[Control] isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it can tell us something about ourselves. It can be hurtful, helpful, healing, or humbling.
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Part of what makes Jesse Thistle’s memoir From the Ashes so engaging is his straightforward and matter-of-fact storytelling style. It presents as an honest account of thoughts and events rather than a justification of the past. Instead of being handed a moral, a given story may spark reflection in the reader that leads to a deeper lesson.
I’ll give you an example.
Thistle tells a story of stealing candy from the corner store while the owner’s back was turned, and the feeling of power that accompanied it. After he avoided punishment by lying to his grandmother and manipulating her sympathies, he admitted that “…[he] had a strange and satisfying feeling of control—control [he’d] never had before.”
See what I mean? Such a straightforward and honest assessment of why he did something so seemingly frivolous. That story sparked something in me.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about control. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time getting my head around it. Perhaps this is another example of how the English language is somewhat lacking, in that the same word is used to describe concepts that are in some ways opposites. In Thistle’s example, he’s describing a sense of control imposed on something outside of himself. This kinds of control includes manipulation, coercion, and other behaviours that broadly qualify as sociopathic or abusive. It is destructive to others or to self, despite any short-term or superficial gains. A person exercising this kind of control is sometimes described as controlling.
Strangely, control is also used to describe self-mastery, an internal virtue, and the foundation of constructive endeavours.
Controlling behaviour is easy to recognize because it resides outside the self. Self-control is quiet, and demands nothing of others. The problem with calling these two types of control by the same name is that they can get confused. For instance, controlling behaviour is commonly mislabelled as assertiveness or confused with confidence, but it’s expression may betray an individual’s shortcomings. Consider an adult that yells at another to get their way. Such a tantrum highlights their powerlessness, reveals the fragility of their self-worth, and a failure to master emotional regulation in childhood. To me, someone resorting to control tactics oozes insecurity. The truly confident knows the only thing within their control is themselves. Someone who seeks to control others or their environment is probably missing something from their lives. Power over others temporarily fills that hole, but is fleeting.
I started thinking of control as an indicator of security, imagining it on a spectrum with self-mastery and security on one end, and controlling behaviour and insecurity on the other.
That was a can of worms.
It caused me to reflect on the many ways I try to control my environment and (gasp) other people, then to identify the corresponding insecurity. I’m a planner, which goes hand-in-hand with control. I like to consider hypothetical outcomes and mentally prepare for them. Until now, I hadn’t considered this might have been a childhood adaptation to endure an unpredictable adult in my life—my own way to regain control. I’m not particularly interested in changing this about myself, however, since it is how I dispel anxiety.
Who are the unfortunate people I try to control? Mostly, my children. I quite like psychologist Shefali Tsabary’s take on parenting triggers and control. In The Awakened Family, she proposes that when a parent is triggered by their children, it reveals something from their own childhood that needs further development. In this way, controlling behaviour can be used as a tool—a signal to turn our gaze inward to identify our insecurities and fulfill them in a constructive way. It takes mindfulness, and an ability to replace controlling with self-control. In the heat of the moment, this is harder than it sounds. And still hard when things cool down. It's just plain hard.
Perhaps the both constructive and destructive nature of control is part of the reason I’ve had a hard time solidifying my thoughts on this subject. It isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it can tell us something about ourselves. It can be hurtful, helpful, healing, or humbling.
I don’t think I’m not quite done thinking about this one. For the time being, though, whenever I catch myself behaving in a controlling way, I’ll try and step back and ask myself why.
What do you think? Is a sense of control a fundamental need? Or is control really just a stand in for security? Do you have any controlling behaviours that you value?
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