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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Around the time the former Soviet Union was in decline, an advertisement in a news magazine showed a picture of a crowd of East Germans at the foot of the Berlin Wall surrounded by armed guards. The caption below read: “Just because someone’s in charge, doesn’t mean everything is under control.” It was a powerful message and unquestionably true, but the obverse is equally so, control isn’t always about being in charge.

Human beings are highly protective of their independence, or at least the illusion thereof. We will resist the appearance of control by others with ferocity, whether in the workplace, in social situations or relationships but all too often what we are defending, our autonomy, is not threatened and the control we seek is a counterfeit of freedom. Why then do we fight so bitterly?

Before I go any further though I do want to make clear that there are circumstances where our rights and freedoms are placed in jeopardy by those who seek power over us in order to compel our behavior whether out of the desire for material gain, to suppress what may be inimical to their beliefs or to maintain their position. Such forms of tyranny are almost always explicit, though the tools of control can and often are subtly applied manipulations and not always overt force. That said, the controls I want to focus on are those wielded by our friends, families and peers, our spouses, children, and lovers.

You wouldn’t think the people in our lives with whom we are the closest would seek to control us but they do, sometimes. With the exception of sociopaths, narcissists, and other dark triad personalities, these are not folks who wish to cause us harm for any particular reason. In fact, most of the time when we are controlling or subject to another’s controlling behavior it is not a willful or conscious act. I would liken it instead to the actions of a drowning swimmer that would fasten on anything in an effort to save their own life. They don’t intend to drown their would-be rescuer—it’s just a by-product of their own struggle to stay afloat.

Almost always, the struggle for control arises when we feel we have lost control, when circumstances are chaotic, adverse, or troubling. That’s when we turn to those around us who are closest to us and in unconscious misdirection seek to regain our footings by explicit or indirect coercion. We are most often unaware or have suppressed the proximate causes of our actions. Frequently we are reacting to something that has occurred outside the relationship but which we feel we cannot address directly or are deflecting. In such cases those close to us become proxies in the battle for control whether they have been controlling in any way themselves. This interplay can be chronic and last for long periods of time—an ongoing cold war, or acute, a brief flare up—but either way the fight is never about the seeming cause,

Control battles beget control battles in most cases because they are by definition win/lose confrontations. The only way to escape this circular shooting match is to recognize it for what it is and to step outside its boundaries. The stakes, in most cases are very low. Appeasement however is not a successful mediation technique as it can be interpreted as a false concession. Quid pro quo compromise on the other hand generally proves successful because it preserves the appearance of restoring control to both parties without actually ceding it.

Finally, as a general rule control struggles should never be allowed to linger as they will only escalate. The longer the struggle persists the greater the chance the struggle itself will become the focus and the proximate slight will be lost to memory. This makes it hard to negotiate a cessation because the only thing that remains to be negotiated is the struggle for control itself and neither party will easily concede they are controlling.

I said earlier that being in control isn’t about being in charge. In the final analysis the only thing we have control of is our own reactions to the events and emotions of those around us. We cannot alter any one else however—only our own response. So, it follows that being in charge means being in charge of ourselves. There is an aphorism that says change happens in our lives when we decide to take control of what we do have power over (ourselves) instead of craving control over what we don’t. Words to live by.

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