That’s Bert at left, explaining control addiction.
Whenever he meets a new client Steve asks him or her the same question:
“So what do you know about you and control?”
The answers he gets vary. But everyone ends up admitting, in one way or another, that control is pretty damned important to them.
Today Steve met a new client — I’ll call him Harry — who answered his question with a shrug.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing,” Steve echoed.
“Nothing,” Harry repeated. “I have no problems with control.”
Steve was flabbergasted. He’s always assumed everyone has at least a sneaking suspicion that control issues figure in their need for therapy. But Harry disproved that.
So, in recognition that there may be other Harrys out there who are clueless about the role of control in their emotional lives, he asked me to write this post.
Glad to oblige. Because this is important stuff.
So here’s what you damned well better know about control:
1. You’re addicted to it.
Yes you are. Consider:
Control (as we define it) means the ability to dictate reality — to turn some piece of the world into what we need or want or prefer. Who doesn’t want that? And who doesn’t seek it constantly?
We human beings seek control in a gazillion ways, ranging from huge (starting wars) to tiny (changing channels), from mindful (driving a car) to unconscious (forming expectations), and from dangerous (beating a child) to innocuous (scratching an itch).
However you explain this urge (and I blame it on our big restless brains), it’s both an elemental part of human nature and the one that most clearly separates us from other animals, who pretty much have to take reality as it comes.
It’s so familiar we barely notice it. Most of the controlling we do is habitual, automatic and unconscious. In fact should we meet someone who is not automatically controlling (think: Dalai Lama) that person would probably strike us as, well, unhuman.
What makes controlling an addiction? Several things. But here’s the most obvious:
Addictions are famously difficult to give up.
Try giving up control for a day, and see how you feel.
Hell, try giving up control for ten minutes.
2. Overcontrolling makes you sick.
We tend to overcontrol two things: our own feelings, and other people.
Overcontrolling feelings makes us anxious, depressed and addicted. Overcontrolling other people ruins our relationships.
There. I’ve just summarized 99% of what Steve talks about in a typical working day.
He wants to add something.
The most common problem clients bring to therapy is emotional constipation: the suppression of normal feelings.
We suppress feelings out of fear. There are plenty of advantages to living with other people, but its chief curse is that we spend our lives terrified of how they will react if we dare to reveal ourselves emotionally.
This curse is what makes us sick. I’m not exaggerating. To deny feelings is to go to war with your own body, ignoring both its intelligence and its needs. I once asked a client who was a doctor what practicing medicine had taught him about human beings. “That no illness is purely physical,” he said.
When feelings get buried, dis-ease grows.
3. All controlling is an attempt to control feelings.
We seek control because we’re convinced we’ll feel better with it than without it.
Controlling reality, we figure, will allow us to avoid all sorts of discomfort: pain, anxiety, boredom, anger, confusion, embarrassment, fear.
True enough. Unfortunately most of the time (have you noticed yet?) reality is beyond our control.
What then? How handle feelings you cannot avoid?
Having no alternative to control leaves you hopelessly addicted to it — forced to manage your emotional life by compulsively wrestling people, places and things into submission, and condemned to helpless anxiety when you can’t.
Luckily, there are alternatives.
Three, in fact:
~ The first is being able to let go — to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway. We call this alternative surrender. It allows you to relax, accept life on life’s terms, to swim with the tide of events instead of against it.
~ The second is being able to listen to feelings instead of denying or concealing them. We call this alternative responsibility (as in ability to respond). It allows you to avoid splitting yourself into two selves — public and private — and to make healthier choices, ones that take your true needs into account.
~ The third alternative is the hardest to learn. It’s being able to be yourself with another person, and to allow them to do the same with you. We call this alternative intimacy. It’s the hardest because it combines both surrender and responsibility, and because it demands that we rise above fear. But it also offers us our only chance to feel truly connected to and accepted by another human being.
None of the alternatives is easy to learn or practice. If we choose them it’s because we’ve come to realize, like any recovering addict, that being addicted to control is even harder.
Steve has a last word:
As Bert said, this is important stuff. Stuff we all need to know. In an ideal world, we’d teach it more. Parents would teach their kids. Kids would teach other kids. Married people would teach each other. So would religions. So would nations.
Control is too important, really, to leave to just therapists.