The Compulsion to Control: Book excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity


Control panel photo by Led Chatfield. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

(This is the first in a series of three excerpts from Losing Control, Finding Serenity.)

"Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for insects as well as for the stars. Human beings, vegetables or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper."
— Albert Einstein, interview, The Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929

Setting Limits is One Thing, But. . .

Life without control in some form would create havoc. Rigid control procedures are essential in such areas as science, medicine, and manufacturing, which require high degrees of efficiency and safety. Most societal and institutional forms of control — laws, regulations, procedures, and the like — are also important for our overall well-being and safety. Similarly, in interpersonal settings such as the workplace, the home, and the classroom, appropriate levels of control are necessary to assure productivity, education, and safety.

Most of us, however, feel the pressure to control all aspects of our lives. We take for granted that that's what we should be doing — what we must be doing to survive. This goes beyond setting limits and standards, and often we don't even realize how far beyond we take it. How often do we stop to question how our compulsion to control may be harming us, whether at home with our children and family, at work, in our friendships, or in our leisure activities?

Young or old, male or female, rich or poor, teacher or preacher — we all have the compulsion to control. Control is a deeply ingrained part of our human condition. Indeed, it underlies the entire fabric of society. Our workplaces are hotbeds for control as the "survival of the fittest" is played out through intimidation, deception, and the drive to get ahead at all costs. On the world stage, powerful nations control by imposing their values and forms of government on weaker nations. And, of course, war is all about control.

Social institutions of all kinds try to control. Religion is controlling when it tells us what and how we should believe, lest dire consequences come our way. The political arena is rife with control strategies. Misinformation about candidates is broadly disseminated to discredit them and change voters' minds. High-stakes bartering is employed to force through partisan legislation. On the home front, we control our partners and family by telling them what they should do and criticizing their choices. We control our friends by trying to change them. We even control in love by lavishing gifts and doling out kind words to court favor, crying to churn a lover's heart, pushing "hot buttons" to punish, and calculating when and how to bring sexual pleasure to our mate.

The means of control are diverse. When we press our views or wheedle or pout to get favored treatment, we are controlling. When we judge, intimidate, and raise our voices, we are controlling. When we lay a guilt trip on others, we are controlling. We control physically as well: we shove to get a better place in line, spank to discipline, flash our eyes and clench our fists to unnerve.

But controlling conduct is not always assertive or overt. It is often subtle or seemingly passive. We do it when we repeat a suggestion or express our views more than once, when we prod, cajole, or advise, and when we withdraw from loved ones or play the victim or martyr. In fact, most actions we take — or don't take — are controlling in some way. It's just a matter of how, when, and how much.

When we are driven primarily by strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, and insecurity, we try to control excessively. This is when we pressure and manipulate people and events to get what we want or need (or what we think we want or need) or to try to change people in ways that we believe will be better for them — or for us.

At bottom, excessive control represents our attempt to change another's very nature and spirit. But because another's true spirit cannot be changed — except by that person alone — our efforts to do so are not only fruitless, they are also harmful. It is not about the other person as much as it is about us and our unwillingness to accept life as it is.

The Folly of Control

Nature teaches us the folly of control. When you observe nature for any period of time — perhaps while sitting under a tree or at the ocean shore — you can sense the presence of a natural process or rhythm. You may notice it in the way leaves fall from a tree, gently floating down to form eloquent patterns on the grass, or in the way ocean waves build, crest, and change course in an endless variety of movements. At such moments, we sense that the life force or energy we are experiencing is unpredictable and unknowable yet has an innate and vast intelligence all its own, one well beyond our capacity to understand. We also realize that, as mysterious as this universal rhythm is, we are somehow an integral part of it.

losing-control-cover.jpgLife is in a constant state of motion: fluid, shifting, changing, always moving. As such, it is impossible to hold on to it — and that is precisely what controlling actions attempt to do. The result is much the same as if you tried to grab on to a rapidly moving conveyor belt, for example; you may slow it down momentarily, but you would ultimately get burned or dragged along! Consequently, when we control excessively, we are attempting to alter life's moving currents and rhythm. When we do this, we are unable to see options and make choices that would significantly improve our lives emotionally, spiritually, creatively, and financially. We become imprisoned by our fear, anger, and resentment and thus are not open to the wonders that await us. We also don't allow others their freedom of choice and the freedom to follow their life path, refusing to accept them for who and what they are and thus damaging close relationships.

