Whenever he meets a new client Steve asks him or her the same question:
“What do you know about you and control?”
The answers he gets vary widely. But nearly everyone ends up admitting, in one way or another, that control is pretty important to them.
Until last Tuesday.
Tuesday Steve met a new client — I’ll call him Barry — who answered his question with a shrug.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing,” Steve echoed.
“Nothing,” Barry 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 Barry disproved that.
So, suspecting that there may be other Barrys out there just as clueless about the role control plays in their emotional lives, he asked me to write this post.
Glad to oblige.
Because this is important stuff.
So here’s what you really should know about control:
1. You’re addicted to it.
Yes, you are. Consider:
Control (as we’re defining 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? Who doesn’t seek it constantly?
Human beings chase control in a gazillion ways, ranging from huge (starting wars) to tiny (changing channels), from mindful (exiting the highway) to unconscious (forming expectations), and from dangerous (beating a child) to innocuous (scratching an itch).
However you explain this urge (we 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, this urge, that we barely notice it. Most of the controlling we do is automatic and unconscious. If you were to meet someone who’s not automatically controlling (think: Dalai Lama) that person would probably strike you 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 it up for ten minutes.
2. Overcontrolling stuff 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 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 benefits to living with other people, but its chief curse is that we spend our lives terrified of how they’ll react if we dare to reveal ourselves emotionally.
It’s this curse that 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.
One of my clients was an MD, and I asked him what practicing medicine had taught him about human beings. “That no illness is purely physical,” he said.
When you bury feelings, dis-ease grows.
3. Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.
We seek control because we believe we’ll feel better with it than without it.
We assume controlling reality will enable us to avoid all sorts of discomfort: pain, anxiety, boredom, embarrassment, anger, confusion, frustration, fear.
We all believe this, without exception.
And it’s true enough, as far as it goes. Unfortunately most of the time (have you noticed?) 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.
4. There are better ways to handle feelings than control.
In fact, there are three:
~ The first is the ability to let go — to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway. This allows you to relax, accept life on life’s terms, and to swim with the tide of events instead of against it. We call this alternative surrender
~ The second is the ability to listen to feelings instead of ignoring or concealing them. This 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. We call this alternative responsibility (as in ability to respond).
~ The third alternative is the ability to be yourself with another person, and to allow them to do the same with you. This is the hardest to master, 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. We call this alternative intimacy.
None of these 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 kids. Kids would teach other kids. Partners would teach each other. So would religions. So would nations.
Control is too important to leave to therapists.