The Control Paradox

Humans start needing to have some measure of control fairly early in life - possibly from about the time we draw our first breath.  It is ironic, then, that uniquely among all living creatures, we alone are aware of the inevitability of our eventual death, and completely without any control whatsoever over when that will happen.  This may explain to some extent why control issues loom large in the human psyche.  No matter how easy going we may want to imagine ourselves to be, control issues are inescapable.  Our unexamined needs for control can paradoxically put us in prisons of our own making.

Negotiations with significant others around issues of control and power can often be baffling, frustrating and exhausting.  For example, pretty much every parent is familiar with the seemingly endless struggles one has with one's kids.  Are the most successful parents the ones who exert the most control?  We probably all know kids who grew up under extremely strict conditions, for whom things did not turn out so well - unlike the apparently perfect prodigies born to and raised by Amy Chua, the "Tiger Mother" who is all over the news these days.  I certainly talk to quite a few people professionally for whom an authoritarian upbringing was not the way to get to Carnegie Hall, but rather contributed heavily to their addiction problems, impotence, divorce, alienation from family, depression and anxiety - and so on. 

In my work with people affected by authoritarian groups (sometimes such groups are thought of as cults, or as cult-like), I've talked to scores of people who joined such a group searching for freedom of one kind or another:  from ego, from inhibition and fear, emptiness, meaninglessness, etc.   Where they ended up instead was spending some of the best years or decades of their lives living like slaves, allowing a charismatic leader to dictate every move they made, everything they wore, ate, said and did.  In all those years before they finally left their group, they thought they were on the road to liberation.  Michael Wright's superb recent piece in the New Yorker about how the screenwriter Paul Haggis got into Scientology, what he put up with to stay in it, and why he finally left, is a great illustration of how one can allow oneself to be controlled by others - all the while deceiving oneself into believing that the subjugation and exploitation one accepts is all in the name of self-realization, freedom, and making the world a better place.

For many who are struggling to find the right intimate partner, control issues can be a stealth killer.  One strong, highly accomplished woman I worked with whom I'll call Sonia easily attracted men who showed intense interest in her.  These were men who seemed masterfully in control - of their careers, their wealth, their bodies and their sexual performance.  Sonia would eventually become dismayed to discover that these men also expected to be able to control her.  When she resisted the controlling behaviors, the man in question would quickly turn from seductive pursuit to belittling rejection.  In spite of the repetitive disappointments she experienced with men of this type, she found herself turned off by and made herself unavailable to men who were less dominating.  Catch-22.  

Like Sonia, we all have unconscious, complicated relational patterns that are impacting our way of managing our control needs, especially with our most significant others. If we believe that it is a basic human right to be free - and today, more and more people all over the world are beginning to assert that it is - then it behooves us to understand more about the need for control.  There is a world of difference between control as a destructive, rigidifying tool for domination; and control, built on trust, compassion and respect, that creates stability, allows for flexibility, and encourages freedom.