We also worry incessantly. It is no accident that compulsive controllers have deeper frown lines than laugh lines. Most are obsessive worriers. They are preoccupied with "What if?" and "What might happen?" and "What should I have done?" and therefore miss the unplanned moments in life that are so special. Also, deep down, controllers know they really cannot control most things, and they obsess about that as well. Just reflect on the occasions when you worried and fretted about "pressing concerns" that never came to pass, at least in the manner and severity in which you had imagined. You probably would agree that in almost every instance you expended an inordinate amount of mental energy that had absolutely no impact on the outcome. But it did have an impact on your serenity!

This is why controllers have only fleeting moments of balance and tranquility in their lives. Even then, these are moments that mainly tease rather than enrich because controllers must be alert at all times — sometimes even in the middle of the night. Controllers rarely relax. They can never afford to drop their guard, for who knows what awful demons might be lurking out there. What many of us don't realize is that the "demons" are actually inside us in the form of unprocessed, unwanted feelings such as fear and anger. The successes we do achieve through control never feel as good as they should and leave us craving the ever-elusive goal of fulfillment even more ardently. Even when our mission is accomplished, there still remains an internal emptiness. So we control again and again, only to find conflict and turmoil instead of peace and tranquility.

In short, control deprives us of our serenity.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Consider the results and consequences of the occasions in which you were excessively controlling. Say, for example, you pressured your mate or a friend into doing something he or she didn't want to do. Or you were insistent that things be done your way. Or you hovered over someone at work to make sure the work was done the way you wanted it done. Or you resisted facing adversities concerning finances, relationships, events, and the like.

Why We Control

Many of us have almost no awareness of how often we control and how many ways we try to do it. Our very intensity and insecurity obscures awareness. Others, however, readily admit their malady. Some even take pride in calling themselves control freaks, although they may say they wish they could change their ways but don't know how or are afraid to try.

Why is it that people are compelled to control so much? Most of the time it is because we believe it works. We think we need to control people and events in order to get what we want. This is not unexpected. We are raised with control; it is taught to us and is all around us. Parents, bosses, teachers — much of what they do is control based. As young children, we grew up with controlling parents, but we learned from that and turned the tables by using unabated crying and temper tantrums to get our way.

Indeed, control is so deeply embedded in our social, economic, familial –and, unfortunately, moral — fabric that aggressiveness and intimidation are too often perceived as "values" to be admired. Consequently, if all we've ever known and felt comfortable with is control, we're bound to feel insecure without it. We may find it almost impossible to imagine a better and more peaceful way. Most controllers strive to attain, by whatever controlling means available, the external wealth and comforts that they believe will bring them happiness and security. The idea of giving that up is inconceivable.

But controllers are mistaken. However much they struggle, peace and security always remain just beyond their grasp. They can't quite get there, though it isn't for lack of trying. This spiritual hunger compels them to press harder and hold on tighter. They don't realize the inherent contradiction that you can't hold on to something that isn't there.

What's true of most controllers, however, is that they have closed their hearts to unwanted feelings and injuries (many from their past), such as fear, anger and resentment, rejection, shame, abandonment, and betrayal. These core "heart wounds," when not given the opportunity to be healed by the compassion and wisdom of the soul, fester and become entrapped within, creating emotional, physical, and spiritual dis-ease and manifesting themselves in destructive, control-driven behavior.

Making a Change

Excessive control obstructs our vision, and we fail to see our options. Instead, we become immersed in our fears and worries. Our creativity is quelled before it can blossom. Our spirit is repressed before it can shine. We become harnessed by our own restrictions and forgo vital life opportunities.

In the simplest of terms, a control-driven life is a serenity-deprived life.

Consequently, if we want greater peace and tranquility in our lives, we must learn to lose control. We must stop trying to control events and others. We are powerless over most people and things, and we need to recognize that and give it up.

The compulsion to control takes time to develop, and it will take time and patience to reduce it. You can rest assured, however, that a strong desire and a commitment to change go a long way. In the chapters that follow, I offer strategies and tools you can use to help make it happen.

(The second excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity will examine the main control catalyst, "Fear: Control's Best Friend," and the final excerpt, "Losing Parental Control," will offer an alternative to "Tiger Mom" parenting.)