Category: Therapy & Counselling

The Illusion of Power and Control

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

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.

We’re always Communicating

People talk about how important Communication is. More often than not the first reason people go to therapy for relationship issues is because they are having communication problems. Some state that they do not communicate. In actuality people are always communicating; we cannot not communicate.

Most of our communication is nonverbal. Whether we like it or not we are always sending out messages. The message received may not be the one we think we are sending, and thus we get into difficulties. We can abdicate being an involved parent, but it is impossible to abdicate communication with our children. Being absent from the family is received and being interpreted by the children. Everything we do is being processed and interpreted by each member of the family. Therefore we are always involved in the family whether we like it or not.

Children will interpret from conversations and evaluate behaviours, and as a result make judgements about their view of reality. These evaluations usually confirm their perceptions about individuals around them, and usually reinforce their prejudices. This is one of the reasons why every person is so different and why couples are communicating with each other all the time. Their interpretations of messages received are filtered through years of prejudices from interpreting messages and making judgements about people and the world around them.

Words we use and the tone we use are also important. They give us a window into the inner life of a person. Your partner may tell you that you are selfish, or loving. These words are meaningless to some degree. The partner needs to put some “meat” on the words in order for them to become really meaningful. For example, a partner could say you are loving; I experience your love when you touch me during the day and when you came to my aid when the car broke down. This allows the person receiving the complement to know what the partner is talking about.

Another example would be telling a child when he/she does something you do not like, and that he/she is just like a disliked, deceased, aunt or an uncle. This can give the child the idea that he/she is predestined to become like the relative and cannot escape being bad. This can also rob children of establishing their own identity.

Another example would be when we introduce our spouse in public. Do we say this is my wife/husband and give his or her name? Or do we give the spouse’s name and then say this is my wife/husband. Giving the name first would communicate that this person is an individual separate from me, and is secondly my spouse. This type of communicating reveals the mindset and values of the person communicating.

We can begin to see why communication is so important. We can think of communicating as the veins of the body that ensure the blood flows to every part of the body. When one part of the body falters, the whole body suffers in some way.

Our communication is imperfect for many reasons, as discussed above. Therefore we need a constant rhythm of feedback and clarification; when we get it wrong we can stop and problem solve, and make sure we go forward with greater understanding of our place in our relationships.

Bernie Dunning holds a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and is a Board member of this agency.

