Elephant parts

“A blog about control,” it says at the top of this page.

So what are we talking about here? 

What is control, anyway? 

What does the word mean? What does the idea mean? 

We must think we know.  We use it often enough. 

This morning, for the hell of it, I Googled “control.”  Google replied with 225,000,000 items.  That’s million. 

I tried the same thing at Amazon.com.  Amazon coughed up 168,459 books with control in their titles. 

So what is this thing that so fascinates us? 

Good question. 

There’s an old story about blind men brailling an elephant.  One feels the elephant’s side and says, “Ah, I get it.  An elephant is just like a wall.”  Another feels the elephant’s leg and says “Ah, I get it.  An elephant is just like a tree.”  Another feels the trunk and decides an elephant is just like a snake. Another feels the tail and decides an elephant is like a rope.  And so on. 

Control is an elephant.  Big, big elephant.  Many parts, many contradictions.  After fifteen years of studying it I sometimes still feel like a blind man, groping my way towards the truth, one wrinkly body part at a time. 

Join me? 


control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain. ~ Judith Viorst

That’s fairly broad, as definitions go.  My definition, which you won’t find in any dictionary but stands behind everything I write here, is broader: 

The ability to dictate circumstances. 

Dictate as in direct, determine or define.  Circumstances as in, well, everything.  Everything under the sun.  All the nuts and bolts of reality, both external (the world of other people, places, and things) and internal (the world of our own thoughts, feelings and behavior). 

By control, then, I mean nothing less than the ability to edit reality,  transform it into whatever we need, or want, or prefer. 

And by controlling I mean everything we do towards that end, whether or not what we do is effective, or healthy, or if we even know that we’re doing it.

First question: Is control the best word for what I’m describing? 

I don’t know.  But I’ve tried and can’t think of a better one. 

The Buddhist term attachment probably comes closest to what I mean.  As does a Tibetan word Pema Chrodron writes about, shenpa.   But control is so much more important in English (Google lists only 16 million items for attachment) it seems the best label for what I’m interested in describing here. 

Next question:

What are the most important parts of this elephant? 

Well, the first two things you notice about control are 

(1) It’s enormous. 


(2) It’s invisible. 

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny,” Robert Pirsig writes.  “But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.” 

Control is one of those invisible huge things. 

The urge to control explains a ridiculously wide range of behaviors.  Often we think of controlling as bossing, bullying or nagging, or a controlling person as someone like Hitler, Donald Trump or Mom.  But that’s like mistaking the trunk for the whole elephant. 

We’re controlling whenever we scratch an itch. Comb our hair.  Mow our lawn.  Salt our soup.  Spank our child.  Balance our checkbook.  Change channels.  Stop at a red light.  Vote.  Punch someone’s nose.  Flatter someone.  Seduce someone.   Lie.   Disguise our true feelings.  Get drunk.  Worry.  Dream. 

You get the idea.   

We’re all controlling, and we’re controlling all the time.  

We chase control all our lives, waking and sleeping, out in public and deep in the secretest crannies of our mind.  We chase it consciously and unconsciously, creatively and destructively, wisely and stupidly, from birth until death. 

We can’t help it.  Control-seeking is the default position of our species. 

At the same time, because it’s such a given of human experience, we barely notice we’re doing it. 

Control isn’t like a tool we pick up and put down.  It’s more like breathing, or blinking, or the way your knee jerks when the doctor taps your patellar tendon.  Constant, automatic, involuntary.

Nor is the wish for control like a faucet we can turn on and off.   The need to control flows through us continuously, saturates all our behavior and feelings, infuses everything we desire and fear. 

It not only drives behavior, it structures thinking.  What is most of our thinking anyway, if not an attempt to somehow change some circumstance, shift some piece of reality closer to what we’d prefer?  What else could you call problem-solving, planning, analyzing, fantasizing, worrying, obsessing?

The idea of control makes up the psychological sea in which each of us swims. 

And most of the time most of us barely notice we’re wet. 

(To be continued.)

9 responses to “Elephant parts

  • Charles

    Am I controlling if I speak the truth?

