- Viewing our scheduled activities rigidly–as if carved in stone–can lead to unnecessary stress when our expectations are not met.
- Trying to control others without their consent is likely to lead to underlying resentment, passive-aggression, or overtly aggressive behavior
- Regarding each day as a gift with unexpected benefits and challenges is a healthy mind-set.
How much control do we really have over our lives and the people in it? Are we masters of the universe free to chart our own destiny or creatures carried along by myriad forces? While the possible answers to these questions would probably cover a wide range, the issue of control is central to many current psychological disorders, such as narcissism and OCD, for example, and to the overscheduled way many people structure their lives. The anger of the narcissist when life doesn’t go his way and the compulsions of the OCD individual are manifestations of the illusion of control.
When I worked as a clinical psychologist on an adolescent psychiatric unit, the issue of control came up dramatically during one testing session. I had been asked to evaluate a teenager accused of accidentally shooting and killing his brother. An important part of the determination of his sentence was the psychological evaluation, including the results of the battery of tests.
From the moment the young man entered the testing room, it was apparent that he was in no mood to talk to me. He sat down on the floor, folded his arms across his chest, and stared angrily at the floor. Realizing how important the evaluation was to his sentencing, I tried everything I knew to gain his cooperation but to no avail. So, after 45 minutes of fruitless interpretations and idle comments on my part, I gave up. I started to pack up all my testing paraphernalia, saying emphatically, “It is clear that I can’t make you talk to me” and got ready to leave. I had exhausted all my interventions and was frustrated and discouraged that I couldn’t complete the assignment.
When I got up to leave, he shifted his posture, looked at me for the first time, and asked, “What do you want to know?” From that moment on, he was fully cooperative with the examination and testing procedures.
What changed his mind? Apparently, it was his realization that I couldn’t make him do anything and that it was up to him. When I gave up, he was probably feeling less pressure to perform, and so, he relinquished his stubborn resistance. He was in control.
What is within our control?
To some degree, we can control our words and actions. We can control what we eat, drink, and how we behave most of the time, but even with ourselves, we can’t immediately control our sleep quality, stress level, or the state of our health with precision. Our nighttime dreams are not under our control nor are many of the thoughts streaming through our minds during the day.
When it comes to others, we have even less control. We have little control over how others, except for small children, will react to our words, manner, and behavior. Like us, other people have their own lens for seeing and interpreting the world. Even with positive utterances such as “I love you,” the recipient of those endearing words can reject them outright, deny them partially, e.g. “You only love me when I’m happy,” or accept them at face value and wind up feeling beloved.
Because we all want to be autonomous, that is, pursue our own desires and make our own decisions, we develop passive-aggressive strategies and resistance maneuvers when there is too much external control. We ignore the commands, engage in subterfuge fantasies, or rebel outright.
To wholeheartedly endorse external directives, adults need to see their value for themselves. Because of this, forcing older children, teenagers, or other adults to do something viewed by them as negative or nonessential is likely to be resisted.
Even in cases of physical punishment of children and military torture, the results are mixed. For example, spanking children, while temporarily effective in suppressing undesirable behavior, is likely to increase children’s aggressiveness when they’re older. As for torture, some military interrogators have testified that the information gained from torture is often inaccurate or just as accessible using more humane methods.
So, why do we try to control others?
To compensate for the present (or past) lack of control in our lives. Also, predictability reduces anxiety. Adults who grew up in volatile, unpredictable families often develop a strong need to control others and themselves. In a family with an alcoholic, drug-abusing, violent or sexually abusing parent, for example, children grow to fear the unpredictable parent. Not certain how that parent will behave on a particular day, these children are frequently frightened when that parent is around. Because the triggers for their parent’s disturbed behavior are not always clear, there is no way to discern when it’s safe.
In counseling, one woman reported being knocked down as a child and kicked in the head by her drunken father because she slammed the door. Coming into the house excitedly after a happy afternoon with her friends, she was devastated by the blow. After that, she never felt safe around her father, avoiding him whenever possible, and developed a controlling stance about her own life.
In other instances where the need for control develops, children adopt the same excessively controlling stance as their parents and wind up as frustrated with noncompliant behavior as their parents were.
What is an alternative to excessive control?
Being open to experience rather than closed-off is a worthwhile option. Openness to Experience, one of five basic personality factors comprising the Five-Factor Model, is similar to mindfulness in its focus on present attentiveness, that is, paying attention to the person or object right in front of you.
An open person is flexible, curious, non-dogmatic, and tolerant of ambiguity, whereas a controlling person is defensive, rigid, dogmatic, and resistant to novelty. In contrast to the closed off person, an open person is receptive to new ideas and generally comfortable with the unfamiliar, provided it doesn’t conflict with his/her moral sense. Openness to experience does not imply a readiness to adopt unhealthy, illegal, or fringe behavior. Rather, openness at its best relates to the merging of different incorporated experiences, thereby creating new ideas, designs, or models.
To develop openness, children need to be exposed to cultural differences that are experienced positively, and their natural curiosity about life’s variability needs to be nurtured.
For those adults with a controlling interpersonal style, developing a different mindset when obstacles disrupt their plans is important in reducing frustration. The mantra, “I can’t control the world nor anyone in it,” or a “Let It Be” attitude can be helpful along with prayers for patience.
Horace’s advice, “Take as a Gift Whatever the Day Brings Forth!” and other positive, pithy sayings repeated regularly can go a long way in developing openness, calmness, and equanimity in handling life’s daily detours and disruptions. In addition, understanding the need for control and its origins can free us of its rigid constraints.
Piorkowski, G.K. (2021). “You Can’t Make Anybody Do Anything” in Beyond Pipe Dreams and Platitudes: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press.