As humans we seem to be drawn to seek control over our environment and ourselves. When we are infants, we immediately attempt to control our environment by making sure we are fed and changed. Later, we try to get our parents and siblings to do our bidding. Parents often talk about the power struggle with their children –their experience of not succeeding or celebrating the illusion of success.
As adults we talk about being in control of our feelings and our environment, be it work, play, or home life—but are we? People who seem to exhibit control all the time get a lot of praise. They are usually seen as strong people and are rewarded for not crying; or as people say, not “falling apart”. Usually women have been seen as weak for being “too emotional”, and have even been referred to as “hysterical”. They were traditionally hidden from unpleasant things and experiences.
However, this cultural norm seems to be disappearing. At this point, it is important to mention that as we grow up in our families, one of the tasks is to develop enough self-esteem to be able to deal with the eventual feelings of powerlessness or not feeling in control of our lives.
Those who are obsessed with controlling are usually called “control freaks.” They feel very anxious and vulnerable if they give up their attempts to have power and control over people close to them. Control and power gives them a false sense of well-being. However, power and control can be counterproductive, and even dangerous. Being obsessive about power and control can lead to a disorder called Anxiety Disorder, which can be treated with medication and/or talk therapy. One of the reasons control leads to a debilitating Anxiety Disorder is that it is impossible to feel powerful and in control at all times. A vicious cycle can occur: the minute we feel not in control, compromising our sense of power, we want to get our life back into control; yet there are just some times when this is not possible. So, we may become involved in behaviours which are fruitless: such as making sure things are done RIGHT; being authoritarian; and being in control of all situations. The more we may seem to fail, the more desperate we become, and then, we work harder and harder to try and get some order back into our lives. This can happen in all aspects of our life.
Here are some examples involving work and relationships. This article will concentrate on these two areas of our lives.
It happens at our job, when in the process of making things work, we start to feel we are losing control. We can become very authoritarian, ruthless, and unjust. This causes others to revolt, and then we feel we have to become more authoritarian. You can see where this pattern is going. It seems to be difficult for some people to cope with their feelings of not being in control. Instead of working with people, they compensate by being authoritarian and then create a tense work environment.
In relationships, we have the capacity to become violent when we feel unloved, and seem to be losing the ability to make our partner love us. This is the foundation of violent and abusive relationships. It is usually men who are involved in abusing women, looking to power and control to get their needs met. As a result of low self-esteem, we want to feel we have power and control over the person we love. This gives the Illusion we have secured our partner’s love. However, as we know, this sense of control and power can lead to abuse and violence toward the person we love.
Typically we tend to think the abusive person does not really love his partner. How could he love a person he always abuses? The abusive person loves his partner, but behaves in a way which destroys love. Because of his low self-esteem, he is always trying to manipulate the loved one, first through charm and excessive acts of doing for the other. Then, when the first signs of a threat to their love is perceived in his mind, he becomes controlling and authoritarian. The trigger could be his partner talking too long to another man at a party, or supper not being served on time. Women, as a result of their socialization, may over-ride their feeling of being in danger, and may believe that they can get this man to be the “giving person” he was in the beginning of the relationship. This type of thinking on the part of women can lead to disastrous results. For some men, even murder is not out of the realm of behaviors to set the relationship straight. (If I cannot have her, nobody can.)
Our culture warns us about thinking such thoughts, but we witness how some legal authorities and abused women will allow for excuses on the part of the spouse. We hope that the spouse will change based on his saying so. Our seeming inability to live with feelings of loss of control and power will inevitably lead us to the illusion that we can get control.
The above example is an extreme case, but many relationships do become abusive (i.e. being pushed, or being put down) as a result of not being able to respond adequately to the fear of losing a partner, and due to low self-esteem. It is important to recognise our feelings for what they are. This will help us to react in a way which will enhance the relationship –instead of destroying it.
Another situation which is of importance is having control and power over the children we are raising. Here again, this control and power we feel is an Illusion. In reality we do have control over our children, because ¬they allow it and want us to have control. Children and parents want to keep the bond they have with each other. Children want their parents in control, but eventually they look for areas in the relationship where, as they say, “they can be their own person.” This is natural but parents sometimes “dig in” to make sure they keep control. Then children revolt. This situation offers another mile-stone in the parent’s relationship with their children, and it is very important for parents to stay in communication with them.
However, if children are feeling they are being unjustly treated and feel they can never win, they will start to rebel in a serious way. Justice, like with adults, is very important to children. If at any time they feel they have no power in the relationship, they will show parents they cannot control them. In this situation there is no amount of punishment that will make them obey. The only way into their lives is to re-establish the bond. In some cases this can be quite difficult.
As you can see, no matter what the age, we may voluntarily allow another person to have control over us at any particular moment of a relationship. It is an illusion to think and behave in a way that communicates “you are mine,” and, “I always know what is best.”
Bernard Dunning holds an MA in Family Systems Counselling, and is a volunteer Board member with our agency.