This quote from a fictional client conveys a message commonly confessed in therapy. When people disclose “control issues,” they may be referring to a number of problems: perfectionism, emotional numbing, codependence, compulsivity, self-destruction, substance abuse, excessive worrying, hopelessness, eating disorders, unmanaged anger, etc. It is important to understand what drives such problematic behaviors and symptoms.
Different types of beliefs underlie “control issues,” but they often have similar themes. In general, the belief that people are unable to adequately meet the challenges they face often leads to difficulties with control. We can observe such beliefs when examining harmful self-talk that reflects an inaccurate sense of how much power people think they have in their lives. People with “control issues” might underestimate the amount of power they have over their own lives, or they may overestimate the extent to which others control them.
Learned helplessness occurs when people experience inescapable, negative events leading them to believe they cannot control their lives. In 1967, Martin Seligman researched learned helplessness by shocking dogs. Those who received random shocks and were not given predictable ways to escape the pain eventually laid down and passively continued to receive shocks. Like these dogs, people sometimes learn that they are helpless to change painful situations and develop the belief that they have no control over the world around them. Individuals with PTSD and depression are especially prone to learned helplessness.
Overcontrol versus Undercontrol
People often respond to a loss of power by misdirecting their control efforts. These attempts to compensate for feelings of powerlessness often lead people to “overcontrol” or “undercontrol” aspects of the lives.
Overcontrolling behaviors may include perfectionism, compulsive behaviors, food restriction, extreme cleanliness, emotional numbing, self-harm, and excessive emphasis on achievement. Beliefs that underlie overcontrol often contain phrases like “I have to” or “I can’t” and imply unreasonable causal relationships. For example, the following are overcontrol beliefs:
- “I have to control my emotions at all times (or else I'm weak)”
- “If I don’t get a perfect grade, then I’m a failure.”
- “If I cry or lose my temper, then I am weak.”
- “I have to weigh less than 100 pounds to be happy.”
- “I can’t mess up.”
Beliefs like “I am powerless,” “I am helpless,” or “I shouldn’t bother doing anything” often lead to undercontrol behaviors. Examples of undercontrol behaviors might include allowing others to make decisions for you, almost never saying “no,” and regularly placing other people’s needs above your own. Often times, such behaviors become self-destructive and lead to interpersonal problems.
In some ways, we can view under- and overcontrol as misplaced control. Because people cannot control everything, they may put too much energy into controlling what cannot be controlled. At the same, the same people might withdraw from that which they can actually influence. For instance, the man from the earlier vignette might believe “emotions are weak” and work hard to avoid feeling anger. These attempts to gain such emotional control would likely lead him to explode, seeming like he has “a short fuse” or as though he cannot manage his anger. In reality, the control is misplaced. In this case, the man attempts to overcontrol an emotion that cannot be avoided. Consequently, when he actually feels anger, he likely exhausts his energy trying not to experience the emotion and condemning himself for "being weak." Such effort leaves few resources to effectively manage anger when it arises.
Dealing with Negative Power/Control Beliefs
Once you understand your beliefs about control, you are at a place where you can influence the feelings and behaviors that result from these thought patterns. Through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy [CBT] you can determine whether your beliefs are realistic or helpful and then arrive at more rational, healthy conclusions. For instance, the man who believes “emotions are weak” may eventually come to a different conclusion, such as “emotions are a normal and healthy part of life. They come and go and do not make me weak.”
Mindfulness-based interventions are also effective in managing maladaptive power/control beliefs. Instead of working on changing the belief, you would acknowledge (accept) that the thought arises and decide how to respond in the presence of that thought. The by-product of this acceptance, however, is often change. Like CBT, mindfulness and acceptance takes practice and such interventions often involve a variety of techniques to help you accomplish your goals. You might explore where you received messages about power/control, practice mindfulness exercises, work with metaphors, gain better understanding about how, when, and where control works, etc. Eventually, you might recognize that having the thought “I feel powerless” does not actually mean you are powerless. You can have that thought and still make decisions to be assertive, set boundaries, take control when you can, and truly let go when you cannot.