There. Now you know. I have little problem identifying this tendency in my life now, but it was not always this way. Control, like pride, can be difficult to identify in oneself. Business writer Shelley Prevost believes that controlling people seldom know that they are acting in inappropriate and unhealthy ways. She says: "Control freaks rarely know that they are one. They believe that they are helping people with their 'constructive criticism' or taking over a project because 'no one else will do it right.'"
So...what is a control freak? A control freak is someone who is focused on controlling outcomes. They attempt to control their own lives, the lives of others, and circumstances in general. An extreme form of control can be found in Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder where people are rigidly preoccupied with details, rules, lists, and dominating others at the expense of flexibility and openness. Control freaks can be perfectionists and often struggle to embrace spontaneity. It is probably no surprise that control freaks are generally bad listeners.
When things do not go "according to plan," a control freak will have a negative reaction, often disproportionate to the situation. Outwardly, they can exhibit anger, violence, become very vocal and demanding, have an emotional outburst, have a temper tantrum, or more subtly, resort to manipulation, payback, or passive-aggressive behaviour such as giving someone the silent treatment or engaging in emotional blackmail. Inwardly, control freaks can suffer from anxiety, fear, jealousy, and emotional paralysis as well as an inhibited ability to make decisions or act. But being a control freak is just a symptom of a deeper issue.
Let's take a look at the story of the rich young man in Mark 10. He approaches Jesus and asks, "Good teacher, What must I do to gain life in the world to come?" Notice something here. The greeting, "Good teacher," was an unusual one at that time. Some scholars believe it might have been a bit of flattery or an attempt at subtle manipulation. Whatever the case, Jesus recognizes that something is a bit off in the way this man approaches him and he calls him on it. Jesus doesn't make a big deal out of it, just enough to let the young man know that he is not fooled. Then, he gets back to the young man's question. Jesus responds by citing some of the commandments of Moses and the young man indicates that he has done all of these things since he was a child.
So here we have a young man who is concerned with attaining a certain outcome (eternal life) and very good at keeping rules. He is also a man who assumes the outcome relies on his own ability (he asks, "What must I do?"). Jesus recognizes that the young man is sincere and responds out of love for him. Jesus is good like that. He says there is one more thing which the young man must do, and that is to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, exchanging treasure on earth for treasure in heaven. And after that is done, the young man is to come and follow Jesus.
The young man believes that Jesus can give him what he wants (eternal life). He is looking for a profitable transaction, but Jesus sees right through the young man's intentions and reveals what is at the heart of the issue. By asking the man to give up his financial security and set aside his future plans, Jesus upends the young man's agenda and puts him at a crossroads, There are basically two ways to react when things don't go according to plan: either one embraces the change or withdraws and tries to regain control. The young man chose to walk away.
Though the desire of the young man was a good desire (gaining eternal life), he could not accept how it was to be received. He was more interested in attaining a certain outcome than in following the way of Jesus. Jesus' challenge exposed the young man's self-constructed world which made him feel safe and secure and in control. Jesus' way would have put him out of control. Tough stuff, indeed. Clinging tightly to our own little world makes us incapable of participating in the kingdom of God, because the kingdom of God operates on trust, faith, surrender, and loving freedom. With humans, this equation is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. Instead of asking the question, "What can I do to gain eternal life?" a better approach for the young man might have been, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Here are the underlying issue(s) which I see behind being a control freak:
1) We attempt to control because we want to feel safe and have our version of a perfect world.
2) We attempt to control because we want to avoid the anxiety of unknown outcomes.
3) We attempt to control because we are afraid to fail, to be rejected, to experience pain and loss, and to re-live bad outcomes.
4) We substitute rules, standards, restrictions, and planned outcomes to avoid the risks involved in relationships which require trust, vulnerability, freely giving and receiving, and above all, living in love.
So how do we move away from control and toward loving submission and trust? Here are some practical ways to counteract the tendency toward being a control freak.
With respect to ourselves:
1. Ask Jesus to help us let go of outcomes and cling only to him.
2. Say Yes more than No (exercise spontaneity).
3. Be okay with imperfection (everyone is on a journey).
4. Be vulnerable with people, invite mutual trust.
5. Be realistic in our expectations.
6. Accept that life is filled with unknowns.
7. Accept that pain, rejection, failure, and suffering are all part of life. Following Jesus does not eliminate these things from our lives, but it does transform them into places of healing, strength, and beauty.
With respect to dealing with others:
1. Ask Jesus to heal and transform others; fixing others is not our job.
2. Quit the passive-aggressive nonsense - be direct.
3. Avoid blaming others; let us take responsibility for our own well-being.
4. Never try to control a controller. Instead, let us adopt a direct, caring approach.
I don't believe that we can ever root control completely out of our lives; we are willful, independent beings who want our own way instead of submitting to God and to one another. It takes daily diligence to walk in trust instead of control. With that in mind, let me offer this.
The (recovering) Control Freak's Pledge:
I trust in God, not a particular outcome.
Outcomes are in God's hands, not mine.
God's outcomes are vastly superior to any I can dream up. Help me believe it and act like it!
Relationships are more valuable than results; let me act accordingly.
Perfection in this life is not possible; healing and wholeness through Jesus are.
Therefore, nothing in my life is off-limits to God.
Jesus is my outcome. I pursue Jesus.
A summary of the talk I gave at my faith community on November 16, 2014.