I've been married to him for twenty-four years. We were married right out of college. He'd gotten his masters in engineering, and I had my undergraduate degree in business finance. We had two children right away, and then, a few years later, I started working for a finance company. Then Tim came along, and I took off work again. When Tim was two years old, I got a job with National Bank. I took a leave of absence for a year when I had Ruthie.

"I have spent all these years working hard and raising a family, and I have nothing but loneliness to show for it." Tears welled up in her eyes. "I'm so frustrated and angry, I just want to walk away from it all. I have a husband who spends his life on the golf course or in front of the television, a son that's an alcoholic, another son that's spoiled rotten, and no one that really cares about me." Betty paused, trying to blink back her tears.

"The one thing that I have is my job. I'm branch manager for National Bank. I've been with them for thirteen years. Except for the usual problems that women supervisors encounter these days—condescending remarks and a few employees with whom I'm having some difficulty—I'm reasonably satisfied with my job, and I'm treated fairly well. Sometimes I feel like taking Ruthie and leaving Bob with the mess. She's the one ray of sunshine in our family.

"Bob just doesn't care about any of us. When he gets upset, which now seems like a daily occurrence, he just goes into his shell. He won't


Chapter 6    Conflict: The heart of stress




"Most conflict is the result of having two incompatible goals," I began. "What this means is that the two things you want, by their very nature, cannot both be achieved. They're mutually exclusive."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Betty, let's take a look at what you want. You want to stay married, and you want to be with Fred. The conflict comes from your beliefs and values—your systems concept. You probably have within your systems concept the belief that divorce is wrong. If you were to take that route, you would perceive yourself as a failure. What is worse, it would impact how you want to be seen by others, such as your parents, your friends, and people at work. This might reduce your value in the eyes of your supervisors. You probably have a kind of value system that involves keeping the family together to avoid further trauma for your children, especially Ruthie.

"On the other hand, like all of us, I'm sure you have within you a strong urge for value or worth within your home. You've achieved this to some degree at work, but your husband and children, especially Tim, don't show you respect. With the exception of Ruthie, you perceive that they take you for granted. In short, on the one side, there are strong family values, yet there is a deep sense of loneliness and lack of worth as a person. You don't see how you can achieve that feeling of worth within your family.

"As for the other side of the coin, Fred offers you what you aren't getting at home. He's loving toward you, accepts you the way you are, and is no doubt very affectionate. In the privacy of your meetings, he holds you in his arms, making you feel lovable and completed. I'm sure he tells you that you deserve better, listens to your concerns and problems, as I'm sure you listen to his. In a sense, you hold each other's hands, trying to give each other what you both want.


Chapter 7    Reorganization: The mind's repair kit




"Betty, when you started at the bank, did you know anything about banking?" I asked.

"Well, now that I'm a branch manager, I can honestly say no," Betty said, laughing. "I thought I did, but I really didn't know anything."

"That's pretty much how we are when we are born. Only, as infants, it's the environment around us that we struggle to understand. Within what is called our behavioral hierarchies, which consist of the levels we have been talking about, there are three areas. First, we have the levels of our perceptual systems that create an understanding of our environments and ourselves. Second, we have memory that stores the information as we construct it. Third, there are all the various levels of wants that determine our actions. It's our actions, in turn, that help us deal with our environment and bring us satisfaction in our lives by getting us what we want. At birth, and probably to some degree while we are in our mother's womb, we begin to create these individual and unique worlds.

"My guess is that this is how you entered the world of banking. You probably developed your own ideas of what banking was all about, depending on your experiences with the departments in which you worked and the people for whom you worked. Most of what we learn is similar to what others learn, although this new information will be altered by our own unique ways of perceiving things. Children growing up in a family learn about the same foods, but everybody has favorites as well as those things they just can't stand.

"At the same time, I'm sure that your bank has a system that senses any lack of harmony between your branch and the goals of the various departments that oversee all the branches."

"You'd better believe it," Betty said. "We have the sales department letting us know when our sales goals aren't being met, division


Chapter 8    A time to recharge




On the following Monday I saw Bob and Betty together for the first time. As they entered my office and sat down, I asked, "How have things been going?"

"Well, I think things are better," Bob began with some hesitation. He looked at Betty.

"Betty, how about you? Do you think things have improved?" "Well, yes, I think they have," she answered in a more positive tone. "How have they improved?" I asked, continuing to look at Betty. "Well, I don't know. I'm not sure," she said, looking puzzled. "Bob

and I have started taking walks in the morning before we leave for work.

That seems to be helping."

"How has that helped?" I asked.

Betty continued to look puzzled. Bob replied, "There seems to be a little less tension, you know, we feel more relaxed with each other."

"Yes, that's it," Betty said, nodding. "It seemed pretty strange the first morning. It was like taking a walk with a stranger, but, after twenty minutes or so, it was more relaxed."

