Previously I compared control to an elephant, a large one with many parts, and myself to a blind man.
I’m still trying to braille my way to a grasp of control, one wrinkly body part at a time.
Here’s another piece of the beast:
Control comes from the Latin: contra rotullus.
This I learned from the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who in his book Kinds of Power implies the term originally referred to fighting gravity.
“Control is agency, yes, but of a restrictive kind,” Hillman writes. “The word comes from contra rotullus, against the roll. Since the free flow of inertia follows the path of least resistance, the easy path downhill is controlled by restraints.”
Against the roll. I found myself imagining the first “control” as some sort of wheel block, some lump of wood or stone used to stop ox carts from rolling downhill.
I really liked this idea.
I liked seeing control as rooted in the idea of prevention. It confirmed my sense of how controlling functions in me and the people I know: as a bulwark against surprise and misfortune.
Control, I realized, is defensive. We control not to make things happen, but to stop them from happening.
When we look closely at what we want when we want to be in control, we find mainly preventive desires. We want not to be bugged, not to be demeaned, not to be blocked and criticized. We want obstacles removed that compete, like other divisions in the company and other gangs in the ‘hood. Control means preventing interference. It has a conservative effect.
The most controlling people I know are obsessed with conserving, protecting and preventing. They expect bad things to happen. (Usually because bad things have already happened to them. Abuse and trauma victims, for example, are famously controlling. As is anyone who grew up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family. Which aside from Beaver and the other Cleavers pretty much covers everyone else.) So they fear the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned. They rely on control to fend off danger and discomfort. They live, whether they admit it or even realize it, like frightened people.
Control, for all its self-assured position of command, relies on a defensive vision, and [its] traits — enforced loyalty, exactitude, suspicion of the hidden watchfulness — are paranoid traits.
Paranoia, of course, is an extreme form of craziness. Paranoids imagine the world’s out to get them. I’ve worked with paranoids. They were scared most of the time, unable to trust anyone, led lives of confusion, uncertainty and occasionally panic.
But so do control addicts.
They experience the world as dangerous, people as unreliable, relationships as competitive, emotions as scary, honesty as risky, and control as their shield against wounding by all of the above. They hate change, especially change they haven’t asked for. In therapy they’re almost always expressing resistance to something — some unfolding of events, some anticipated consequence, some expression of the innate tendencies of people around them. Often they’re anxious or angry without knowing why.
Yoga teacher Stephen Cope:
Each of us has our own silent War With Reality. Yogis came to call this duhkha. Duhkha means, literally, “suffering,” “pain,” or “distress.” This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior: We reach for the pleasant. We hate the unpleasant. We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones. We try to get rid of this pervasive state of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things “out there.” By changing the world.
Alexander Lowen points out, “Because we are afraid of life, we seek to control or master it.” Logical, maybe. Effective? Not so much.
No, worse than that. Self-destructive. Because the War With What Is is actually a problem disguised as a solution.
Why? Three reasons.
First: Fighting reality is hard work. (Try swimming against the tide of a stream or a river. Fight the flow, and see how long you last.) So control addicts end up stressed, strained and exhausted.
Second: The war is unwinnable. It’s not that control addicts don’t try hard enough. What they’re trying to do simply can’t be done. So they end up feeling depressed and inadequate.
Third (and this is a big one): Control addiction is self-perpetuating. Think about it. To be scared of reality is to organize your life around fear. You tense up, go into defense mode and stay there. “As long as we are defensive, we are going to be frightened” (Lowen). So fear makes you defensive, which makes you more frightened, which makes you more defensive, and so on. Like any addiction. The more you control, the more you need to.
Control addiction, then, is a sort of garden-variety paranoia. A form of everyday craziness you don’t notice much.
Because everyone you know is just as crazy as you.