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About the cover




Control Issues

How to turn control struggles into cooperation, and controlling people into partners

by Joanie Connors



The struggle for control has always been prominent in human affairs, but only recently have we begun to talk about it. Control struggles are a big part of news reports about what is going on in our world, and a big part of popular entertainment dramas (both fictional and nonfictional) as different people struggle for money, sex, resources, information or public attention. There are control issues in every facet of our lives as we face control struggles in relationships, parent-child issues, work, community resources and in our government.

Despite the negative images conjured by terms such as "control struggle" or "control freak," control is not a bad thing in itself. The essence of control means simply using your influence to assure that your needs are met. In a chaotic world, control means managing the elements and forces that help us survive, and problems occur only when people overdo it and go to extremes. Under-control is also a problem, because not saying or doing anything to control what's happening around us can lead to harm by allowing neglect, chaos or destruction.

Control of resources and guarding our territory were necessary for survival back when we lived in caves and had to worry about survival and competition for food sources. Banding together as tribes in order to surround ourselves with allies became an essential way to protect ourselves and our families, so control of our followers, competitors and resources became an important way to cope with a scary and difficult world.

Serious problems can result, though, when control takes over and gets out of balance. Control can become an obsession that dominates our lives and interactions, and it often causes a tremendous amount of damage when it overwhelms other concerns. Extremely high and low control patterns are behind many mental illnesses, most relationship problems, and much of the social chaos that threatens the stability of our society (for example, greed).

Moderate but balanced levels of self-control are definitely linked to better mental health and well-being. Hospital patients, the elderly and the dying maintain better physical and mental health when they have a vote in what happens to them, and can choose to be in their own home if they desire. Employees perform better when their voices are included in decisions at work, and students are more motivated when they have choices in their studies.

While we have learned a little about recognizing and managing control, there are many kinds and levels of control that we still do not see. Control is like water, part of the structure of our daily lives, so it is hard to separate out its influence, even when it is causing damage to our goals and those we love.



Controlling Personality Types


The primitive survival needs that trigger controlling behavior are sometimes accompanied by fear and anxiety that turn control into a desperate obsession that blots out reasoning. Many mental disorders have fear-based control needs at their core and trigger dysfunctional patterns for trying to deal with those needs and feelings. It may be that early in life, these people experienced painful ordeals or abuse and learned bad habit responses for coping that stuck. At heart, controllers are trying to hold onto the good and push away the bad, but they tend to rely on primitive responses like grasping, denial and abuse to accomplish these.

Control habits that are formed in response to early traumas can be extremely hard to change, even when they lead to misery in one's present life. The most dysfunctional overcontrol styles can often be so habitual that the person is not aware of what he or she is doing.

People who are caught up in these patterns are often consumed by the need to control in order to avoid blinding fears or unbearable pain. There are many such dysfunctional overcontrol styles that cause misery, despair and loneliness, but here are just a few of them:

Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OC) — There are two categories of people with OC, but both are consumed with control issues and so tend to have great difficulty with relationships and basic coping with life. One OC type is primarily focused on controlling people, and the other primarily focused on controlling the environment, but either can cause deep unhappiness. OC controllers generally feel deep anxiety about needing to maintain control and may fall into internal chaos when they don't get their way.

Misers and hoarders — Misers and hoarders are people who obsessively hold onto what they possess, whether it is money or stuff. The difference is that hoarders hold onto everything, even used and worthless things, to the point of extreme clutter, filth and distress, while misers hold onto money and things of value. Both report fear of being without, and both treat things as more important than people, which often drives loved ones away.

Anorectics — People with anorexia nervosa, or anorectics, are obsessed with controlling food and their bodies. They think about food constantly, often study cookbooks and cook for others, but deny food to themselves with rigidity until they starve. They frequently engage in power struggles with parents, spouses and doctors who try to make them eat, or fight with themselves over their hunger or desire to change. Many cause physical damage to themselves rather than give up their control over food, and there is a high risk of dying when they "win."

Sadists and child sex abusers — Sadists and child sex abusers enjoy having absolute control over the object of their desire. Their need to control their victims overwhelms their empathy for their suffering or their sense of guilt. Child sex abusers can be extremely cruel, threatening and harmful to children in order to control them for their sick needs. Many sadists look for extremely pliable sex partners and treat them as children.

Substance abusers — Substance abuse is about control of feelings, and much of the behavior of addicts is focused on controlling both people and the environment to get access to alcohol and/or their drug of choice in order to keep their feelings at bay. They manipulate and exploit people (even their own children) to ensure their access to their addictions, and can become enraged, abusive and violent to anyone who gets in the way.

Those who suffer from overcontrol disorders such as these deeply affect those in their families and inner circles. Even when friends and family are not directly abused, they frequently feel deep resentment about revolving their lives around someone else's incessant needs, or torment themselves with guilt about what results whenever they do not do as they're told. Loving someone who needs to control you can be a tremendous burden that few can bear for very long without negative consequences.



Relationship Control Issues


All relationships are a dance of many dynamics as people come close, pull away, circle around, watch each other's moves and then respond. The dance can be about closeness, money, commitment or investment in the relationship, but control is often the goal.

For couples, the control dance is often about who controls common aspects of their lives (what to eat, how to deal with children, where to live, what to spend money on, the TV remote). That control may be overtly fought for or just the result of who is naturally pushier and more dominating. If decision making and control of resources (especially money) are not talked about, then control goes to whoever takes it through being bossy or persistent. Sometimes bullying (hitting, threats) is used to gain control of money or other essential things (the car).




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