Controlling Others: Understand Our Motivation and Our Options?
When we're controlling others, we’re not being loving or honest why do we do it? What choices do we have?
By Cathryn Bond Doyle.
This article is about one aspect of human behavior called “control.” This article is not about control that takes the form of physical abuse or overt bullying. This article is about an everyday sort of control. This particular kind of control is not illegal or even necessarily wrong. It is, however, very common, second nature to some, often unspoken, sometimes justified as efficient, and is always hurtful and never good for a relationship.
Today we’re talking about control that feels like emotional blackmail and/or trickery. Simply stated, it’s when we try to “get” someone to do something they might not naturally (or normally) do or say for one reason…because WE want them to do it. We make it clear that if they don’t do what we want, they’ll somehow pay a price. Whether that price is facing our anger, feeling us withhold our love or approval or feeling punished in some other way; the recipients of our attempts at control feel this emotional pressure and may react to it in any number of ways. From complete surrender to this pressure to defiant resistance and every step in between, we’ve all been on the receiving end of being controlled. It’s not pleasant or fair and we certainly don’t feel loved by the person trying to control us.
This is the impact we have on those we try to control. It’s hurtful. I write with the assumption that we don’t want to have negative impact on others and that we want to be as kind and loving to others as possible. We can choose to stop. We can learn new ways to behave.
Please note: Alternative ways to react when others try to control us is the subject of another one of my articles, “Create freedom from the control of others.” In that article we’ll focus on our behavior and our alternatives.
Controlling others IS expedient.
Most of us grew up watching control “in action.” We all know how to give that “look” to kids or our spouse that says, “Do (or don’t do) that and I’ll be angry with you.” This kind of control often works because we know the fears and desires of the people we’re trying to control. Using this knowledge, in this way, is a manipulation and a betrayal of trust. Each time we do this, we bruise our relationships.
Over the ages, television sitcoms have made fun of controlling behaviors. They often focus on the ways women connive and men passively avoid (both forms of control). It wouldn’t be funny, but it sure would have been great for everyone involved if, for example, Lucy Ricardo said to Ricky,
“Ricky, darling, I would really love to be in your Christmas show and meet Milton Berle. Would you please help me find a way to do that? I would really appreciate your help.” Again, this wouldn’t be considered comedy but it sure would teach some great relationship skills.
Some people feel that controlling others is just the “way of the world.” “Control or be controlled” is their mantra. Someone with this worldview has been badly hurt and sadly, this behavior reinforces the belief and perpetuates more experiences.
To the degree that people are aware we’re trying to control them, they may get angry with us, and rightly so. We’re manipulating them and that‘s dishonest and hurtful. Ironically, when our attempts to control others fail, we often get angry or resentful with them. To be clear, let’s differentiate controlling behavior from healthy forms of discipline. When a parent politely tells a child to “do their chores” or answer a question and the child disregards this command, it’s not controlling to send them to their rooms for a timeout or to impose an appropriate consequence. It’s discipline to say, “Do your homework or you will lose your TV tie for tonight.” However, it’s controlling to say, “Do your homework or else” when the “or else” clearly means that you will withhold your love in some way. These words are rarely ever spoken but the intention is clear and the effects are felt. The threat of withholding love or causing emotional pain is controlling and punishing in its most cruel form.
Whether spoken or implied, the message is clear. We’ve all done this to others and we’ve experienced it from others. We know it doesn’t feel very good but we do it anyway. Why is that?
Why do we try to control others?
Although the way we control will vary some overtly, others with a passive aggressive approach, the root cause is usually the same for all of us…fear:
1. Fear of losing someone or something (love or acceptance).
2. Fear of not getting something (physical things, love, respect or approval).
3. Fear we’ll be rejected humiliated or abandoned if we do (or don’t) say something or do (or don’t) act in a certain way.
4. Fear that someone will “ruin” an experience for us.
Fear they’ll not do something the way WE would or the way we think they should.
5. Fear we’ll be hurt in the future.
6. Fear of the consequences of being direct and speaking the truth. The fear of confrontation motivates many to choose control over courage. This is understandable if, in our past, someone taught us that speaking up leads to being punished in some way.
Another impetus for control lies in a belief that our happiness and/or emotional safety are outside of our control, in someone else’s hands. When we give the power for our happiness or safety to someone else, we can feel afraid. Fear creeps in and then controlling behavior kicks in. “What can I do to GET him or her to do X or Y so I will feel less anxious, less afraid and more safe?” Whether the fear is real or imagined, our reactions are very real and they have impact on others. When we become fearful or anxious or anticipate impending anger or hurt, the desire to control becomes very strong. It’s a survival strategy. Even if we could ask directly for the support we want, more often than not we spend time figuring (plotting) ways to get someone else to do what we want them to do using the spoken or unspoken threat of withholding love or causing pain as our “secret weapon.”
This is not the kind of behavior that any of us are proud of, aware of or even eager to admit to ourselves. When we slow down our thoughts and suspend the initial urge to think someone ELSE holds the answer for us, we can become conscious of what we are really feeling and this creates an opening for new non-controlling strategies.
Case Study Example:
Two couples sit in a room with a Counselor. The divorced couple (each with a new spouse) share custody of a difficult child and can’t seem to agree on how to handle some behavioral issues. As the therapist asks the mother, “How long were you and your ex-husband married?” She says, “7 Years.” The Counselor later learns that she wasn’t telling the truth. They were married for 13 years not 7, but her ex-husband and his present wife sat there silently angry and saying nothing. Why?