The Process of Individuation in the Family

Launching healthy children
Launching healthy children

Everyone starting to make a family would like their children to be smart, independent, and successful. No one I know starts out wanting their child to be a drug addict, involved in criminal behaviour, or forever be dependent on parents or institutions for survival. The question I would like to pursue in this article is what parents can do to help their children achieve their full potential.
One of the things we need to look at is the ability of parents to not get in the way of the developmental issues of their children. We need to develop a mentality that children are not ours. We bring children into the world to help them become independent from us. This basically means we are not there to save them from the pain and difficulties of life, but to help them. The goal is to be able to say goodbye. The paradox is, if we achieve this goal, the more likely they will want to be around their parents as adults. If they have not achieved individuation, they will be at some level be fearful of being close to us. They will not share problems or life experiences with their parents. Parents feeling this distance will be tempted to spend money on their children to get close, and /or try to save them in some way from life’s difficult experiences. This adds to the difficulty of being close, and their adult children being independent.
There are two basic issues we need to establish as our children develop and mature. One is to understand that at the beginning of life, our children need us there to protect them and establish a foundation for physical security. As children grow they will need less physical involvement and more interpersonal involvement. This process requires parents to make hundreds of decisions about when and how to get involved with their children. It is important to realize that there are no parents who always make the right decisions. Parents also need to know asking forgiveness and changing tactics is available to parents. One of the ways we know if we are on the right track is to ask ourselves the question, who am I doing this (intervention) for? Am I doing it for me, so I can feel better, and therefore taking on the problem? Or am I doing it for the benefit of my child? Sometimes the answer does not come to us, so we may need to talk to a friend we trust to get some objective feedback. We always need to ask the question in helping our children with their problems: who has the problem at this moment in our relationship with this child? This is an important issue, because this question helps to clarify how we are going to intervene and will help your child take responsibility for their life. Remember, we need to be there for them, and to help. Always solving their problems and trying to save them from the pain of life will make them weak and dependent, and stops the process of individuation.
We also need to be able to have intimacy with our children. Starting from infancy, we need to touch, hold, read, play music, and be joyous with them as they succeed in their developmental stages. As they get older, we need to be there for them and communicate and listen when there are no big issues involved. This helps establish a foundation. No relationship can survive very well when we are only there when there is a problem or a crisis. Remember that relationships are a two way street, and we need to ask our children to do things for us, and not always doing for them. Again there needs to be boundaries, and the message to our children is that these boundaries are important. We accomplish this not by telling them but by showing them. The boundaries will change as they grow older. This helps them to take responsibility for their life, and shows them that life will not always go their way. They will have to deal with the limits of relationships and understand the world will not always be there for them when they want it to be. Again this will help them be confident that they can deal with life and interpersonal relationships.
To summarize. We need to have an attitude that we are borrowing our children to help them be independent, and to be able to say goodbye to them when they leave home. Children show us very early they want to be their own person. Their behaviour tells us loud and clear they want to be individuals. The parents role is to help them accomplish this by establishing appropriate boundaries, understanding when we have stopped helping and therefore trying to save them from life, and being with them not just in times of crisis, but when there are no issues involved. We communicate this to them, not by teaching, but by relating to them. We become the models for them and in this way, we teach. Ironically, the more we help them be individuals, and say goodbye to them, the more they will want to be with us. By the time they have left home our relationship with our children will be as equals, with the ability on both sides to be with each other as individuals and nurture each other.

Bernie Dunning, MA. LMFT, is a Board member and retired Marriage and Family Therapist

How do I tame anxiety?

by Angela Slade

In some cases, having anxiety requires medical intervention and/or treatment. However, here are some self-treatments one can do to tame anxiety. The first step is to identify your patterns. What specific triggers are linked to your anxiety? Notice what sets your anxiety in motion, and give it a name. Once you bring it into awareness, you can begin to make sense of it and then to address it. Second, write your specific worry down, and then develop a plan to address it. Tackle one or two worries at a time.

This task-oriented process can give you a feeling of satisfaction; more importantly, it makes you feel less vulnerable, more in control of your life. Third, don’t worry alone. In the absence of realistic feedback, we often can create some real doomsday scenarios. If something is troubling you, get the reassurance and validation you need. Consult someone you trust–a friend, family member, or a counsellor. Anxiety often diminishes when we share our worries. Finally, exercise can be one of the best self-treatments for anxiety. It doesn’t matter how you move your body— what does matter is that you get regular exercise. Even minor housecleaning, a few minutes of gardening, or some simple stretches can help tame anxiety.

30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself

As Maria Robinson once said, “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”  Nothing could be closer to the truth.  But before you can begin this process of transformation you have to stop doing the things that have been holding you back.

Here are some ideas to get you started:  Full Article

How Do I Tame My Inner Critic?

By Angela Slade

Taming your inner critic is much like taming a wild animal – it must be done with awareness and consistency. It’s a sneaky little beast and will come sliding in the back door, just as you shove it out the front. If you judge it or criticize it, you are feeding the wild beast because you are behaving just like it. Here are some tips to help tame your inner critic. First, identify your inner critic’s top ten places where it likes to hang out. This could be a situation, event, or a place such as the mirror. Second, draw a picture of your inner critic and name it. Place this in a spot where you will see it regularly. Third, get to know your inner critic. Notice what makes it louder; what diminishes its power; what happens if you talk back; what happens when you just look at it calmly in the eyes and reassure it everything will be okay. Experiment with this exercise and notice if there are any shifts in your day/week/month. Once you’ve begun taming your inner critic, you’ll feel lighter and freer than ever before. You may even have the courage and confidence to embark on a new adventure.