Control—exerting influence over one’s environment or the actions or behaviors of another person—is sometimes used excessively by those who fear the unpredictable and ambiguous, feel they need to prove themselves, or fear losing control. An incessant need for control may become overwhelming and exhausting, wreaking havoc on relationships, careers, and overall quality of life.
Control is typically a reaction to the fear of losing control. People who struggle with the need to be in control often fear being at the mercy of others, and this fear may stem from traumatic events that left them feeling helpless and vulnerable. As a result, they many crave control in disproportionate and unhealthy ways. The experience of abuse or neglect, for example, can make people look for ways to regain control of their lives, and sometimes victims lash out at other people in their lives.
The need for control drives people to turn to the external world in order to find things they can control. They may be compelled to micromanage and orchestrate the actions and behaviors of others, or maintain rigid rules regarding routine, diet, or cleanliness and order. For instance, people who are physically or psychologically abusive inflict pain on loved ones in the form of ridicule, isolation, restrictions, or physical or sexual assault, because they themselves are in pain, though this pain is often deeply buried and unacknowledged.
Control issues may be related to:
- Traumatic or abusive life experiences
- A lack of trust
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- Fears of abandonment
- Low or damaged self-esteem
- A person's beliefs, values, and faith
- Perfectionism and the fear of failure
- Emotional sensitivity and the fear of experiencing painful emotions
There are myriad ways in which people might attempt to control their environment, themselves, or others. People exert power over others in intimate relationships, workplace settings, families, and other social groups.
Examples of exerting control over others:
- Keeping a person from seeing or talking to loved ones or friends
- Over-protective or helicopter parenting
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, bullying, or taunting
Examples of controlling self or environment:
- Disordered eating
- Compulsive exercising
- Substance abuse
- Compulsive arranging, tidying, or cleaning
Addressing control issues in therapy involves unraveling the source of the need for control. The client and therapist work together to address the underlying fear, emotions, or anxiety, and develop coping strategies. This process of increasing self-awareness can help a person begin relinquishing the need for control.
Therapy can help a person identify the self-protective nature of the need for control. Perhaps the person’s parents were absent or emotionally unavailable in childhood, or maybe his or her childhood home was not a place of stability. Emotional or physical instability and a lack of choices or autonomy can lead a person to seek control over other aspects of life. Recognizing and addressing this source of distress will help the person cultivate self-compassion and embrace that part of the self that needs protection.
- Addressing control issues in court-ordered therapy: Zach, 33, is court-ordered to 15 therapy sessions after he is charged with domestic violence against his girlfriend. In counseling, the therapist works with Zach to address his problematic thought and behavior patterns, especially his strong need to control others around him. Zach learns relaxation and anger management skills to reduce his urge to use violence to exert control over other people in his life. At the end of therapy, Zach finds he still has trouble with impulsivity. At the encouragement of his family members, Zach decides to join a support group for perpetrators of domestic violence.