Because we are oblivious to the workings of desire within us, we are full of misconceptions about it.
~ William B. Irvine
Liz has circles under her eyes. “He started calling at six-thirty this morning,” she tells me. Liz is divorcing her husband, and Dennis has been pressuring her to reconcile. “Yesterday he left twelve goddamned voicemails. He’s sorry, he loves me, he’s not drinking anymore, he’ll never hurt me again. Like that.”
“Do you pick up when he calls?”
“Sometimes. Most of the time.”
“I’m afraid he’ll get mad if I don’t.”
“What if he did?”
“He might stop giving me money. Or show up at the house and upset the kids.”
“What do you say when you pick up?”
“Not much. Mostly I let him ramble on. His big thing now is he wants to take the kids to Disney. Me too, of course. He’s got them all pumped up. He turns them on and sends them home to pester me about it.” Her kids are ten and thirteen.
“Do you want to go to Disney?”
“Are you kidding?”
“So what do you tell the kids?”
“I say I’m thinking about it.”
“Then what happens?”
“They think that means Yes, and they hug and kiss me, and I feel terrible.”
“And how is all this affecting you?”
“It’s wearing me down. Two o’clock this morning I woke up worrying about it.”
“How long were you awake?”
“About two hours. Then I ate half a quart of ice cream, and that knocked me out.”
Let’s start with an experiment. Take a moment, in the privacy of your own mind, to answer this question:
What does a controlling person look, sound, and act like?
(Authorial pause while reader complies.)
What came up? If you bothered to try this, I’m guessing you found some image or memory or feeling that carries the emotional weight of the word controlling for you.
What most of us encounter is a distillation of our most powerful (often most painful) experiences with people by whom we’ve felt controlled. Or we discover that we harbor some archetypal image of what a controller looks and acts like — Hitler, maybe, or the Great Santini, or Mom.
That, at least, used to be my own reaction. It changed when I began to really study control. After ten years of practicing a psychotherapy focused mainly on control issues, what I once saw as fairly obvious human behavior now seems to me more like a chameleon or shape-shifter, so various, subtle and relentless that it manages to slip sideways into virtually every experience and interaction.
Control can be hard to spot, even harder to talk about. That it takes so many forms is just one reason for this. Another is the stunted language we use to describe them. We apply the verb control to wildly different behaviors, to our handling of everything from feelings to finances, foreign trade to cholesterol, termites to acne. Our language for control is so limiting that we almost need to construct a new one in order to describe this chameleon we’re looking for.
Some first steps, then, towards a more descriptive language:
Let’s start by distinguishing some types. Controlling may be classified as either external or internal, overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, and functional or dysfunctional.
~ External controlling is the type that focuses outside the individual, on people, places and things. Internal controlling is the type that focuses inside the individual, on one’s own thoughts, feelings and behavior. Cleaning my garage, disciplining my kids, and steering my car out of a skid are all examples of external controlling. Dieting, memorizing French verbs, and pretending to like someone I actually hate are examples of internal controlling. Dennis’s phone calls to Liz are external controlling, while Liz’s ice cream binge is an attempt at internal control.
~ Overt controlling is obvious and observable. Covert controlling is hidden or disguised. When I tell my son to take out the garbage, that’s overt controlling. When I try to guilt him for forgetting, that’s covert. Archie Bunker’s treatment of his wife (Stifle, you dingbat) was overtly controlling, while Edith’s usual response was covert — she controlled Archie by shutting her mouth, agreeing with him or bringing him a beer. In other words, she manipulated Archie, which is another name for covert controlling. Dennis’s pleas and promises to Liz are overtly controlling, while her taking his phone calls and letting him ramble ad nauseamare tactics of covert control.
~ Conscious controlling is controlling we recognize, while unconscious controlling goes on outside our awareness. Dennis probably knows that he’s trying to control his wife. Liz, however, looked shocked when I pointed out how hard she works at controlling him back. She hadn’t thought of her evasive responses to her kids’ as a form of controlling, either. Like most people, she defines control as the sort of thing Archie does, not how Edith responds. But the vast majority of codependents I know are relentlessly “nice” people whose compulsive controlling takes the form of an Edithesque coping style.
Finally, and most importantly,
~ Controlling may be called functional when it is somehow necessary, appropriate or need-satisfying, and dysfunctional when it is none of those things. Distinguishing the two can be tricky, since dysfunctional control — or dyscontrol for short — often seems, in the short run, to be an effective way of coping. Humoring Dennis helps Liz avoid fights and keep the support checks coming. Promising Disney gets the kids off her back for a while. And self-medicating with Rocky Road allows her to fall back asleep. But in the long run, I submit, all forms of dyscontrol fail. Why? There are many reasons, but here’s the main one: where functional controlling represents a realistic attempt to face and solve a problem, dyscontrol is a fear-driven response whose main goal is to avoid some unpleasant reality. And sooner or later every reality stops being avoidable. Eventually Liz will have to break the news about Disney, face her husband’s feelings about divorcing, and deal directly with the worries that wake her up at night.
So there are some distinctions to start with.
Yes, I know. It sort of gives me a headache too.
Worse, this list only begins to cover the possibilities. For one thing, it suggests that the ways in which we control may be neatly classified in either/or fashion, when in fact a particular behavior might well fall into several categories at once. Hiding my hatred of someone reflects both internal and external controlling, since I’m both suppressing my own feelings and trying to shape the responses of another person. Liz’s ice cream binge, however unhealthy, may have also been the only way she had of staving off severe sleep deprivation. So it was both functional and dysfunctional at the same time. Got all that?
In the end, though, such a list is more interesting than useful. What’s useful in this discussion of types is the idea behind the quote which appears at the start of this letter. “Because we are oblivious to the workings of desire within us,” writes William B. Irvine, “we are full of misconceptions about it.” The same may be said of control. Because we are normally oblivious to our own controlling behaviors, we are full of misconceptions about control. And since, being human, we cannot help but be controlling, it behooves us to notice and understand what we already do.
(c) Steve Hauptman, 2006.