This is a reworking of a post published last year.
I lost three clients this summer.
Vince left treatment after a couples session in which I encouraged his wife to attend a family function he didn’t want her to attend.
Wendy left after a family session in which I encouraged her kids to tell her the truth about how they felt about her new boyfriend.
Xavier left because I told him he was emotionally abusing his wife.
All three illustrate the defensive function of control.
In his book Kinds of Power James Hillman explains the Latin origin of control, and implies that originally it referred to fighting gravity:
Control is agency, yes, but of a restrictive kind. 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.
When I read that — against the roll — I found myself imagining that the first “control” must have been some sort of wheel block, some lump of wood or stone used to stop chariots from rolling downhill or something.
I really liked this idea.
I liked seeing control as rooted in the idea of restraining or preventing something. It confirmed my sense of how controlling usually functions in me and the people I know: as a shield against unwanted consequences.
Certainly this is how my three former clients used control.
Vince used it to avoid sharing his wife with her family.
Wendy used it to prevent her kids from expressing preferences that conflicted with her own.
And Xavier used it to defend against the truth of what sort of husband he is.
The most controlling people I know are obsessed with avoiding, preventing and defending.
Why? Because they expect bad things to happen. (Usually because bad things have already happened to them. Abuse and trauma victims, for example, are famously controlling.) So they fear the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unplanned. They rely on control to fend off danger and discomfort.
They live, whether or not they realize it, as 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 that the world itself is out to get them. The paranoids I’ve treated were scared most of the time, unable to trust anyone, and led lives of confusion, uncertainty and occasionally panic.
But then, so do control addicts.
They, too, tend to see the world as dangerous, people as unreliable, relationships as competitive, emotions as scary, honesty as risky, and control as their shield against 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.
Finally, they’re often anxious or angry without realizing it.
Because that’s how you feel when you’re at war.
Yoga teacher Stephen Cope writes,
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.
Does this describe you?
Is control your shield?
How bad is your duhkha?
And what parts of How It Is are you fending off?
* * *
Kinds of power: A guide to its intelligent uses by James Hillman.
The wisdom of yoga: A seeker’s guide to extraordinary living by Stephen Cope
It’s like being barefooted, and walking across blazing hot sand, or cut glass, or in a field with thorns… And you say, “Do I have a great idea. I am just going to cover everywhere I go — I’m going to cover it in leather. And it won’t hurt my feet anymore.”
Click here for the rest of “This lousy world” by Pema Chodron.