Did you feel somewhat deflated when you read that title? Does it seem overly dramatic and gloomy? As pessimistic as the title of this article may be, there’s a very good reason as to why it’s absolutely true. Controlling people are designed to be controllers. Don’t be too hard on them. They can’t help it. It is the nature of controlling people to control. They were born that way.
If we focus on how controlling people do what they do, the reasoning behind my statements might be clearer. So, how do controlling people control? The mechanics of controlling will be easier to unpack if we start with a controller that’s a little less personal but still close to home.
Your car in the garage may well be equipped with a cruise control system. The cruise control system doesn’t do anything until it’s switched on. Once it’s activated, however, it will keep your car moving along at whatever speed you’ve set it at. If you’ve locked in 60 miles per hour, the cruise control system will maintain that speed until you intervene. It will speed up when you’re going up a hill, and slow down on the other side. For as long as it’s switched on, it will never give up controlling. So much so that it would even run into a slower car up ahead if you didn’t apply the brake.
The cruise control system achieves its remarkable precision by, constantly comparing the speed the car is travelling with the speed that has been set for it to travel, while simultaneously altering the current speed to make sure the current speed continues to match the set speed. As the car starts to go up a hill it will begin to slow down but, just as that is happening, the cruise control system will speed up the car so that the 60mph standard is maintained.
Generalizing from this specific example, we can see that the mechanics of controlling anything involve: specifying the value that is the ideal or desired state of the thing; constantly monitoring the thing; and influencing the thing so that it never strays far from its ideal state. And remember, the ideal state is just the state that the controller has decided is ideal. Two different controllers can have different ideal states for the same thing.
Even though the mechanics are similar between the way a cruise control system controls and the way a controlling person controls, there are some crucial differences. Firstly, a cruise control system has to be switched on to start controlling but a controlling person is always “on”. Controlling people are always controlling. Secondly, the desired speed is set from outside the cruise control system but no-one from outside a controlling person can determine the standards of the controlling person. Finally, cruise control systems in cars control only the speed of a car but controlling people control a staggering array of things.
The point of all this is that when controlling people control, they decide what the desired states of things are, they monitor the ongoing states of the things, and they affect the things so that they continue to resemble the ideal states. Let’s say a controlling person has an ideal image of their lawn. In order to achieve and maintain that lawn, they need to constantly check the lawn. Lawns don’t change super quickly so they maybe don’t have to maintain an obsessive vigil. They will notice, however, when the lawn isn’t the right green or the right length and they’ll mow it and weed it and water it and fertilize it so that it maintains the appearance the controlling person wants.
Source: Labelled for reuse; Prasannanossam3; Wikimedia Commons
Having a “lawn control system” situated within another person is seldom a problem. Suppose, however, that the controlling person was focussed on your appearance rather than the lawn’s appearance. They might have ideas about how you should look (according to them), they might monitor the way you look, and they might do what they can to make you look the way they want you to look. This is unlikely to be satisfactory for very long.
The problem with controlling people, therefore, is not that they control, it’s what they control. Actually, you might have picked up by now that controlling people are not so very different from other people. In fact, we are all designed to be controlling people. More than that, every living thing is designed to control. The Delta Maidenhair Fern controls, the Eastern Blacklegged Tick controls, and the Cuban Rock Iguana controls. A priest is every bit as controlling as a prisoner although many of the things they control are likely to be very different.
Control is the essence of life. Giving up control means stopping life itself. And, as irritating as controlling people can be, it’s not at all necessary that they cease to exist. To reiterate the point above, it’s not that they control, but what they control that can be a source of annoyance, and it’s this distinction that provides a little wiggle room. You might have even noticed yourself that, on those infrequent occasions when you’ve suggested a particular course of action or tried to gently nudge another person in a different direction, that they are not always entirely thrilled by your efforts.
The more that we can recognize our universal controlling natures, the more we will be able to figure out ways of helping, rather than hindering, the controlling of others. We might be able to step back and become clearer about the essence of the things we control that is precious to us, and we could even discover that the more we help others control, the greater our own control becomes.
We are all controlling people. We definitely should not give up on controlling. Quite the opposite. We should embrace it, enjoy it, and, most importantly, learn how it works. By understanding the way in which control arises, and the way it manifests in social settings, we can explore new horizons of more caring, more interested, and more helpful relationships in which people’s controlling proclivities are celebrated and nurtured so that we all enjoy greater control.