Crazy In Control: The Good, The Bad, And The Stuck

When climbing the ladder in your career or when life is demanding a lot from you, it is common to tighten up your life. No time for nonsense, stick to what works, get it done. People can become the puppet master of their lives, making sure everything runs smoothly toward their goals. Taking control of your life can be very helpful, especially when that is what needs to happen. This is similar to how you might feel after an indulgent holiday season when you HAVE to repair the damage you’ve done to your body, not to mention get your new year’s resolutions in gear.

For the most part, gaining control over outcomes in our lives is what we all want. It is the opposite of helplessness and vulnerability. The more control you have over things in your life, the more empowered you feel. However, like most things in life, there can be too much of a good thing. For some people, control is so seductive that they can get stuck in “overcontrol mode.” You can think of it as the lid of a jar that is screwed on so tight it’s very hard to open.

Exerting control in our lives is so enjoyable it can act like a drug. If I just eat a little less I can lose this many pounds in a week. If I just squeeze in one more meeting I can feel better about my job. If I stay up just a little later I can check another item off my list. If I have one more cup of coffee I can push through this last thing. If I just clean a little more I can feel this much better about my space. When I do A I can get result B and dopamine is released in the brain. You can see how this reward feedback can start a vicious cycle (much like addiction) that can throw a life out of balance.

Jessie Spano from Saved By the Bell takes caffeine pills so she can stay on top of her workload.

And the scary part is that these behaviors are not generally frowned upon, which allows them to go unchecked for years. In fact, exerting more control in our lives is frequently encouraged. Use this product to keep track of calories so you can look like THIS. The workaholic with no balance in his/her life continues to get promoted. Wow, that mom is there for her kids and husband while having a fantastic career! That’s leaning in!

That’s all fine and good for your career or your weight or running a household, but what are the consequences when we get addicted to control? Taken to the extreme, overcontrol can contribute to eating disorders, high anxiety, and chronic depression. But even outside of these scenarios, overcontrol can have real consequences. One of the biggest problems is that you are really not fun to be around, which can be confusing and isolating. If I have it so together, why don’t people want to be around me? A common scenario might be the young professional who is killing it at work but can’t seem to get it together in the dating scene despite a strong desire to end his/her loneliness.

Another scenario is when a capable entrepreneur gets stuck in overcontrol mode. He/she can start to obsess about the details, forget to delegate, become unlikeable to business partners/employees, lose creativity, avoid risks, and not be flexible to the changing needs of customers. The once promising and ambitious person is sent into a tailspin and doesn’t even know why.

Another problematic example is the overcontrolled parent who manifests the desire for control in the activities of his/her child. That parent can quickly develop an authoritarian parenting style where they can no longer hear the true needs of the child or be flexible to a child’s changing nature, instead focusing on the parent’s desired outcomes. This type of parenting is most typified by the concept of tiger parenting and is demonstrated in the 2015 documentary Trophy Kids. The child may become developmentally stunted, suffer depression, or view the world as a harsh environment to survive in.

Or what happens when the overcontrolled person has to grapple with trauma or loss? They can easily distort the reality of the situation so that the blame falls disproportionately on themselves. Or they can turn to controlled behaviors (restricting food, micromanaging, or being a workaholic) to cope with loss because dealing with emotions is too difficult to control. What can be more unpredictable and uncontrolled than feelings?! If you are overcontrolled for long enough you might even stop feeling emotions altogether.

When trying to address issues of overcontrol, the focus is on regaining the traits that are lost such as openness, flexibility, and connectedness. Professor and psychologist Tom Lynch has developed a behavioral approach termed Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (RO-DBT) in which the skills are taught to counterbalance overcontrol. One of the methods used is to invite people to “rejoin the tribe,” a concept suggesting that their overcontrol skills were once needed to help the tribe fend off danger and gather resources, but are now no longer needed. Their current task is to reintegrate into tribal life, which is about connecting, sharing, and working cooperatively in the group.

The treatment may also ask people to partner up and take turns dialoging while one person is repressing his/her facial expressions to better understand what it is like for others to interact with overcontrolled people. We often have no idea how people are perceiving us when we are in overcontrol mode. Reconnecting with people may involve cultivating positive emotions toward others through loving-kindness meditation.

When I hear themes of overcontrol creeping into a patient’s life, I try to change the way that the patient views control. Ask any body-builder and they will tell you to train hard for a competition but to also relax and recover in the off-season. If they didn’t take a break they would constantly be in the gym, increasing risk of injury and never having a life. Much like body-building, we can use control when it is helpful and let it go when it is not. Another way to think of control is to picture the lid of a jar; it needs to be tighter for a leaky substance but otherwise loose enough to be useful. We have to stay flexible to the changing circumstances in our lives. So, if you find yourself stuck in overcontrol, try to find a way to stop these behaviors from taking up so much space in your life. Slow down, take a deep breath, and listen to your body (possibly through mindfulness/meditation practices or yoga). That stomach pain or muscle tension might be doing its best to tell you something needs to change or reminding you there are other needs than being a better machine. It is not easy to shake off the overcontrol mode and you may need help, but the process can be invaluable. If you let go of old behaviors and learn to inhabit your body, you might find that there is more room in your life to “rejoin the tribe” than you think.

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