Trigger warning: this blog post describes disordered eating patterns and behaviors.
Last week, I wrote about how control isn’t always the bad guy, and how sometimes allowing for a little control here or there can help us in our self-work towards larger goals. This week, we’re looking at signs that our internal “controller” has taken over and may be impacting our lives in less than optimum ways.
All of the following may be signs that an inner controller has gotten out of hand:
Your need for control is spilling out onto partners, family, & friends.
The need to control often starts with us as individuals, but sometimes, it creeps into a larger need to control the people around us. When this happens, it’s a warning sign that the controller may need to (lovingly, gently, kindly) be put back in its place.
This comes up frequently in romantic relationships. For instance, when an anxious partner becomes stressed, the need for control increases, and suddenly the tiny bad habits or small foibles of the other partner become serious problems that need to be solved. Underwear left on the stairs becomes a sign that the other partner no longer cares and wants out of the relationship. Occasional nights out with friends become major affronts to sacred time together. Division of chores, financial contributions – everything is up for scrutinizing when an inner controller gets out of hand. Left unchecked over time, control is a master at bringing relationships to an end, one argument at a time.
Your need for control is keeping you from doing what you want to do.
In last week’s blog, I mentioned how control can actually be helpful at times, when we pursue larger goals by exerting small measures of control here and there. Conversely, the inner controller is also capable of keeping us from enjoying our lives by limiting us to only engage in certain prescribed activities. This develops when the list of things that we can’t or won’t do becomes concretized and lengthens as we get into the habit of avoiding certain places/behaviors/things. Suddenly, we find ourselves clutching a very short list of “Yes’s” and a giant CVS-receipt-sized list of “No’s.”
The challenge with this becomes clear when we begin to find that we are making life choices due based in fear or anxiety. For example, if you find yourself staying home from a trip your truly wanted to go on because of the “No” list, you may want to take a moment to assess the influence anxiety and control exert in your life. Common phobias (airplanes, water, bridges, etc.) are prime examples of ways in which anxiety and control may become limiting for many people in very real ways.
Your need for control is perpetuating unhealthy habits.
I primarily work with eating issues and disordered eating in my therapy practice, and the inner controller gone rogue often shows up as a major player. For some, an intention to “get a handle on” or “watch” their weight (both synonyms for control) can pose significant health issues and impact quality of life.
For instance, an “innocent” diet may spiral into an obsessive and consuming need to count every calorie/macro/inch (or whatever it is that’s being counted these days). Controlling (restricting) food intake during the day may begin to prompt evening binges. Shame and self-criticism become prominent internal voices. Maybe the number on the scale every morning dictates whether or not it’s going to be a good or bad day, or a certain number of calories need to be burned daily in order to feel good about oneself. In any of these cases, the need for control becomes unhealthy, and can become potentially dangerous when channeled into behaviors like eating. (It should be noted that temperament is a single aspect of disordered eating, and the complex nature of disordered eating cannot be boiled down to one simple cause).
So how should we think about the need to control?
According to the Internal Family Systems treatment model, all Parts of us (including our “controllers”) are well-intentioned and acting on our behalf. It is not negative to have Parts that desire control, and so we shouldn’t seek to eradicate or ignore them. What is problematic is when we “blend” with a Part and lead with it, acting from it rather than for it. This is an excellent rule of thumb to gauge the health of an inner controller – are we taking steps to act on its behalf? Or, are we acting from it, feeling helpless to make our own choices, not leading from our center?
If you find that an inner controller feels out of hand, or if you relate to any of the scenarios described above, I strongly encourage you to seek the support of a good therapist. They will help you learn to care for and nurture the controlling parts of yourself, and ultimately, help you increase the health and well-being of yourself and your relationships. By taking time and intention to work with your inner controller, you can learn to understand, accept, and take care of this complex Part, so that it is no longer controlling you.