Garden variety paranoia

paranoid-flowersThe word control comes from the Latin: contra rotullus.

This I learned from 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.




















2 responses to “Garden variety paranoia

  • John

    Fascinating post. Well written, Steve.

    Control, to me, is inescapable. Either we’re trying to control something (or someone) external to us, or we’re trying to control ourselves. Is there such a thing as completely going with the flow and a life that constantly follows the path of least resistance? — a life like in that movie “Yes Man”? And what would that life look like? As much as we are guilty of being controlling, we typically do try to take the path of least resistance with what (or who) we try to control — usually others, usually not our own fears and anxieties. Usually we control others and stuff around us to soothe our own fears and anxieties and or to avoid feeling and facing past hurts and traumas.

    Your post called to my mind a couple of Rilke’s poems.

    Here’s one of them —

    “The Man Watching”
    by Rainer Maria Rilke

    I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
    so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
    that a storm is coming,
    and I hear the far-off fields say things
    I can’t bear without a friend,
    I can’t love without a sister

    The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
    across the woods and across time,
    and the world looks as if it had no age:
    the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
    is seriousness and weight and eternity.

    What we choose to fight is so tiny!
    What fights us is so great!
    If only we would let ourselves be dominated
    as things do by some immense storm,
    we would become strong too, and not need names.

    When we win it’s with small things,
    and the triumph itself makes us small.
    What is extraordinary and eternal
    does not want to be bent by us.
    I mean the Angel who appeared
    to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
    when the wrestler’s sinews
    grew long like metal strings,
    he felt them under his fingers
    like chords of deep music.

    Whoever was beaten by this Angel
    (who often simply declined the fight)
    went away proud and strengthened
    and great from that harsh hand,
    that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
    Winning does not tempt that man.
    This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
    by constantly greater beings.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, John, for your generous comments, and for the Rilke, which was new to me.

      My favorite line — “What we choose to fight is so tiny!” — reminds me of a sticky note I recently taped to my computer monitor. “Choose discomfort,” it says. It’s there to remind me that (a) my usual, unconscious priority is the path of least resistance, and (b) taking it is not always good for me. In fact the parts of my life that have been the most important and most rewarding — like marriage and parenting and writing and my clinical work — have also been the most demanding and difficult. But the controlling part of me (the part I call the inner monkey) loves to avoid all that and seek ease and comfort instead. “Listen — are you breathing just a little bit, and calling it a life?” writes Mary Olivor. The older I get, the more aware I become of that danger.

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