Helen grew up in a home with three brothers. Her father ranked high in the army, and he ran his family like he ran his soldiers.
Each day there were shoe and clothing inspections. Beds had to be made to army standards (he would drop a penny on the sheet to see if it bounced, checking that the bedding had been tucked in tightly enough). Orders were barked, and everyone had to obey and never challenge his authority. The household had to run efficiently, and the family had to be perfect.
When he went on long trips, Helen's mother would finally relax. The household would live in happy chaos until the week before his return, when they would spend hours restoring perfection.
Her parents divorced after her father came home unexpectedly early from an assignment to find the house in total disarray. Her mother struggled for years with severe depression as she tried to parent four teenagers on her own.
Helen's eldest brother joined the army like his father. It offered the clear, secure structure and line of command he'd grown up with. The middle brother rebelled against his controlled upbringing and joined a hippie-style artist community. He cycled in and out of rehab units, trying to break his cocaine addiction. The youngest son drifted through life, unable to hold down a job unless he was micromanaged every minute of the day; he'd only ever done things when someone had yelled at him.
Helen married someone who was as unlike her father as possible. John was relaxed and carefree, and she was happy with that for a while?until the children came along. Soon she had three preschoolers. When the eldest was diagnosed with diabetes, she suddenly felt out of control. She resorted to her father's management style, giving orders and expecting perfect orderliness, punishing tiny childish mistakes, and nagging her husband to be more organized.
When she couldn't get her way by nagging and demanding, she would try more subtle control techniques, such as bribery, manipulation, or carefully planned sabotage.
She hated herself. The children were miserable, and her husband went on weekend camping trips with friends whenever he could.
Clinging to control
Why do some people cling to the controls?and why do others let them cling so tightly?
Some may be like Helen. They've grown up in a family in which their parents had a very strong sense of authority. So when they feel out of control, it's all too easy to fall back to the patterns they learned in their childhood.
Others may have experienced the opposite extreme?parents who let them do whatever they wanted to do, without restriction. So they've grown up
believing that they can get what they want without having to think about the effect on other people.
Sometimes people who try to control those around them have experienced the terror of being totally out of control. They may have been abused. Perhaps they have struggled with a mental or physical illness that seems to take over their world every so often. Or maybe they are challenged by addictions.
Others may have experienced the powerful vulnerability of living through a war or a long-term disaster, such as a famine or tsunami, or living under a strict regime, such as a concentration or prison camp. In a sense their need for control may be the way they manage their lives in response to their post-traumatic stress.
There are also some people who believe that they know best. They are better educated, know more, and have more experience; therefore, they're the best people to tell those around them what to do.
So what can we do if we find ourselves trying to control others or being controlled?
Help! I'm a controller!
If you think you try to control others, the first step is to admit, however reluctantly, that you may have a problem in this area. Then prayerfully and honestly ask yourself the following questions:
1. Where did I learn the skill of organizing the people around me?
2. When did I begin to use this skill in my current relationships?
3. How did I figure out that I could manage my life better by managing others?
4. When is this skill useful to me? How is it useful?
5. When do others appreciate me being in control?
6. When does my need to control others hurt my relationships with those around me at home, in my family, at work, at church, and in other settings?
7. What effect is my need to control having on my relationships with those I love? Does it bring me closer to them, or does it drive a wedge between us?
8. Does my need to control others benefit them, or does it encourage them to rebel against me or discourage them from taking appropriate control of their own life?
9. Can I really control other people, or am I just trying to control their external behavior? When they do what I tell them to do, what might they be really thinking and feeling about me?
10. What is the worst thing that could happen if I let go of the controls?
11. What am I most afraid of when I am not in total control?
12. When have I been able to let other people be in control? How was I able to give the controls to them? What worked well when I did this? What could I have done differently?
13. What would be the benefits of trying to work together as a team to tackle the tasks and issues?
14. Focus on one of your closest relationships. On a scale of 0 to 10?10 meaning you are free to let the other person be in control and 0 meaning you want to control the other person all the time?where do you honestly think you are at this moment? What would you be doing and saying differently if you could mark yourself one notch higher than you've just placed yourself? What about another notch? And so on. Then create a series of goals to help you be where you would rather be on the scale.
15. What would God like me to do differently in my relationships? How can I focus on letting Him have control in my life and allowing the Holy Spirit to produce the fruit of His self-control in me rather than my need for other-control?
Help! I'm being controlled!
If you feel that your life is being controlled by someone else, prayerfully and honestly ask yourself the following questions:
1. How have I allowed the other person to take the controls in our relationship?
2. Have I let them have too much control over my life? Do I need to reestablish appropriate boundaries?
3. What feelings and thoughts do I have about the controlling person in my life?
4. What am I most afraid of when I am not in control?
5. What is the worst thing that could happen if I take back the control I would like to have? How could I take back some of the control in a way that will be most loving for everyone involved?
6. When was I able to get the other person to do what I wanted, and how did I do that? What positive effect did that have on our relationship and on me?
7. Focus on the relationship in which you feel you are being controlled. On a scale of 0 to 10?0 meaning you let the other person take control all the time and 10 meaning you would feel comfortable challenging their controlling position when you feel it's appropriate?where do you honestly think you are at this moment in time? What would you be doing and saying differently to mark yourself one notch higher than you have just placed yourself? What about another notch? And so on. Then create a series of goals to help you be where you would rather be on the scale.
8. How does God see me in this relationship? When He sees me in this relationship, what are His concerns and His hopes for me? How can I live the life He wants me to live as the person He wants me to be? What have I learned about God's love for me through being in this
One of the most powerful stories Jesus told was of a father who was wise enough to let go of the controls. As the senior person in the family the father had every right to exert his power over his youngest son, who was rejecting him, his heritage, his values, and his family. But the father took a long view of the situation and saw that grace and love would eventually be more effective in repairing the broken situation than power and force.
So even though his heart was hurting, the father sold a third of the farm that had been in his family for generations. He gave the money to his son without any strings attached and without any anger or cruel words of rejection. Then he let his son experience an out-of-control lifestyle.
At the end of the experiment the prodigal son found himself in a pathetic state: penniless and starving in a pigpen, sharing the animals' food. At first he had been controlled by his own selfishness. Then he had been controlled by his poverty and the famine. Now he was controlled by the greed of the farmer.
It was when he had no control over his life that he finally remembered where he was truly loved. That's when he picked himself up and took himself back home, wanting his father to employ him as a shepherd or allow him to look after the cows. He begged his father to take back the control over his life and to take care of him as a servant in the household.
And his father had every right to do so. In fact, in his culture the community had the right to stone such an out-of-control son. But the father relinquished his right to control and, instead, chose to honor his son above himself, to forgive him, welcome him, restore him, clean him, heal him, celebrate his return, and love him.
This story tells us how God loves us: not in a controlling way, but in a releasing way. When we've experienced His forgiveness, His welcome, His restoration and cleansing, His healing, and His love, then we're free to let go of our need to control others?or to be controlled by them. Then we can learn how to love one another the way God intended, as evidenced in the following Bible texts:
"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love"
(1 John 4:18).
"Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:10).
Karen Holford is a freelance writer who also works part-time as the associate director of Family and Children's Ministries in the South England Conference. She is also a qualified family therapist. She works with her husband, Bernie, counseling couples and running "Turning Water Into Wine" marriage retreats. She is learning how to let God take control in her life, and He is teaching her how to release her young-adult children!