What is it like to be a control freak?

Who's pulling my strings now?

By Gerald Alper

The first thing is no one thinks of themselves as a control freak. They just think there's always something they must do. No one thinks they're paranoid. They just think there's something or someone who's inexplicably poisoning them. No one thinks they’re hateful. It's just that all the people they meet really are disgusting. No one thinks there a sadist. It just that nothing beats the look of shame on someone's face when they do that special thing they do to them. And, of course, no one thinks they’re rapist. They’re just snatching the love they must have, that has always been denied them. 

The language that patients use may not be the language of science — the dreary laundry lists of behavioral traits comprising of the new DSM-V — but it is the language of life. So I always remember the impulse ridden man, desperately wanting me to understand what it was like to be him: "it's like the phone never stops ringing, even when I answer it." I once devoted an entire book (The Puppeteers: Studies of Obsessive Control/Alper) to the subject. Here, I want to present the simplest, yet deepest picture of a state of mind — that in our digitalized, information – driven, data – obsessed, cerebral world — is ubiquitous.

First, what counts is a preoccupation with issues of control, an anxious need to gain power over oneself and others, a dread of failing to do so and of being irresistibly manipulated. This is not control in any adaptive sense of healthy defenses and autonomous self – regulating. It is the compulsion to get the upper hand that often results in human behavior becoming so stilted that it is seen essentially as a technique or a strategy rather than a process.

When behavior is thought of this way, it is often conceived of as a discrete unit: something that is being pushed or pulled along, like cars on a train, by a unitary force. It is characteristic of such behavior that there is neither time nor inclination to contemplate a nuanced, contextual point of view. Characteristic of this frame of mind is that it feels goaded by urgency and crisis, and uses motivation as a kind of trigger: there is only one button to press and it is a question of finding it.

Someone who feels controlled by something or somebody feels abused. He harbors the paranoid suspicion that if he were more respected he would be granted more space. Feeling controlled can become confused with being intruded upon. It is (as mentioned) as though there was a telephone or doorbell ringing in the mind that won't stop. The implication is that one cannot fight off the intruder (and make it stop ringing) and is therefore weak. Or maybe the voice that is insistently calling knows something, and the message that is begging to be delivered is one that should be listened to. Maybe there's something that had better be done that is not being done.

Feeling controlled, therefore, feels like being pressured. Feeling pressured feels like being badgered. Feeling battered feels like being punished. And feeling punished feels like being bad: It is easy to believe that if only one had more self-control, there would not be this need for an outside agency (or an accusing inner voice) to take over.

And it is because such a person experiences the controlling influences as a kind of low-grade alarm, that is constantly going off, it is almost impossible to feel that it is safe to leave well enough alone and allow one’s life to unfold spontaneously (and smell the roses). Nothing seems more obvious than that there must be activity and change, and that life is a matter of push and pull, of levers and manipulation, of causes and effects, of whether you wind up as a puppet or a puppeteer.

No one who feels continuously harassed can avoid feelings of being depressed, unloved, and unfairly taken advantage of (e.g. Rodney Dangerfield’s classic complaint, “I get no respect”). The suspicion grows that life is unfair, that there is little real mercy, and the lesson to be learned is that whenever there is power it will be used. The cynical belief grows that relief from pressure will come only from meeting force with force, controlling what controls; that you will never be nurtured, that nothing will ever be given to the self when you are perceived as a victim.

Feeling excessively controlled, therefore, breeds a survivor psychology and automatically reinforces existing narcissistic tendencies. Behavior is perceived as effortful, since effort is needed to overcome whatever is holding one back, and accordingly cannot be easy or fluid.  Instead, there is the pragmatic sense that what happens is the product of dynamic forces and conflicting strategies. And not surprisingly, it is difficult to feel creative when feeling controlled only because the required space and freedom for creative play are painfully absent.

Still other characteristics accompany this state of mind. There will be a need to predict the outcome of events, so as to eliminate surprise. Since the only outcome that can be tolerated is relief from pressure, waiting can entail only unwelcome suspense and anxiety. There will be an irresistible tendency, therefore to try to orchestrate the situation, to eliminate undesirable variables, and to oversee the process. It all adds up to what is classically called rigid behavior.

The underlying feeling of being controlled often results in defensively trying to produce behavior that may be perceived as a performance, a package or product. It is a corollary of this, eventually, to have a sense that one is somehow being objectified, behaviorally mechanized,  emotionally pared down, and existentially reduced, so as to better be controlled.

And in the final analysis, it is the prospect of winning that may be the greatest allure of behavioral puppetry. For there are undeniably many short – term benefits from believing that control has been won and there is no doubt as to who is in charge. Now one can concentrate exclusively and comfortably on outcomes, dispensing entirely with development and process, which means that a great deal less has to be contended with. Since the goal of interpersonal relationships is clearly nonreciprocal, this means sooner or later there’ll be an expectation of resistance. But this also means that one will be struggling only with defense mechanisms: experience of the other is therefore irrelevant, except as it impinges upon operational defenses. Part of the security of being in control is that one also has control over who does the rejecting and does not have to worry about abandonment. To the extent that the person in command can orchestrate and dictate the tempo of a relationship, there’s even partial control of time. And then lastly there is the belief that one is autonomous because empowered — yet another illusion, insomuch as real freedom is freedom from the need to control.

Excessively to control behavior – of oneself or another – promises the world and delivers almost nothing. Nevertheless, it has been and is being greedily oversold in this country. However appealing, compelling or magnetic the idea of control may superficially appear to be, it seems to me that it is always worth resisting.

For anyone wishing to pursue the latest development of these ideas, see my new book God in Therapy: What we believe when no one is watching (I Books: Alper)

Published February 11th, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.