Compelled to Control; Recovering Intimacy in Broken Relationships
By J. Keith Miller
At the very foundation of human experience there rages a silent hidden battle for self-esteem, for the unique identity and soul of each individual. We experience the combatants in this inner struggle as different parts of our selves, almost as two warring factions or personalities. One combatant is our private, inner person who wants to be authentic and develop into the best we can be. The other combatant is experienced as a shaming voice that seems bent on frightening and embarrassing us to keep us from risking intimacy and taking any action that might free us from itself. This powerful, hidden controlling faction sometimes seems to speak with more than one voice, as if it were an entire committee of shaming voices that seeks to run our lives and convince us that we have little or no value.
As the struggle between our childlike inner person and the powerful shaming voices is heightened, we become afraid that we will be revealed as being inadequate, as having no self-esteem. Although the source of this fear may be repressed, it often surfaces in close relationships. And the pain leads us to try to "get control of ourselves" and stop the pain. To do this we often get into compulsive and even addictive behaviors, including attempts to control people and their feelings about us, so we can feel better.
We try to present the "good side" of ourselves-the inner person of integrity-to the world, and to control and limit the shame voices. Sometimes we have remarkable success. But when we are alone or in intimate relationships-particularly with lovers, mates or family members-the controlling, shaming side often takes charge, and we feel anxious, insecure, blaming and ashamed.
When we try to relate to someone, we may even hear the shaming inner voices speaking to our loved one through our own voice. We wind up trying to control others by using the same abusive tactics as those used on us by our inner committee. We are astounded to realize that although we fear and hate those shaming inner voices that cripple our self-esteem, we actually use those very same shaming tactics on others in attempts to control them. The result is that our relationships are bruised and broken, and we fail to achieve true intimacy and happiness. Whether our style of controlling is openly aggressive or passive-aggressive, apparently all of us use the same control techniques from our own inner warfare to control those around us.
What is operating to bring us, however unwillingly, to such an impasse? I believe it is a condition I will call the control disease, which comes from an impaired ability to express painful emotions appropriately, especially shame, and the fear of being revealed as inadequate. This fear is created by our shame voices as they engage our inner person in a battle for self-esteem, integrity and identity.
What Are Feelings For?
Some of the primary feelings are anger, pain, fear, joy, sadness, guilt, loneliness and shame. When allowed to function normally, our feelings constitute a signal system from the unconscious awareness of our body to the consciousness of our minds, telling us what our reality is. When we pay attention to these signals, we can make congruent, reality-oriented decisions about our lives.
Why is it so difficult to claim these feelings and see them for the positive, nurturing forces they are? I have come to believe that this is because many of us in this country have been trained to believe that feelings, especially painful ones, are "bad." As a small boy I remember being told, "Don't be angry with your brother. It's not nice to be angry." This was after he had just kicked me very hard. Anger was not okay at our house. Where this is our experience, we often try to get rid of, tranquilize, or talk ourselves and other people out of unpleasant feelings.
If you have ever participated in a small meeting, perhaps in a school or a religious learning group, you may have noticed that when a member begins crying, the rush to stop the person's pain is immediate. People hop up like a bunch of rabbits, patting the weeping person and handing him or her tissues. We often do this not to make the person feel better, but because we can't stand to see pain.
When we are allowed to sit in our pain and weep if we need to, however, a curious thing happens. At the bottom of the pain, we frequently find the insight we need to solve the problem that caused the pain.
Pain can be the doorway to healing. In that sense, pain is valuable because it helps us discover important insights. Yet, when we are in the compulsion to control, we try to control tears and deny pain-ours and everyone else's.
So many of us have come to believe that feelings such as anger, pain and fear are "bad" and signs of weakness. We think that the job of our therapy or recovery is to get rid of the pain as quickly as possible. But the Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Tournier, said he hoped that his patients would not get rid of their pain until they knew the meaning of it.
Our inner pain acts like an alarm system to warn us of impending danger. Unfortunately, we tend to turn these messages off. For example, let's suppose the fire alarm went off in the building where you are right now, and you say to someone near you, "Would you please turn that alarm off? It's interrupting my reading." Because you don't acknowledge the meaning of a fire alarm, you are likely to get burned. In similar fashion, when we take tranquilizers for our pain, we may turn off the "alarm" without attending to the message it may have for us.
When things seem to go wrong in our lives and our thoughts are scrambled or uncertain, if we can learn to listen, our bodies and feelings can tell us how we are being affected by what is happening. We can hear messages from the deepest part of us that can save our lives and bring peace and healing into our relationships.
The pain of a stress-related disease or the emotional distress of living is trying to tell us something that can help us or even save our lives. Unless we listen to our pain, it will get worse, until we either die or deal with the problem. But it is not the pain that will kill us; it is the disease or the stress issue it is pointing to. The feeling of pain is our friend trying to save us, to lead us out of danger into recovery.