First things first: none of the non-hip hippies is a psychologist, psychotherapist, sociologist, anthropologist or certified professional dealing with emotional health. This means that whatever you read in the articles that have to do with mental health is a mix of our own life experiences and things we have read in books and online. A couple of us are scientists though. What that really means is that we have been forced to do our fair bit of scientific research, in order to get our degrees. And these research skills can be used to shed some light on anything that interests or bothers us. In today’s show please welcome Control Issues.
What are control issues?
The term “control issues” refers to the need of people to control other people or situations. It can range from being a healthy human behavior (e.g.: I control my liqueur because I do not want to experience a hang over tomorrow) to being an obsessive disorder that compromises people’s quality of life. Both the person who is controlling and the one who is being controlled can suffer from it. It is a complex issue with many aspects and in this article I am touching upon just a few of them. The article is focused on people who are trying to control and not the ones who are being control (that might be a future article though).
Therapy and control issues
I am a big fan of psychotherapy, even though I have not done it myself (yet). I have friends and relatives whose lives have changed for the better after some sessions with psychotherapists and psychologists though. So I have seen proof that it works. Even though I am quite sure that I could benefit from a few sessions myself, I am still at this point where a long coffee with a friend helps me figure things out. I deeply believe in the power of friends in helping us if not solve, at least realize and accept our problems. I have got three of those “shrinks”. One I meet once per week over a soy latte. The other two I meet over skype with a frequency related to the severity of the issues that need to be solved. We have gone weeks without talking and we had times where we would talk daily.
It was in last week’s iced soy latte session that my friend/shrink reminded me of a fact of life that most of us tend to forget. She said something along the lines of “You cannot control anyone else but yourself”. It was the conclusion of a discussion about people behaving in ways that irritate us, annoy us, disappoint us and the like. It made an impression on me that I failed to realize at that moment. But then I thought more about it. It was really wise. You cannot control people. Not in the long run. It would be exhausting, trying to control others. And it is exhausting for people with control issues. This is why they will often seek psychiatric help, once they accept that they engage in controlling behaviors and the problem is real.
Causes of control issues
The first step that psychotherapists take is to try and find out the cause of the individual’s need to control others. The most frequently diagnosed causes of controlling behaviors are past trauma and failing relationships. To put it simply, people who feel that they have been used or abused in the past have a sense that they did not have control over their life. If you take a look at Project Unbreakable, a project that collects the words that people who sexually assaulted others told to their victims -now survivors- you might be shocked to notice the high number of incidents of sexual abuse within the family. Now, imagine being a toddler or a teenager and forced into sexual acts with one of your parents or other relatives. Imagine how, growing up, you feel that you had no control over your own body. The same happens to people who get raped by strangers, to men and women who get verbally or physically abused by their partners, to children whose parents have addiction issues and take it out on them in various ways. Feeling that you did not have control over your body, mind, life, happiness can leave a deep scar in one’s soul and self esteem.
As for failing relationships, people tend to feel that if they find a way to control their partner, he/she will not leave them. Or they will not drift apart. We see in the movies stories about how a woman gets pregnant to keep her lover from leaving her. Or how a guy will blackmail his girlfriend that if she leaves him, he will kill himself. As cliche as that might sound, art does imitate life in these cases. Blackmail, even if it is subtle and even subconscious, like trying to make the other person feel guilty, is not a rare phenomenon in human relations. Failing relationships often come with anxiety, self-esteem issues, jealousy. The person who feels fear of being abandoned might even end up self-harming or develop addiction.
Addiction is quite a common reaction to a break-up or a friendship that ended in the case of unhealthy attachment. If the attached person loses the partner/friend, they experience feelings that closely resemble withdrawal symptoms. Much like a smoker who decides to quit often replaces cigarettes with food, an attached person will often replace their expressions of affection for the person who is gone with food/ alcohol/ drugs. By (ab-) using such substances, the person feels comforted, while at the same time has a sense of control. Alcohol can not leave you the way a person can. It can kill you in the long run, of course, but this is of no interest for the person who feels abandoned. What matters is the sense of control.
As for self-harming, which is becoming more and more common among teenagers, it is a quite complex issue. A teenager or adult might self harm because they seek attention. This is often the case with people who feel unloved. But it can also be used as a way to control one’s emotions and feelings. Cutting gives the person who cuts a feeling of power for two main reasons. One: the pain from cutting distracts them from whatever emotional distress they are dealing with. And two: they have control over pain. They decide when it will start and when it will end, as they are the ones doing the cutting. Here is a very interesting article about self-harming.
Social stigma of mental illness
It is good to keep in mind that both addiction and self-harming are often linked with mental illness, so they should not be ignored if you observe them at yourself or your loved ones. Mental illness is an umbrella term that covers many different conditions and unfortunately in most countries people who suffer from a mental illness are considered as dangerous lunatics by society. However most of us have suffered or will suffer at some point in our lives. Half of the western population is on medication for anxiety or depression and it does not seem to get any better with unemployment, financial uncertainty and burn-outs being part of our daily lives. So try and make the distinction in your head and be mindful about calling anyone with a mental illness with insensitive names.
