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Control Freaks

by Lindsay, for SOL, December 2002

The most frightened people on the planet?

Lots of things in life don't make much sense on the first glance. For example, when I was a girl, children were meant to be 'seen and not heard'. Children were meant to obey their parents and any adult in all ways. We were not meant to think for ourselves. And then all of a sudden we girls were expected to be assertive with members of the opposite sex as they put a cautious hand on our knee in the cinema! Where were we supposed to have learned assertion I'd like to know? We were expected to let others control us until we suddenly evolved into Wonder Woman and knew all of the answers in one go!

Control is another one of those issues that at first glance does not seem particularly important until we look more closely. It seemed to have figured prominently during the Victorian / Edwardian era. Have you noticed that in our society, we seem incapable of getting it right first time? First the pendulum is swung in one direction, and then it goes far too far in the opposite way. After years of suffering 'control' we suddenly want to 'let it all hang loose', 'go with the flow' and it is considered very 'un-cool' to be so 'uptight'.

Anyway, back to the Victorians - control of self and other was big here. In addition there was a cold and judgmental attitude to those who digressed from this inflexibility. Even when infected with cold it was considered bad manners to loose control enough to sneeze in public. The widow was expected to keep up appearances at her husband's funeral despite her grief, and God help any daughter who got pregnant without the benefit of marriage. I even remember my poor old Dad telling me that if it happened to me 'all our lives would be ruined'. It put me off sex for years. (I've since made up for it). Great pressure was put upon people by society to keep up appearances and showing no emotion at any cost.

There is a story in my Mum's family about the day when her parents hit hard times. All of the furniture had been pawned and in the kitchen, the family was reduced to sitting on orange boxes. However, the 'front room' that faced the road, still had its curtains and a handsome aspidistra in a pot, which was dutifully watered and polished every day. When I first head this story I thought it was funny, but now I think it is sad.

So what is this big thing about keeping up appearances? I suspect that its origin lies in the rule of the jungle. If you began to look like you were unable to defend yourself (i.e. weak for any reason) then maybe other people might take the advantage and attack you? This may result in a whole host of rotten things including being robbed, to your family being abused, to people taking liberties that they never had before. Ultimately, as a result, you may turn from hunter to hunted and be 'eaten' - literally or symbolically. So it made a lot of sense to never let anyone know your true state or feelings and 'what will the neighbours say' takes on new and sinister meaning possibly culminating in 'what will the neighbours do?

Out there in the real jungle, animals are likewise as reluctant to show that they are out of control of a situation. I remember seeing a poor old fox that had been hit by a car. His back was broken and as a result his back legs were paralysed and he couldn't stand or run away. But it didn't stop him almost taking of the finger of the RSPCA man who was doing his best to help. Sometime, I recognise this instinct in myself, just like poor old fox I lash out at those trying to help me out for fear of appearing vulnerable. Our actions may have a lot in common with the gorilla beating his chest and the cat making its hair stand on end so that it look bigger than it actually is. Yet if we superior humans haven't worked this out, why should the animal kingdom? Maybe it is a strategy that sometimes works when you call bluff, but it may have a disproportionate cost and usually in fear.

Like love, I suspect that control benefits from further exploration. There is nothing wrong with controlling the car I am driving. I strongly suspect that it is the desire for control that causes the problems. It's the wanting to control that dictates actions and thoughts that keep us lying in the gutter and a long way from walking with the gods (Thanks Hale Dwoskin).

Wanting control goes hand in hand with anxiety. Those of us who have spent our lives wanting it, often do not sleep very well because we are too busy working out our strategy and trying to deal with every potential situation that may arise. As Mark Twain said, 'I have spent all of my life worrying - mostly about things that never happened'. And just because you sleep OK does not mean that you don't have any issues with wanting control - you may just have force your control onto your sleep pattern!

When I was much younger, I used to think that it was a sign of strength to actively seek control. It allowed me to promote the myth that I was sure of myself, presumable because I'd had experience of being 'right' in the past and those who have been 'right' are probably more likely to be 'right' on this occasion. I regularly bulldozed others and force my way, my thoughts and my ideas onto them. At the time my perception of the situation was like a seesaw: either I had control or 'they' did (they being the rest of the world). There was no room for peace as I was spent my whole life trying to keep my end of the seesaw from falling back to earth. Maybe I convinced myself that I stood a better chance of surviving if it was me controlling the situations and yet, now, years on, I think that it is little short of a minor miracle that I am here at all.

I remember being overcome with admiration for those who consistently got their own way (i.e. control) at any cost, forcing others to go along with them, often under duress, with smart answers and debating skills that would have impressed the Sophists. Now when I see this happening, I usually think that it is a sign of fear and that these action take us back to a biological desire to survive. There is nothing strong or admirable about being a bully, even if you kid yourself that you are doing it because you know best (Oh yeah? Says whom?). Your 'right' if indeed you have discovered it can only be 'right' for you and maybe only in one instance. To force it onto someone else is foolhardy at best and unspeakably arrogant at worst. By sticking to your own 'right' and refusing to see any other point of view, it may well be that you are closing the door on your own growth and potential to choose something better than your previous choice. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind. It usually takes courage - a truly admirable quality in my opinion. And lets not go down to line of self-judgement ' I was wrong, I made a mistake' and all of the other hair shirt behaviour that we humans seem to be so fond of. Making another choice is just that - choosing something else this time. So how about living a little? Maybe mistakes are a human concept - perhaps it is just feedback?

