(Talk #4) Weapon of choice: The roots of control addiction

The Plan B Talks

I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it.  It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #4) Weapon of choice: The roots of control addiction.  Questions and feedback welcome.

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We come now to the last of the three metaphors: control addiction.

I said earlier that control addiction is my favorite explanation for human behavior.

That’s because it explains so much of what we feel and do as adults.

It also combines the first two metaphors – Plan A and the inner Kid – in a theory of how we develop emotional problems.

Plan A, remember, is that set of adaptations we developed as kids for dealing with feelings, relationships and life in general.  And the Inner Kid is that authentic part of us which gets driven into hiding by the process of socialization.

Well, every Plan A is based on control.

And every wounded Kid gets triggered into compulsive controlling.

Since we all have a Plan A, and we all carry a wounded Kid inside, we are all, ultimately, control addicts.

Control & controlling

Some definitions to start with:

Control means the ability to edit reality – to make people, places and things (ourselves included) behave the way we want.

A craving for control is hardwired into us.  It’s rooted in our big brains – brains that remember and anticipate, analyze and plan, worry and obsess – brains which, in fact, have a life of their own and cannot stop doing any of those things. 

It works this way: 

Moment to moment, we each carry a picture in our heads of the reality we want.  And we constantly compare that picture to the reality we have.

Everything we do to bring those two into alignment — the reality we want and the reality we have — is what I call controlling.

We seek control constantly.  We do it in our heads, our speech and our behavior.  We do it in ways big and small, obvious and disguised, healthy and unhealthy.  Sometimes we do it consciously, but most of our controlling is both unconscious and automatic.

We can’t help ourselves.

Huge & 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 elephant’s 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 in the mouth.  Flatter someone.  Seduce someone.  Lie.  Hide our true feelings.  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 most secret crannies of our mind.  We chase it consciously and unconsciously, creatively and destructively, wisely and stupidly, from birth until death.

As I said, we can’t help ourselves.  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.  An urge 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?

It also structures our emotional lives. 

More specifically, it causes most of our pain.

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. 

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.

Control vs power

Finally, control is very different from power.

The two words are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

In some ways, they’re opposites.

One difference is that power is possible, but control is often an illusion.

Another is that power can set you free, while controlling can make you crazy.

Again, control means the ability to edit reality, to get life itself to meet our expectations.  But power (as I use the word) means the ability to get your needs met.  To take care of yourself.  To not just survive, but to heal, grow and be happy.

And as difficult as it may be to attain this sort of power, it’s easier than forcing reality to meet your expectations.

An example of the difference:

Imagine your rich uncle dies suddenly and leaves you control of his multinational corporation.  You wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bucks, Inc.

You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire, buy and sell, build plants or close them, approve product lines, mount advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.

How do you feel?

If you’re like me, you feel crippled by anxiety. Bewildered and overwhelmed by your new responsibilities. Disoriented. Panicked.

Anything but in control.

Now imagine you decide, “To hell with this.  I quit.  I’m going home to eat a sandwich and take a nap.”

How do you feel now?

Notice that in this situation you gain power by giving up control.

Often we seek control when it’s power that we really want and need.  But since we never distinguish the two, we end up chasing the wrong one.  Which can be disastrous.

 As a recovering control addict I’ve learned two essential differences between control and power.

~ Control focuses outward, at other people, places and things. So control-seeking pulls me away from myself, away from self-awareness and self-care.   The more controlling I am, the more I lose touch with me, and the more preccupied I become with my environment.  This leads to worry and frustration and exhaustion and helplessness.   

But power focuses inward, on my own needs, thoughts and feelings.  So developing power is all about developing the ability to know, understand and accept myself.  And this leads to self-awareness and self-acceptance.

~ Control works paradoxically.   People who depend on having control to feel safe and happy don’t feel safe or happy most of the time.  Even when you get control, you can’t keep it for long.  Chasing control is like chasing a train you can never catch.  

Power, though — rooted in healthy, intelligent self-care — is something you really can learn and practice.   Like a muscle which, if you exercise it, grows stronger over time.

The roots of control

So how do we get so confused?  Why do we end up chasing control when what we really need is power?

Part of the answer is what I mentioned above: our big brains.

But another part has to do with the experience of childhood.

Psychoanalyst Alan Wheeler writes, “We all start out weak in the hands of the strong.”  We have no power as kids, no ability to take care of ourselves.  We need big people to feed us and wash us and protect us and comfort us when we’re upset or scared.

And inevitably we use control to make sure they do those things.  

Control is our only weapon against helplessness.  We learn this early on, even before we have language.  We begin to learn it the first time we cry and mom picks us up and feeds us or changes our diaper. 

“Hey,” we realize.  “What I do affects what she does.”

So we begin collecting data about how to get other people to treat us the way we want and not treat us the way we don’t.

We learn thousands of ways. 

Want mom to love you?  Don’t talk back.  Want dad to be proud of you?  Get straight A’s.  Want Teacher’s approval? Do your homework.  Want to avoid being bullied?  Make friends with the tough kid.

This is how kids navigate life.  For a kid, there’s no other way.

That’s why every Plan A is based on control.

Weapon of choice

Of course, at some point we’re supposed to grow up and develop some power.

Supposed to become able to express, take care of, and stand up for ourselves.

But many of us don’t.  Many of us — especially those who’ve been abused, neglected or traumatized — stay stuck in kid mode.

We continue relying on control to get our needs met and to manage relationships.  We keep seeking approval and avoiding rejection.  We hide who we are, bury our real feelings, put on a mask, and try our damnedest to be what we think others want us to be. 

Most of the time we do this without realizing we’re doing it.  It’s our Plan A and it just feels normal. 

But we’re acting, in effect, like kids. 

And if we want to be healthy adults it’s essential to notice that while kids cannot help but fall into controlling, adults have a choice. 

Adults can learn to function more like adults.

Which means learning how to

~ stop controlling what we can’t control anyway,

~ listen to ourselves and use what we hear to make choices,

~ identify and express our feelings,

~ parent the inner Kid inside us (instead of hiding or abusing it),

and

~ be our authentic selves in relationships.

Adults can exchange the kid’s only weapon against helplessness for more effective ways of thinking, feeling and coping.

Adults can develop a Plan B.

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Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.

 


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