Because the ex-wife controlled her ex-husband into staying silent, by threatening to abandon these meetings if anything upset her (i.e. called her on her fibs) in any way. The ex-husband controlled his new wife by threatening to be angry with her, if she did anything to make the ex-wife upset.
Both the ex-husband and his new wife lacked the courage to stand up to this woman out of the fear that her reaction would spoil their chances to work with the Counselor and resolve the problems with this child. They allowed themselves to be blackmailed “for the good of the cause.” That’s powerful! That’s controlling, dishonest and hurtful.
Why did she do that?
What fear did she feel?
When we feel ashamed or embarrassed control is an instinctive response. When we’re afraid, it takes courage and honesty to stay out of control. It takes direct, creative actions to honor our needs without having negative impact on others. One possibility…if this mother had thought about it in advance, she might have arranged to answer the questions privately prior to the session or when any uncomfortable question was posed to her, she could have simply said she didn’t want to spend this time on the past so we could get busy focusing on her child. This would have created safety for herself and hence eliminated the need to control? As you can also see, this would have required her energy, energy and integrity. Her actual approach engaged none of those qualities.
FYI: After that session, when the ex-husband and his new wife watched her tell many untruths and stayed silent to NOT upset her, she still refused to go forward. She used the reason that her ex-husband’s new wife obviously had a problem with anger (even though she had said nothing).
Controlling with kindness is still controlling.
It’s fairly easy to identify controlling behavior when we’re being bossy, hostile or just plain manipulative. However, it can be a shocker to realize that we can be controlling even when we’re doing nice things for people. The difference between being genuinely kind and being controlling is in our expectations for the outcome. Whenever we do something in order to get a specific reaction from another, we’re potentially trying to control. If we’re doing something for someone and give him or her the freedom to react any way they wish, that’s control-free giving.
How many times have we done something for someone, hoping this act of kindness will put him or her in a good mood, or make him or her happy or even just have someone not be mad at us anymore? Ever notice that when they don’t react as we hoped, we get angry or hurt or both? We all recognize that harsh, unloving feeling that comes over us when our controlling strategy doesn’t succeed. That harsh feeling comes from shutting down our hearts and the love we feel towards that person. Shutting down our hearts is only one choice we have in reaction to fear.
Alternatives to Control:
As soon as we feel that need to control, we can make a new choice. The new choice is called creative problem solving. Fearing someone else’s actions is demoralizing and enraging. Creating a new strategy to protect our own happiness and well-being is empowering and invigorating. The focus of creative problem solving is on US, what choices WE can create and what WE can do about our own circumstances. There’s a freedom we feel once we decide NOT to be at the mercy of another. There’s a confidence that comes with our newfound ability to stay safe and/or happy regardless of another person’s actions. It’s sort of an antidote for codependency!
It’s valuable to look at our situation and find new ways to meet our needs without depending on others. We can all learn this skill if we are willing to let go of control and source our own happiness. However, making new choices and creating new solutions takes effort, honesty and the willingness to try new things for the “good of the relationship.”
Looking for new solutions requires energy to think of, and to look for, new ways to get things done and accomplish our goals. It takes the willingness to make mistakes along the way and to try new behaviors so we can learn these new skills. It also takes courage to begin to ask for what we want directly, while being prepared with Plan B and C and D, if necessary, in case the person to says, “No.” Letting go of control opens our hearts without putting ourselves at risk. This opens the door for healthier relationships.
Make a new Choice:
Next time you feel fear or anxiety or find yourself strategizing about how to control another, pause for a few moments (as one of my coaches says “You can always go back to controlling.” :-) Then ask yourself the following questions:
1. Over what part of this situation do I have control?
2. What can I do to change the environment instead of trying to change the people?
3. How can I accept/respect this situation and still find another way to get my own needs met without depending on someone else?
4. What can I do to feel safer or happier while still keeping my heart open?
5, What can I do to source my own happiness?
6. What can I do to create emotional safety for myself?
A creative problem solving case study:
A mother of two college-aged kids is determined NOT to control her children during an upcoming holiday vacation. Instead of going through the usual motions of forcing everyone to have, or pretend to have fun, so that Mom doesn’t get upset, she came up with a creative solution. She sent them an email telling them all the plans she made for the entire holiday period. Her husband and friends were ready to join her (as back-up) for each event. She gave her kids the dates and times and told them they were welcome to join her for everything OR NOTHING this year.
They were delighted and they made their choices. Her gift to them was the freedom to choose without any price to pay. This wise Mom had her fun times and the kids enjoyed her openhearted affection throughout the Christmas break. No pressure. Great Solution. Isn’t that inspiring?!
As people in relationships, continue to control each other, they develop their own unique “control and counter-controlling” survival strategies. Untangling these patterns is possible if just one person is willing to stop. However, when both people agree it’s time to stop the control and start taking responsibility for their own actions, impact and happiness, while expecting and respecting the other to do the same thing honestly and directly…WOW! Miracles happen. It’s a joy to behold! It’s amazing how creative and successful we can be when we’re committed to the goal of meeting our own needs without having negative impact on others.
© 2001 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All rights reserved.