    • fritzfreud

      Great question. Can’t believe no one’s ever asked me this before. Several answers leap to mind:

      (1) Yes.
      Technically. Since speaking itself — trying to bridge the gap between people via spoken communication — is generally an attempt to alter circumstances. (I assume you mean speaking to another person. Might see it differently if you’re speaking to yourself, or your dog, or to God, or to furniture.)

      (2) No.
      Usually. Since in most cases our wish to control another person (avoid conflict or win acceptance, for example) makes it harder to tell the truth, not easier.

      (3) Maybe.
      Depends on your motivation, for one thing. Honesty can be simple or have an agenda. And spoken communication is a matter not just of words, but of music. Say your wife asks, Like my dress? No, you reply. That doesn’t sound controlling to me. But No, you look like a slut, that sounds different. (Especially if you’re snarling.) Different motivation, different music.

      (4) Depends.
      On context, for another thing. Do you mean the truth about what you think or feel? Or the truth about how to find the nearest 7-11?

      As I said, control is a big elephant.

      • Charles

        So if someone asks me a question like, “How are you feeling today?” and I answer it as truthfully as possible, I am being controlling?

        If I do nothing, literally clear my mind and mediate on nothingness, am I being controlling?

        If you say yes to both of these then, as far as I can see, you’ve defined every action as an attempt to control. So by saying, “Your problem is rooted in your addiction to control.” You’re actually saying, “Your problem is rooted in your addiction to living.” And so where does that leave us?

        Can you give an example of something that is not control?

        • fritzfreud

          Good questions. Since they anticipate much of what I planned to discuss in future posts, I’ll offer a sketchy answer here, and ask you to stay tuned for more details:

          Technically speaking, the answer to your first two questions is Yes. Given how I define control, both the examples you cite are, in fact, forms of controlling, since both aim to somehow shape circumstances.

          And you’re right: my definition’s probably too broad. Call all human behavior controlling and it becomes meaningless to talk about controlling as an addiction. You’d be pathologizing human nature itself. (Actually there’s a case to be made for that point of view, I think, but I won’t make it now. You’re welcome.)

          But that’s speaking technically. As a practical matter, it’s much less confusing.

          My job as a therapist is to identify and help solve problems. To that end, I distinguish between two sorts of control: functional (or healthy) and dysfunctional (unhealthy). Functional control helps us get our needs met. Dysfunctional control (or dyscontrol) interferes with need-fulfillment. One’s a problem, one isn’t.

          So when evaluating behavior I’m less interested in whether it’s controlling than in whether it’s dyscontrolling — self-defeating or harmful in some way. And I try to teach clients to assess their own behavior by asking themselves three questions:

          1. What am I trying to control?
          2. Can I control it? (I.e., have I ever been able to before?)
          3. If I can, should I?

          Control’s a slippery fish, so these questions can take time to answer. But the answers are important to making good choices.

          As I said, more to come on all this.

  • Sue

    Robert Pirsig writes, “But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.” Isn’t that like the pink elephant in the room that everyone walks around but no one notices him? I thought that was denial… Pretending it’s not there…
    Sue B

    • fritzfreud

      Yes, the elephant-in-the-living-room is a metaphor for denial. (I suppose it could be pink. But pink elephants are what people tend to hallucinate during delerium tremens.)

      But like all psychological defenses, denial is also a form of control. It’s how we reduce our anxiety when faced with a problem we fear might overwhelm us. We simply refuse to see it. Problem solved, sort of.

      Pirsig, I think, is referring not to denial but to the self-imposed blindness that comes from not paying attention, to taking things for granted.

      • Sue

        Hummmm, got it makes sense.. Regarding the pink elephant I got that from a children’s book that helps young kids to understand and try to explain what they’re feeling in respect to the craziness that goes on in an Alcholic environment.

  • Charles

    Thanks for your comments, Steve. I’m learning a lot.

  • War with what is « Monkeytraps

    […] 11, 2010 Previously I compared control to an elephant, a large one with many parts, and myself to a blind […]

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