The trouble with getting your own way, controlling, forcing through and making other give way to you is that with every battle the stakes are upped. First you gain a bit of control and then you want a bit more in another area of your life. Having won a minor battle at work, we may go out onto the road more determined to make others give way to our driving. Then we arrive home (if we arrive home - there are plenty of people died maintaining their 'right of way' on the roads!) and are unreasonable with our family and partner and have a thoroughly rotten evening. Feeling disgruntled, we then go to bed, have a poor night's sleep and wake up the next day even more determined to make thing go our way and even more likely to distance ourselves from any experience of peace. And so life goes on.

I was wondering about medicine the other day. During the course of our lifetime it is likely that most of us will experience sickness in some form. Is medicine about helping us get over it or is it some sort of challenge to death as the last item in life over which we have no control? Is death the final frontier of the control freak and if so, if this why it holds so many taboos and is so feared? Are situations that appear to be out of anyone's control the ones that have come to be associated with the biggest fears - especially for those of us who have allowed control to be particularly important?

So what happens when we attempt to control someone who in return attempts to control us back? Well basically we slug the daylights out of each other until the guy with the biggest cudgel, wins. It may be a physical cudgel, a diplomatic cudgel, an emotional cudgel or any other sort of cudgel, but cudgel it is nevertheless. Isn't this what war is all about and isn't this the reason for every war that we ever had - this fear of being controlled? I am not saying that all wars are 'wrong', per se, just that we are in a more realistic position if we understand out motives. And before someone asks me about when it is 'a matter of principle', I think it is much nearer the truth to substitute 'fear' for 'principle'.

Why is it that so many politicians start off so well and then seem to take on the mantle of the very ones they deposed, within a few years? I guess that one of the reasons may be that they get used to people expecting them to have all of the answers and a cart-blanch on being 'right'. It is OK to offer opinions, to tell people what your point of view is and to be as persuasive as you like. The danger comes when you have some sort of personal investment in getting your own way or your view being 'right' or best. When you are as OK about having your idea or view accepted, as you are when it is pushed aside in favour of a better one that isn't yours, you may be on a healthier tract. There is a certain amount of strain in having to be right and to provide all of the answers. It may get tiring, but you get so used to holding onto the window ledge by your fingertips that you cease to realise just how tired you are. The wolves gather: sooner or later your Margaret Thatcher simply falls to the next Michael Heseltine. The attachment to being 'right' is as addictive as cocaine and at least as dangerous, but subtle and possible socially more acceptable. If your insist on hanging on to your past 'right' you are likely to be less happy than if you can face letting go of it and moving on to the 'right' of the now.

I was reading an article about a television golden girl who seems to have had a fall from grace recently. She seems to have done a lot of things 'wrong' in public opinion, including having eaten a particular chocolate bar on her wedding day (presumably for a price - although come to think about it, I spent my wedding days stuffing my face with chocolate, too!). The issue that I thought was potentially her biggest danger was this. It was reported that when she failed to get her own way using conventional means, her last bastion would be to burst into loud and passionate weeping. At this point, those remaining standing against the previous onslaught usually gave way…and she gained the control that she had been seeking. Tears as the final form of gaining control…. yes, we've all seen it and some of us, to our present shame have even tried it out.

Discussing all of this with a dear friend a while ago, she said that she didn't necessarily seek to have control, but she didn't like anyone else getting in her way. It took me a while to figure this one out, but I came to the conclusion that this is yet another guise of wanting control - maybe not as blatant or fiery, but a desire for control, just the same. We fell into talking about how we learn these crippling techniques, and as we were discussion this, a child on the next table to where we were having our coffee suddenly started yelling its head off. I could see that it might originally have started as a child's desire to tell its mother when something was wrong before it learned to speak. As time goes on, I suspect that delight in the power of having some one jumping to your attention does not get overlooked for too long. Before you know where you are, it becomes yet another one of those ingrained habits that cause misery and take a lot of thought before they can finally be dumped.

And how about crime? How much more controlling can any action be than to walk into some one else's house and take what they worked to buy? How about invading another's body or the final act of perceived control, to take someone else's' life? How sad an individual do you have to be to feel that you have to gain your share of control by acting in this way? And maybe this is as good a time as any to question a system that clearly fails to learn that punishing those who act this way by controlling them back (i.e. locking them up) doesn't generally work. It seems to be much more likely that the fuel of resentment will be added to the fire of wanting control and they will try harder not to be caught next time.

Have you ever considered what cheating is all about? Whether it is about fixing your exam results, dodging your Income Tax, putting yourself in a better light or parking on a double yellow line, I suspect that wanting control is likely to be at least part of the scenario. 'No one is going to tell me where I can damned well park' 'I'm only going to be a few minutes' 'Everyone's economical with the truth on occasions' 'S/He'll never find out' ' Simply creative accounting old chap' 'I really didn't work all that hard, just got lucky'. I guess we have all done some of these and probably there are other things mixed in such as approval and greed. And these are some of the very reasons that a lot of us could have much happier lives than we do.

I very much doubt that many of us have the strength and courage to change overnight, but one thing I am certain about it this. Whilst we are hooked on seeking control, we will never be as happy as we could be and personal peace will continue to elude our lives and us. Try starting on the small things and see the affect that voluntarily giving up chasing control has on your life.

I know John and Yoko were talking about something quite different but to echo their words - all I am saying is give peace a chance. It might make a change to have a rest from expending as much energy as we generally do!

Bright blessings,


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