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Controlling behaviour: The good, the bad, and the extremely life-limiting

Are you in control? Does someone control you? And, come to think of it, what things are within your control, and what’s definitely out of it? How do you gain control if you lose it or feel it slipping? How do you resist controlling behaviour.

When you read the above questions, I imagine in conjures up a pretty powerful response. Defensiveness even, a pit the stomach visceral something. Even just the word alone does it to me. Control. CONTROL.

There are several conversations we can have about control, and dozens of intersecting narratives - from philosophical, to cultural, to sociological. But for the point of this article, and in keeping with my interests, I’m going to zone in on the mind and provide something of an explanation of control from the perspective of the individual.

To oversimplify things, in the spirit of a good blog post: as humans we need to feel safe in the world. Our first sense of safety and belonging is built from our early attachment to caregivers and other familial bonds. When we are infants and children our brains are forming and figuring out the boundaries of the world and our place within it. These are the very foundations of identity and world view that shapes the way we interpret events for a lifetime.

But a child doesn’t know what the world is, how far it spreads, what it consists of, where it starts and ends. To a child, the world is what they know - their home, their family, their immediate environment. When this environment is unstable and early relationships are unpredictable or dysfunctional, or if there is exposure to trauma or neglect - that child may grow up with an unstable sense of self. They might be vulnerable to fears of instability, or feel unsettled by a sense of the world being essentially unpredictable and unsafe.

While will grow, and develop and learn; this fractured sense of safety remains, hidden in an emotional space. Rationally we might come to know we’re essentially safe, our environment may change for the better, we might build healthier relationships. But deep-down? We’re still frightened of instability, and we don’t know why. Most people have a little bit of this going on. But for some others, it’s intense. It drives behaviour and relationships and decision making to sometimes an extreme degree.

So what’s a way to manage instability? Control. It might not be the best option, but it’s the one we have access to from an early age, from the time these vulnerabilities set in. The internal mantra becomes something along the lines of, “the world is unpredictable and unsafe, but if I’m in control then I’m ok”. And the more intense the underlying instability, the more intense the behaviour. It becomes a strategy, albeit outside of our awareness.

From my experience, here are three caricatures of the kinds of controllers you may, or may not, have come across in your time:

1. The Self-Controller – this is your average perfectionist. This person just doesn’t feel ‘right’ unless things are in order. They plan, they organise, and they arrange, because in doing so they can feel safe, and together. Any disruption to the plan means a kind of un-anchoring to the world, leaving the self-controller feeling especially unpleasant. A disruption, a change, a small deviation from the plan will fling the self-controller into hyper-control-mode in an effort to bring them back to their safe controlled equilibrium. To the self-controller, order is stability. “If everything is as it should be, I’m ok”.

2. The Other-Controller – ok so these guys we tend to dislike. Often they are troubled yet resistant to treatment, which makes them hard to crack. These are people who have a particularly vulnerable self-concept that needs to be protected by shaping the attitudes and behaviours of those around them. They might have a need to feel strong, important, and valued, however have very weak internal references to that, and so control becomes the only way to artificially elicit this validation from others. “It is too distressing to feel weak or flawed, so I will control the actions of others so as never to face that”.

3. The Every-Damn-Thing Controller – this is really just a combination of the other two, but it is more than just the sum. This person, more than anything, craves predictability and stability of relationships, but attempts to do this through controlling both people and the environment they’re in. In this case, the controlling of others is less about maintaining a self-image, and more about trying to have one. Without perfectly predictable relationships that reflect their personal value, this person loses hold of the basic idea of themselves. Anything unexpected is more than just inconvenient, it’s somehow offensive, and some kind of betrayal. These guys have built their identity on shaky foundations, and might have experienced some childhood trauma. Relationships are like being at sea and craving the ground. “Who am I if I can’t relate to people on predictable terms”

The thing about control is that it works, some of the time. If you feel that niggly at-sea feeling and getting everything in order eases it? Then of course you’ll keep on doing it! And sometimes the feedback you get will reinforce it too - the accolades for being on top of things, the admiration for being in control and getting what you want. The power of getting your way and satisfying your needs.

But there are several nasty dark flip-sides to all of that control, including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. All you’re really doing is confirming that, yep, you are actually unsafe, because look at the lengths you need to go to just to feel baseline safety.

  2. If anxiety + control = relief, then I’m going to keep doing that. And like a drug, over time I’m going to need more and more control to feel that same sense of relief.

  3. The fall-out. Life becomes limited. Over controlled equals rigid. You lose the spontaneity, the flexibility, the random. Too much control can be extremely suffocating and life-limiting. Often people crave predicability enough to sacrifice some freedom, however eventually the losses add up, and life can feel drab, uninteresting, and unfulfilling.

  4. Abuse. When control is directed at others, impacting on their safety, freedom and rights, it can be incredibly damaging, and even life-threatening.

The control cycle

What people come to realise, usually at the point of seeking therapy, is that control works until it doesn’t. At some point life sends you something that you can’t control (a baby is a good one! Speaking from experience), or maybe there's no single trigger but suddenly you need more and more control just to feel stable. And then what? Your usual strategy for keeping that fear at bay is no longer effective, and you’re left with a partially exposed hole seeping emotions that you cannot tolerate because you’ve never had to before. All that control had kept the nuisance emotions at bay, until now.

So, what’s the way forward? Teach yourself, slowly, that you are safe, by letting that fear poke out and resist the urge to stuff it back in with control. If you start to relinquish control, despite feeling unsafe or vulnerable, you give yourself the opportunity to learn that you can still be ok even without all of the predictability and rigidity. Teach yourself that the fear is a false warning, an emotional throw-back to times that bare very little resemblance to the present. You really are ok. You really can start to let the control-crutch go.

It takes time, effort, and plenty of reflection, but it absolutely can be done. A good therapist can help you get there, but the real work lies with you. The good news? Controllers are usually quite good at getting things done when they put their mind to it. It’s just about shifting the focus.

And before I go, a disclaimer: forming an understanding of behaviour is not excusing it. I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to their feelings, however that does not mean they are necessarily entitled to their behaviour, especially if it impacts on others negatively. Controlling behaviour can be incredibly difficult to manage. While this is probably a post for another day, if you have a controller in your life it’s important to set personal boundaries around behaviour, and stick to them (this includes verbal behaviour - such as insults, taunts, emotional blackmail, etc). You might empathise with a controller’s need for control, but that doesn’t mean you need to accept the associated behaviour.

Article author:

Elizabeth Talbot


B Psych (Hons), M Psych (Clin), MAPS

Content note: Unless otherwise labelled, all blog posts are intended as discussion pieces, and are not academic texts. Articles pertaining to research or making an academic argument will be labelled as such and include supporting evidence/references.

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