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The Control Enthusiast

By Cathy Killian

The Lawyer Assistance Program holds support groups across the state for lawyers who are actively engaged in a recovery process (recovery from all kinds of issues, not just drug or alcohol problems). Often these meetings are topic driven, providing lawyers an opportunity to uncover, examine, explore, and share their attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences on the given topic. It is always so interesting to hear how thinking, reactions, self-understanding, and self-mastery have evolved as these lawyers practice putting new recovery-based tools to use. The LAP sometimes sends out an article in advance of a meeting (our “Monday Article”), allowing the group participants an opportunity to reflect on the topic for that week before they meet to discuss it. We decided to publish this Monday Article because we received so much positive feedback on it, as it resonated with many of our clients and volunteers.


Actor Patrick Warburton, who bears a striking resemblance to Clark Kent/ Superman, (in the neurotic world of Seinfeld he was the only mechanic that could maintain Jerry’s Saab), is the latest spokesperson for National Car Rental. He swaggers through the airport saying that some folks refer to him as a control freak, but he prefers to think of himself as a “Control Enthusiast.” He is happy to be able to go straight to his car, and not to have to talk to any humans unless he wants to—and he doesn’t want to.

National Car Rental is highlighting its “commitment to providing time-sensitive frequent airport travelers with unmatched control throughout their rental experience” because people want to “be in charge at all times.” In our world that moves faster than ever, the ideal of control is difficult to resist.

Controlling people have extremely high expectations, rigid routines and schedules, and their obsessive behaviors can border on being pathological. They have to plot and plan everything. They expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to plan, predict, and prevent things that they cannot possibly plan, predict, or prevent.

This controlling behavior is likely innate, from an evolutionary standpoint—if we are in control of our environment we have a better chance of survival. Research has shown that most people believe they have control over certain aspects of or events in their lives, even when such control is impossible or doesn’t exist. One of the best examples is that no matter how bad a driver someone may be, most people firmly believe they are less likely to be in a car accident if they are the one driving.

Controlling behavior is really about trying to manage fear and anxiety. Our emotions are fueled by insecurities and an absolute terror of being vulnerable. We cannot risk having any flaws or weaknesses exposed, whether real or imagined. We are attached to a specific outcome. We believe we can protect ourselves by staying in control of every aspect of our lives and creating a rigid sense of order. “The irony is that often those that feel the most need for control, are themselves the ones being controlled by their own fears, insecurities, and doubts,” says Carlos Felfoldi.

At our core, the “control enthusiast” in us believes we can never let our guard down or relax our vigilance. Our insecurities and fear keep us from trusting others, both on a practical and emotional level. The downside of that is, if we have no trust in others on an emotional level, we can’t open up and we continually keep people at arm’s length. Life is always a struggle and a fight, and our lives become very restricted, very draining, and often very lonely.

We emotionally walk on eggshells as we struggle to deal with the substantial anxiety that accompanies this outlook. Seeking control becomes an anxiety management tool utilized to try and ward off feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. It isn’t necessarily a very effective tool, but it becomes our “go to” just the same, especially if we are subject to increasing stress.

We can move through the world in this way as a result of growing up in a chaotic, dysfunctional, and/or abusive environment. We become hypervigilant, always on high alert, always anticipating bad things. We develop the belief that there must be something wrong with us. That translates into very low self-worth.

As adults, this can create a lack of trust in others and ourselves, fear of abandonment, fear of failure, perfectionism, and the fear of experiencing painful emotions—or any emotions for that matter. It becomes a cycle—as these feelings increase, so does a need for the sense of control. We establish a pattern of controlling behavior and our world often rewards and reinforces these behaviors. We keep things consistent, complete tasks, and take care of things. We try to control our internal world (feelings) by controlling our external world.

We have specific emotional reactions when there is a perceived threat to our sense of control. As Dan Oestreich says, “These reactions are an effort to get things back in control as quickly as possible. I react with anger in order to restore the sense of safety and stability my control brings. I hold a grudge in order to avoid the unknown risks of trusting you again. I turn my back on you in order to regain the relationship the way it was or to end the relationship while protecting my version of events. I console myself by reminding myself how smart or right I am. Reactions are a way of holding onto what was, even if that always was a fantasy or an illusion.”

When we project an image like Patrick Warburton we exhaust ourselves. Inner peace does not depend on, nor can it be created by, external conditions.

We are better served focusing our energies on what we really have any control over, and that is ourselves. As Brian Kessler points out, “The closest to being in control we’ll ever be is in that moment when we realize that we’re not.” We are always capable of controlling our attitudes and actions, and thus our thoughts and behaviors. Letting go of expectations, being present and in the moment, reserving judgments, and accepting life on life’s terms, while difficult to achieve, is far easier than trying to micromanage the universe. To shift into this place of greater freedom requires a combination of surrender, acceptance, faith, and trust. It requires a firm belief that we will be OK no matter what. “It is after all, this internal control that has the power and influence to shape our life choices, decisions, actions and ultimate destiny.”

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