The Paradox of the Need to Control

Attempting to controlWe acknowledge some people as influential. Often influential people have a kind of wisdom about the way they move and talk. They tend to be expansive, as if on a mission to create a better world.

We recognize another type of person with a less flattering term: the control freak. For the person with a high need for control, the dominant characteristic is not wisdom, but fear… They are at war with the reality that surrounds them–their community, their marriage or their workplace. They are forever trying to force these realities to be something they’re not. Their worlds become restricted and small.

As you will see, the need to control is gender neutral, but I’ll use “he” and “him” just to simplify the language. Let me list some typical characteristics of those driven to control.

The Controller

•    The controller sees life as a huge struggle that he will lose if he relaxes his vigilance.
•    He sees the world is a dangerous place, so he is permanently on guard.
•    Everyone else is unreliable.
•    Emotions are scary.
•    He expects and enforces loyalty and obedience wherever he can get it, even if it’s only from his family.
•    Much is done in secret and he expects secrecy of others. (This one is particularly prevalent among those who attempt to control their reality by abusing alcohol.)

Others may see him as
•    a bully, rather than a leader,
•    an abusive parent, rather than a parent who cares,
•    a jailer, rather than a protective parent,
•    a wife abuser, rather than husband,
•    a tyrant or dictator, rather than a strong leader,
•    a petty despot with the poker up his butt, rather than a boss, supervisor or administrator, (I’ve had a couple of those in my career)
•    a manipulator, rather than at team player.

In the extreme, the tightly-wound controller comes across as paranoid.

The whole controlling effort fails because controlling reality is an illusion. The only thing you might be able to control is yourself and your own emotions. If you are driven to try to control external reality, including other people, you will almost inevitably find yourself fighting a dangerous world populated by unreliable people.

So what do you do if you find yourself living with a controller? Or worse, what do you do if you realize you are the one with the need to control reality?

Are you the controller? Do you find yourself afraid of the discomfort of the world, or a marriage, or a life not of your choosing? Are you finding that trying harder is not changing anything, and your need to control is bringing out the worst in you?

The Controller Is not a Free Agent

The controller is not a free agent, and that is the paradox. He is under the control of his own irrational need to control. The controller is addicted to control. So the controller is subject to a double illusion: that he can alter external reality, and that he is a free agent.

If you have been living for any length of time with a controller, you too may be addicted to control. You are at war with the marriage you want to change. You manipulate, adjust, suppress feelings, avoid conflict at all cost and hide the truth, all the while trying to change his attitude towards you, his behavior and his happiness. How are you doing at changing that reality?

If you weren’t in the control game, you likely would have decided long ago whether you could accept and be at peace with your marriage, or you’d have found a way to leave it. [SIZEWARP]Staying together no matter what, is the extreme consequence of the fear-based control illusion.[/SIZEWARP]

If you suspect you are controlled by a need to control, then do what you need to do to free yourself of that irrational need. That is one decision you do have control over.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

3 thoughts on “The Paradox of the Need to Control

  1. I have decided to let family members stay mad at me and I just pray for them until they can have a peaceful attitude. I would love to be able to agree to disagree. I don’t see any sense in the unreasonable, hard-heartedness. I really love them and somewhere in their heart, I believe they love me.

  2. Need to have control is not a negative attribute because control brings about results, orderliness, and the discipline that is necessary to prevent chaos. The challenge for A types, like me, is to find the balance. I find that if one area of my life (e.g. work) is not in control then, my need to control goes up a few notches in all aspects of my life.

  3. I took a bit of offense at this description of people who suffer from a need to control, because I am researching how to help my daughter, who has this disability, but who is not the boor who is described here. Not all people with this disability are tyrants, dictators or spouse abusers. Many of these labels you give these people seem to indicate a lack of respect and true sympathy and love for such clients. Your advice too, is just a little too simplistic -just decide not to control- that’s it? You just tell all your patients, “So, just get over it,” and their problems are solved?

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