I’ve been addicted to control for as long as I can remember.
That is, for as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to force reality — people, places, things, even myself — to match the pictures in my head of how I want reality to be.
I do this constantly.
I do it unconsciously. Which means I usually don’t know when I’m doing it.
And I do it compulsively. Which means I get really really anxious when I can’t get control.
I expect to stay an addict until I die.
Yes, I’m in recovery. But that just means I’m less controlled by my need for control than I used to be, just as recovering alcoholics are less controlled by their need to drink. They’ll always be alcoholics, though, and I’ll always be a control addict.
I’ll always feel this urge to control stuff. Even when I know it’s crazy to try.
It’s crazy, I’ve learned, because control is largely an illusion.
Sure, it’s not always an illusion. If I pour sugar in my coffee the coffee gets sweeter. If I pull the steering wheel to the right my car will reliably turn right.
But the world is larger than sugar and steering wheels. And the truth is that, beyond these concrete ways of changing my immediate circumstances, much of my controlling operates more on the level of wishful thinking.
Why? Because most of my controlling is an attempt to control feelings and relationships.
And feelings have no steering wheel. And in relationships sugar doesn’t always work.
Let me explain.
Say I have a feeling I don’t want. Say I feel inadequate. But it’s uncomfortable to feel that, and I also worry that if you see that I feel inadequate you may agree with me, which would make me feel worse. So I hide my feeling, from you and from myself. I work hard at presenting myself as adequate, even superior. (For an example, see “Bert’s mask.”) And let’s say it works: I convince you I’m superior. I have successfully controlled your perception of me.
Do I feel better?
Not so much.
At least, not for long. Why? Because I know it’s an act, a pretense. I’ve basically fooled you about me, and I can’t forget that. So whatever approval I get from you is essentially meaningless. And I end up feeling both inadequate and phony.
See how that works?
Say I’m mad at you, but afraid to show it. I’m scared you might get mad back at me, which would make me unhappy.
So I hide my anger from you. I bury it.
But overcontrolling feelings tends to be bad for me. Feelings are meant to be expressed, not contained. Released, not stored up. So burying my anger makes me uncomfortable. Constipated. Pressured. Uneasy. Anxious. And when I do it long and habitually enough, I get depressed. I.e., chronically unhappy.
How’s that for irony?
Why doesn’t control work better in the realms of feeling and relationships?
Because at the heart of this addiction lies an annoying but inescapable paradox:
The more control I need, the less in control I feel.