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Marcia Sirota Headshot

Why It's Impossible to be "In Control"

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The other day, one of my patients described herself as a "control freak," and an unhappy one at that. Certainly, she's not the first person I've worked with who's been frustrated in their attempts to be "in control," but it always saddens me to see someone wasting her time on something that's neither possible nor necessary.

As a rule, people who crave control are reacting to their past; to a childhood or adolescence in which they felt that they had little or no control. They're attempting to compensate for this uncomfortable experience by being overly-controlling in their adult lives.

The problem with control is that it's an unattainable goal. No matter how hard a person might try, nothing can be controlled; not the weather, politics, world financial markets, one's own body and certainly not other people. People are under an illusion when they believe in control, and they risk being deeply disillusioned if they keep on trying to achieve it.

I've noticed that "control freaks" come in two versions: the benign and the malignant. The former are more focused on self-control. They repress their emotions, restrict their food intake and drive themselves toward impossible standards of perfection in their career, hobbies and self-improvement.

The latter group are invested in controlling others. They might choose such ostensibly helpful professions such as psychotherapists, doctors, police or military officers. Alternatively, they might be bullies at their school or workplace, or hyper-controlling in their intimate relationships. Their goal is to have power over the people they're associated with, either personally or professionally.

Whether benign or malignant, all these individuals eventually come up against the painful reality that it's futile to try and be in control. Those who want to control themselves suffer terribly as they become locked in a life-long inner conflict between the part of the psyche that seeks utter control (the super-ego, or internalized parent) and the part that wants to be free (the id, or child within).

Those who seek to control others eventually see that no matter how much they manipulate, coerce, threaten or implore, they can never have absolute control over another person, because even if they imprison the other person's body, they can never imprison their spirit. Also, it should be pointed out that the person being controlled cannot be in control of their responses toward the controller.

Those who are subject to bullying or coercion, even if ordinarily meek and non-confrontational, will eventually tire of being pushed around and will find a way to rebel, whether this is done consciously and directly, by protesting, or indirectly, by being passive-resistant or even passive-aggressive.

Even someone in an abusive relationship who knows that she'll be verbally or physically assaulted if she stands up to her partner will still find it hard to resist acting out against her controller. It's not that they want to be abused, but eventually they become so indignant toward the abuser and so unhappy with their situation that they won't be able to resist the urge to be spiteful. The angry id will out.

The whole problem with control is that it denies the existence of the unconscious. It assumes that we're all solely rational beings, capable of using the power of our minds to guide every aspect of our existence. The idea of "mind over matter" is erroneous, seeing as how the compulsion to be in control isn't a conscious, rational choice, but one based on deep-seated, unresolved emotional wounds and needs.

Those who attempt to control themselves often end up with two types of reactive behaviors: what I call backlash and leakage. Both of these reactions are driven by the child within, who becomes so frustrated and disgusted by the whole exercise that she sabotages it to the best of her abilities.

An example of backlash is when a person who's been on a strict diet begins to binge uncontrollably, regaining any weight that he's lost, plus a few extra pounds. An example of leakage is when a person who prides himself on his impeccable social graces suddenly begins to blurt inappropriately. The "inner boor" has leaked out, replacing the former, more appropriate persona.

Within the psyche of every person, there's a constant battle between the forces of chaos (id) and the forces of control (super-ego). Those of us with a well-developed adult identity can usually manage to maintain a reasonable balance within our personality, being neither overly impulsive nor excessively repressed.

Those who are overly-invested in self-control, however, find themselves swinging between the extremes of rigidity and explosiveness, as the inner conflict ends up being played out in their public behavior. The more the internal forces of control try to make the person buckle under, the more the forces of chaos resist and act out in fury.

For those who try to control other people, chronic unsuccessful attempts to bend others to their will can only have one result: intense frustration which will cause them to intensify their attempts at control and will likely result in increased resistance on the part of those being controlled. The controllers may or not succeed in getting others to tow the line, but they'll certainly create a lot of drama and suffering for all parties.

Those who attempt to control themselves will spend their lives see-sawing back and forth between extremes of perfectionism and inappropriate acting out. Their lives will be miserable, both for what they must give up in their attempts to achieve "perfection" and in the personal and social consequences of their backlash and leakage.

Control is impossible, and the past can never be compensated for by present-day actions. It must be faced, grieved, healed and released. Those enamored with the idea of control would do better to see that instead of trying to be "in control," they can make conscious, empowered choices about their lives right now.

Making such choices will bring the best possible outcome in all endeavors and relationships, and will demonstrate not only the futility but the irrelevance of trying to be "in control."