"Have you noticed anything else?" I asked.

"When we get home after work, there's still a lot of stress," Bob

said. "I must admit, though, we haven't fought as much this week." "That's true about the stress," Betty added. "And Bob is right about

the arguing. We've only had one serious fight."

"When was that?"

"Thursday evening, when Bob said he was too tired to play cards when Ruthie asked him. I was fixing dinner, or I would have played with her—but Bob wouldn't help with that either!" There was a trace of anger in Betty's voice.

"How quickly did you get over the anger you felt when Bob didn't do what you wanted?"


Chapter 9    Learning to deal with others




The following week, I found my clients waiting for me. "Betty, Bob, it's good to see the two of you. How have you been getting along?"

Betty smiled. "Much better, Ed, we're getting along much better."

"Things between us have really improved," Bob agreed. "It's hard to believe it happened so quickly."

"Bob, what changes have you noticed in Betty?"

"Well, she wasn't upset the other night when I came home late without calling. The minute I walked in, she got up from reading the paper and fixed my dinner. She sat and chatted with me while I ate. She's been more attentive to me and more relaxed. She's been letting the kids fix their own breakfasts in the morning so we would have a little more time on our walks. That way we aren't so rushed."

"Betty, are you aware of what Bob is saying about you?"

"No, I hadn't thought of it until he mentioned it. He certainly is becoming more considerate. He's been doing little things around the house without my asking—things I have been nagging him to do for years. Over the weekend he fixed the window in Ruthie's room. Its been cracked for years."

"Have you both been keeping your lists?"

"It does make a difference," Betty said. "Keeping the list, that is. It's strange how it happens, how my thinking has changed. It's funny how, all of a sudden, I've begun to think of little things, you know, the good things about myself-even though I'm not consciously making the effort to do so. It really does work."

"Did you bring the list of the good things you've been doing?"

"I'm afraid I left it home, but I can assure you that I've gotten very specific on my list," Betty said, laughing. "I put down 'fixed peas and carrots' instead of 'fixed dinner'. It really has become an eye opener. I never realized what it's like to feel so good. It really does work."


Chapter 10    Setting standards at home and at work




We met again two weeks later. "Betty, Bob, it's good to see you again! How have things been going?"

Betty smiled. "Well, a lot has happened, Ed. I guess you might say that Bob and I have found each other again. It's not that our marriage is perfect, but we have come a long way over this past month. The tension between us is mostly gone. We're just so much happier together. It's hard to believe how quickly this has all happened."

"Here's our quality time list, Ed," Bob said. "We didn't miss a single day in two weeks. We had to take a walk at eleven one evening. Betty had gone out to dinner with the women she's been exercising with after work. She called when she was leaving the restaurant and reminded me we hadn't been together all day. I had gone to bed. But I got up, and I was ready to go by the time she was home." They both laughed.

"Are you both keeping your individual lists on improving your self-perception?"

"Well, yes, I am, but that's something else I was going to mention," Betty said. "Jean, my secretary, and several other of my employees at the bank have remarked on how I've changed. When I asked them how, they've all said basically the same thing—that I seem much happier. Jean remarked how I have been less uptight and more relaxed. I'm still going three days a week to exercise classes at the spa. Strangely enough, I weighed myself this morning and found that I had lost four pounds. I know it isn't just the exercise. I really haven't done that much. I just can't understand the sudden weight loss."

"I told you that you were looking better, didn't I?" Bob said, looking at Betty. "You thought I was kidding, but I really meant it."


Chapter 11    Teaching people to work together




Several weeks later, I welcomed Bob and Betty to another session. "Nice to see you! How have things been going?"

"I haven't had a headache in three weeks, that's how things have been going," Bob said grinning. "I forgot to mention it two weeks ago when we were here, but it's just great! Also, about that list to help with the problem of my worrying, I found it strange at first. Now I find that, when I begin to worry, I catch myself and make a judgement about what I'm thinking. I often realize that it's something I can't do anything about, so I deal with those things that I can control. I just feel so much better. And, believe it or not, Betty and I haven't spoken a cross word to each other since we were last here. We still can't believe that things can change so much so fast."

"Betty, how about you?"

"It's true that Bob and I have really become a lot closer. And the younger children seem to be responding to your method, you know, asking them what they want and that sort of thing. It really does work, especially when Bob and I are getting along."

"Looks like you may not need me much longer," I said, smiling. "No, not quite yet," Bob replied quickly. "But we're getting there, that's for sure."

"I tried your method on Hank, the personal banker with whom I've been having trouble," Betty said. "I had the questions written out in front of me on the desk to make sure I didn't make a mistake. Bob and I practiced the role play the night before so I'd be a little more confident when I faced Hank the next morning. And it worked. It really did! He hasn't been late since the interview, and the phone calls seem to have stopped. Your method does seem to get to the heart of a person's problems."


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