We all want to have control. Well, the illusion of control, since we don’t have full control of anything. We feel in control when we drive a car, but the truth is there are severe limitations. We are limited by the car’s abilities, by the laws of physics, by laws passed to protect us, and by our own concern for ourselves and others. There is no end to the things we might want to do with a car and can’t. That means we don’t have full control, only a limited partial control. But it feels like control and that is one of the pleasures of driving. That’s what I mean by illusion of control. It is really a state of mind, not a fact.

Even though it may be an illusion, every day we see people doing terrible and wonderful things in order to give themselves the feeling of control. Dictators want absolute power and control. Family and intimate relationships are ruined by one person’s need to control another. Some use drugs and other behaviors in order to control what they have to feel. On the other hand, people seek out challenges and push themselves to new heights of real achievement at least in part to gain a feeling of control over their world.

So why is this state of mind so important to us? The answer is both philosophical and psychological, but the best place to start is very early in life. Around age one, we discover that we have control. That is why one-year-olds are so elated, even triumphant. We have discovered the world and that we are its emperor. When we are uncomfortable, someone guesses what we want and takes care of it. When we are dissatisfied, we cry, and someone takes fixes the cause of our discomfort. The fact that not every need gets addressed doesn’t dim our belief in our ability to control. Perhaps this is because our emotional equipment is not capable at that age of dealing with mixed feelings. Perhaps it is that the mind can’t process a negative, something that doesn’t happen, as opposed to something that does happen. Whatever the exact reason, the times when needs are not met don’t count. These disappointments are felt, but don’t affect the feeling of elation that the world is responsive to our wishes.

Then, suddenly the “terrible twos” arrive. Just when we are sure that we are in perfect partnership with Mom and whatever we want will be granted, she says, “No!” By this time, development has progressed to where a positive “No” does topple us from the imperial throne. The shock and pain are terrible. From the height of triumph, we plunge instantly into the depths of pain. Coping with defeat takes experience and skills. The two-year-old has none of these to buffer its stark impact.

Predictably, two-year-olds do what they know how to do, they test their ability to control. They do the most powerful things they know to regain control over their world, they have a temper tantrum. The screaming and kicking are both an expression of extreme distress, and a means of forcing the caregiver to make it right again.

Then we come to a fateful fork in the road. To me, this is a philosophical watershed moment. There are ultimately only two solutions, but they are very different. *** good control vs. bad control here!!  *** One is to focus on getting control over others and the other is to adapt to the world the way it is, to “live life on life’s terms.”

Hardly a philosopher, the two-year-old must make this most fateful of decisions. He or she is not without some power and abilities. First there is the power to command others. Two years of experience have given the child a good deal of skill in getting others to comply with her wishes. On the other hand, Schore tells us that by 18 months, the brain has developed enough for the child to form ideals and to feel shame when he fails to live up to them. This rudimentary conscience is essential equipment for feeling good about adapting to the needs of others.

The healthiest solution is a balance between controlling and adapting. There is nothing more costly than trying to control things we can’t, while adapting to the needs of others without taking care of ourselves soon leads to emotional bankruptcy. This is the essence of the famous serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

How does a toddler make the decision? I think it depends most on two things.  First, how easy it is to manipulate your grown-ups, and second, how safe it feels to give in to them. This is the time of battles of will between caregiver and child. The philosophical issue is certainly critical for the child, but how many of us adults have comfortably found the solution? Parents and caregivers are tested, too.

Let me tell you a story. I once worked with a young woman who had a great deal of trouble with this issue. She had tremendous difficulty saying no to anyone. She didn’t have the security or self-esteem to feel she had a right to her own needs, so she took care of other’s. Partly as a result of her strong leaning towards caretaking, she loved small children and found work in a school for troubled toddlers. She loved them and was naturally sensitive to their needs and wishes. Soon she learned that if she gave in to the children they would rapidly get out of control and begin to kick and bite. She found by experience that these children needed to learn to lose battles. They needed her to say no and mean it. As she learned to do this for professional reasons, she began to be able to stand up for herself in her adult relationships as well. The experience was absolutely necessary in her relationship with her boyfriend. Without a balance between her own needs and his, any real intimacy would not be able to develop.

So, for the most part, “control freaks” are those who, at that early age, were either too afraid to lose battles, or  too easily able to control their grown-ups. The result is the same either way. Those children begin a lifetime of practice at increasing their control in order to remove any discomfort. It should not be a surprise that along the way, their ability to empathize can get lost, as can their sensitivity to others’ needs. There are all degrees and combinations of these characteristics, but in the extreme you may recognize the elements of a manipulative, narcissistic or sociopathic personality.

Normally, I think sports analogies are bad form, but there is one I come back to over and over.  Life is like baseball and you are the batter. The pitcher (life) throws all kinds of pitches at you. They are not calculated to be nice, to the contrary, they are as hard to hit as possible while still being in the strike zone. This rather closely approximates life. All kinds of things happen and some are best avoided, while others represent opportunities. Good hitters can connect with one in three pitches. If they are able to do this consistently, they will be great ones. So we have no control over what kinds of pitches are thrown but some control over which ones we chose to engage with and how we handle them. If we make use of the partial control we do have, and learn to handle the two out of three that we miss, then we will most likely be able to feel as if we are in control, and that will be good enough.

I hope this post raises some questions. Please feel free to comment and if you do have questions I will try to answer them.  JS


  • I’m a trainee psychotherapist (Transactional Analysis/CBT) and from that perspective I totally agree with the illusion of control. We need to gain awareness and autonomy to really gain that control that we (wrongly) already think we have.

  • Very profound, inspirational and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom and knowledge.

  • This article really helped to understand my young adult’s constant battle with an Eating Disorder. It has been a difficult road. Do you have any posts on how to help my daughter with an Eating Disorder for my husband and myself. She is addicted to exercise and controls her eating: she has no life outside thinking of her meals and exercise. I am on it(therapist and a new nutritionist), yet very concerned.
    Thank you for sharing your expertise; you have helped me in understanding something difficult in very intelligent yet simple words.

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