The meaning of control

“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 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 reality.

Dictate as in  direct, determine or define. 

Reality as in, well, everything. Everything under the sun. All the nuts and bolts of the world as we experience it, both the external world (of other people, places, and things) and the internal 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 our behavior, it structures our thinking. What is most of our thinking, if not an attempt to somehow change some circumstance, shift some piece of reality closer to what we’d prefer? What else do 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 we barely notice we’re wet.

3 responses to “The meaning of control

  • releasing lunacy

    Nicely worded…

    but, where’s Bert?

  • chuck

    Thanks for the informative post.
    I too at times, am a student of who I am, and what I do and possibly why I do it. Also noticing where and what it feels like. I also ? project and speculate the same things about other people and other living things. Who are they (the elephant) what are they doing? and what are they feeling? So it seems that our definition of control is like personal integration of our life experiences? Is this what we mean by control?

    I also was wondering to what extent our psychological makeup can go beyond this realm and remain “healthy”? I wondering to what extent we can simply sample experiences with multiple interpretations which suggests less confined interpretive manipulation. Free? experiencing and multiple mindfulnesses if such a word exists.


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