Accepting that you are not in control of anyone else but yourself
Control issues can also be linked to a mental disorder like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But what I want to talk about here is the every-day control issues that the average person deals with, and not conditions that require medical intervention.
So back to my friend’s wise reminder, that “you cannot control anyone else but yourself”. This phrase made me realize that I do indeed have control issues. They are not serious and they do not compromise my quality of life. They even help me out in some ways. My deep need to be in control of my time has led me to be a good professional and not miss deadlines. My need to be in control of my career has led me to do conscious career choices and work towards a specific goal. Trying to be in control means that I do not lose planes or trains, I do not run out of milk and I do not forget people’s birthdays. However, it also means that I get extremely impatient and irritated if I need to collaborate with other people and they are not on time. Team work kills me if I do not trust that the people that I am going to work with will deliver their part of the work on time and in the best possible quality. I cannot stand it when my friends show up late in the cafeteria and I even used to think that it is a sign of disrespect. Talk about issues!
I believe that my control issues have to do with the way I was brought up, by a very structured family with clear goals. It also has to do with the fact that a couple of times people did waste my time being extremely inconsiderate about the effect that it had on my life plans. This pissed me off big time and I decided that since life is small, better be a nagging pain to others than allow them to waste your time, just to be nice. However, even though obsession with time control might have it’s positive aspects, this is not at all the case with trying to control people.
I have never consciously tried to control people’s emotions or behavior. But the older I get, the more I recognize instances in my past when I thought that “If I treat them nicely, they might change” or that “I will be cold and distant and that will teach them a lesson”. But this is not how it works. People will be who they are. And even if you manage to manipulate their behavior for a while, is it really worth the effort to keep doing it? In my opinion, no. Not at all. And this was the time in my life where I did a “Spring cleaning” and my friends were narrowed down to five from fifteen, that were before. Of course, if you need to put all the effort in a friendship and once you stop, the friendship is gone -I am sorry to break the news to you- the friendship was never there in the first place. It is so relieving to realize that you cannot make people like you. You cannot make people love you. And it is relieving because then you get this second wave of realizations: the people who actually love and like you, really do!
That does not mean of course that you can treat people like crap and they will still like you. And it doesn’t work that way exactly because the same way that you cannot make people like you, the same way you cannot prevent people from hating you, if you are a horrible person. Oh, and you cannot prevent them from being horrible either. But you can control your own self! And here comes the good part: You have unlimited control over who you choose to be in your life. And this should be enough. It is pretty easy: loving people in, toxic people out. Sure, it will take a while before you accept that you can not control -therefore- change toxic people. And they are most of the time interesting and charming, and that is why you still keep them around. But you will feel so liberated once you liberate yourself from their presence.
Additionally, there are people in our lives whom we do not choose. It might be your boss, a colleague, the partner of a friend or a friend of your partner. Those people you cannot take out of your life, even if you would be willing to. So what do you do in that case? Again, remember that you have control over yourself and you have no control over them and accept it. You cannot change the way they see you, but you can change the way they behave to you. Your boss might be an awful person who kills puppies for pleasure and you cannot do something about it. But if he kills puppies in the office and that makes you uncomfortable, then you have control over the situation. You can clearly say that it disturbs you, it is illegal and he should stop. See my point?
Past, present and future
Much like people, you can also not control time. You can only control your present. Once you realize that, life becomes much easier. Of course, it is not always easy to accept that you cannot change the past, especially if traumatic experiences are part of it. At first it might seem the hardest thing to do, to just accept that you have been abused/raped/lied to etc. But it is much harder to hold on the false belief that you can change that. Similarly about the future, you can not control it. Yes, you can make plans and work towards them, but the world we live in is so complex that there is really no guarantee that your plans will go through in the end. But you can control your present. You can do your best and try and be happy/calm/creative/productive/positive here and now. Indulging into feelings of self-pity and hoping that you will feel better later will not take you anywhere.
It is true that we cannot be happy all the time. This would also be an indication of some kind of mental disorder. After all if you have an average level of IQ and EQ, you cannot be indifferent towards all sorts of disasters that take place every day around the world. But you can control yourself. You can control for how long you will allow yourself to experience negative feelings until you take action towards changing this mood. Mood swings are part of the human nature. But being aware of them gives you the power to control them. You cannot control your past or future feelings. But you can accept what you felt, explore why you felt it and learn from it. We can learn from feelings the same way we can learn from our mistakes. But we need to find their cause and their root.
To summarize, you can learn from the past, control the present and plan parts of the future, while accepting that these plans might or might not go through.
If you are extremely anxious about the future and you cannot control your impulse of planning everything, at least make some back-up plans as well, in case the original ones fail. If you realize that you are spending way too much time on making back up plans for the back up plans or that these thoughts about the future are constantly nagging you and compromise your levels of concentration and performance in your work and everyday life, then it is time to talk with a specialist. The same goes of course if you observe that you obsess about the past and your inability to control it. If you feel angry about this fact and have a hard time accepting it, start by talking to a friend and if this is not enough, then do consult a psychologist.