Many of us get stuck in control strategies. I’m going to help you identify whether you are a “controller” and what costs this has for you. I’ll connect the dots between control and trauma and also a larger transpersonal/spiritual view that helps us soften our need for control.
It’s a bit sensitive to point out to those with a controlling strategy their need for control (unless they agree to it or are in recovery). It is also a bit restrictive to label someone by their strategy, but this what all descriptions of types do. Here are 7 pointers to help you identify controllers.
- Controllers have trouble letting go of anything that isn’t just right—be it the lighting, the loudness of others’ voices, being knocked off their schedule. There is little margin for adapting to things. Adapting takes them out of what they mistake as their safety zone—the state of actively managing (i.e. controlling) everything.
- Controllers don’t like not having a say. They’ve got to find at least one corner of the map to stamp with their own brand, one way that any interpersonal decision becomes theirs.
- Controllers often have an intense reaction to others who are playing out a control strategy or even simply carrying out their own authority. There is immediate and automatic resistance to someone else calling the shots and taking away their autonomy. It’s like the young child who shouts, “You’re not the boss of me!”
- Controllers give instruction when none is needed. Just because. If you can feel like the one in charge, it keeps helpless or one-down feelings at bay. It supports a brittle ego.
- Controllers resist others pointing out unnecessary instruction and rationalize why their input was needed.
- Controllers have a hard time collaborating and co-creating, even though they may like to be part of group projects. Unfortunately, in the controller’s mind, if you are not top dog you feel like underdog, which needs to be avoided. This resistance to feeling controlled by others makes it hard to relax and go with the flow.
- Controllers often take the initiative, which can be a good thing, but their attachment to the outcome leads to lobbying for their suggestions or insisting on them rather than offering.
If you are a controller, it was probably painful to read this list.
Costs of the Control Strategy
While there are many things I can control—what I have for breakfast, when I get up, which internal nudges I respond to, wisdom requires differentiating between these and what I don’t have control over, which generally involves other people and larger situations. When we get caught trying to control this latter category, we pay a price. That price includes:
- Feelings of shame, impotence, futility, despair
- Immense frustration (like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole)
- A sacrifice of peace and well-being
- Relationships suffer. Others don’t feel respected and aren’t honored in their own sovereignty when we take over.
- Undoubtedly our health suffers from any type of rigidity, this being one.
Trauma and the need for control
Trauma, by definition, involves something incredibly threatening which we cannot effectively defend against. It is helplessness, writ big. If we can and do take action that mitigates the situation, we are less traumatized and have fewer emotional scars, fewer trauma symptoms.
It is totally understandable that trauma survivors get caught in a control strategy. For trauma victims, bad things happened when you were not in control, and by God, you don’t want anything that horrific to happen again! In your efforts to control the people and events around you, you are trying to dig out of the helplessness and disempowerment central to trauma.
Our preoccupation with control
It seems human culture has always been focused on controlling outcomes and has most often seen that outcome as entirely a matter of human engineering. We define those who are successful as those who reach desired outcomes and mistakenly credit this entirely to them.
I would remind you that many of our most celebrated artists know better. They understand that their work is good because of what comes through them and do not fall into the trap of trying to appropriate that grace. Ego is humble enough to bow rather than so brittle and insecure that it needs to take credit for everything. (Remind you of a certain politician right now?)
A transpersonal view: Ego as control freak
The word transpersonal means beyond the personal. Beyond the usual egocentric view. The egocentric view is that it is all up to me–some doer and decider who lives inside. Transpersonal views say that while this is our common experience, it is only a partial view. Ego is only part of a larger stream. In this analogy, ego is like a drop of water in a stream thinking it should control where the stream is going.
Thus ego, by nature and out of misunderstanding, is a Control Freak.
Much of spiritual work and even transpersonal psychology is loosening the grip of this ego-self and reconnecting with the larger field. The more we feel the holding in this field, the easier it is for ego to relax and not have to control everything. This is, in essence, the spiritual solution to a runaway ego and its frantic attempts at over-control.
Here are the take-aways that I hope you get from this piece (if you don’t mind my being controlling):
- You have likely come by your control strategy honestly, which means it is a normal defense to something painful in your history. We aren’t born control freaks.
- Although well-intended, this strategy is actually quite costly.
- Control is largely illusion when it comes to anything outside a small circle of your personal decisions.
- All is not lost if you let go of control. There is a larger intelligent field that you are part of that can steer you more wisely than your own very narrow view.
An old Celtic blessing: May the wind be always at your back.
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