December 11, 2018 Carole Levy

Five paradoxes about our controlling tendencies


Our inclination to avoid threats or conquer them, to stabilize or perfect our environment, or to make the unknown known – to name just a few of our controlling tendencies have helped us to survive as a species, yet are also at the core of our human suffering, since we impulsively aspire to control what keeps changing. 

Spending a lot of time and energy pushing for our preferences, and resisting our aversions, we are less and less effective in a world that appears more and more unpredictable – even sometimes, out of control.

In order to explore new paradigms of beingthat will help us navigate through modern times, it is useful to explore first the tensions inherent in our “control and command” box.

Here are five paradoxes that illustrate the tensions and limitations of our controlling tendencies:

1- We want to be in the flow of life – when external circumstances and our best selves organically unfold – but we freak out as soon as something unexpected happens, and we label it “bad news.” 

For instance, I’ve just learned that our family needs to move out of the house we’ve been living in for 12 years. Did I embrace the news as an opportunity to move life energy, sort through my closets, purge my papers, and create space for a new fresh chapter? No. I freaked out. I forget that being in the flow of life includes navigating through the bumps. And bumps are also springboards.

2- We love controlling others, but we hate being controlled by them. 

For instance, I love telling my husband what is good for his health, what to eat, which exercises to do, when to go to bed, which books to read or which counselor to see, but I hate being told not to leave the sponge in the sink. I hate being lectured by him. Or by anyone. Frankly, who does?

3- The more anxious we are about controlling our external images, the less we can control our internal mind-chatter, and ultimately other’s perceptions of us.

For instance, some of us carefully choose our words before speaking up in a team meeting. If we don’t say exactly what we want to say, or if we perceive disapproval or indifference in others’ eyes, we experience a tsunami of mind-chatter. (See my old series on mind-chatter). We get lost in the confusion of our negative thoughts about ourselves and others, and literally leave the room, disappearing into our own mind. Then we have no clue about what is being said. If our work was finally acknowledged or praised by others, too bad, we missed it! 

4- The more we want to control others, the more we are at the mercy of their resistance and erratic behaviors when they are trying to escape our control. The more we become erratic too.

For instance, the more I want my husband to sit down with me on Friday afternoon to take stock of our weekly work priorities, the more he becomes interested in doing the laundry. The greater his resistance, the more I want to control everything: our five-year work vision, household chores, college tours for our daughter, vacations in France, natural disasters in California, and inevitably,  issues about our retirement.

At work, the more team members are trying to avoid the micro-managing behaviors of their supervisors, the more their supervisors want to micro-manage them. A typical self-fulfilling prophecy that creates lots of pain on both sides. 

5- The more we want to control and perfect others for the greatest good, the less we achieve the greatest good, and the less others love us – sadly.

For instance, my husband says: “- You have a better chance to achieve the greatest good by creating a connection with me and developing a satisfactory collaboration, rather than by imposing on me what you absolutely believe is the right thing to do.” I say: “- Intellectually, I know you’re right, but emotionally, why would I let go of my way and the excellent results I know it will produce, in favor of choosing a messy shared waythat offers no guarantee of good results?” He says: “- It’s because:

  • You’re exhausted (due to your exaggerated sense of responsibility to fix the world)
  • You’re lonely (due to the stressful and demanding environment you create around you)
  • You have chronic anxiety (due to the uncertainty of controlling the outcome you want)
  • You experience pervasive resentment (due to others not doing what you want)
  • You lack joy (due to all of the above)

He has some points. 

What do you think? As a leader or a partner, do you have success stories about letting go of your controlling tendencies?  What did you do? Why was it important to change? Please, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Comments (5)

  1. Susan Isa Efros

    Love it! It’s so relatable and right on. And I love the way it looks on the page with the highlighted blocks of color. Cheers up a difficult subject!

  2. Ron Peterson

    “bumps are also springboards”… this is everything.

    The characteristics of a controlling person written here (anxious, lonely, lack of joy) really helped me to be more passionate for the controlling people in my life. Thank you.

    I’ve had managers who have actually prided themselves on being “micromanagers”, and I’ve had hands-off laissez-faire managers as well. I definitely prefer the later, but the sweet spot is somewhere in between where they create a safe container in which I can explore and grow on my own.

    As much as I’d like to think that I’m a laid back person, I constantly have to manage my own need for control. When colleagues start responding to me with “Yes Sir,” I know that I’ve gone off the rails. But when I see it, I call it and always apologize. It’s a never ending battle.

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