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Are you Sensitive on the Inside and Tough on the Outside?
Overcontrol is a personality trait that comes from a fear of losing control. When you have a severe fear of being out of control, you may be perfectionistic, driven, rigid, critical of yourself and others. This fear causes you to become ‘overcontrolled,’ which is a trait related to disorders such as long-term depression, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, social anxiety, and restrictive eating.
Are you almost always dissatisfied with your work and performance?
Do you spend an excessive amount of time trying to get things right’?
Are you generally risk-averse and hyper-vigilant?
Is your life governed by rigid rules you impose on yourself?
Do you find situations without order and structure challenging?
Do you always notice what is out of line and feel compelled to fix it?
Do you find it hard to trust people, and it takes a long time for someone to get to know you?
Do you find it embarrassing to be vulnerable in front of others?
Do you always feel you must be in control of your impulses?
Do you find it difficult to be spontaneous and act without a plan?
Do you have difficulties expressing or even feeling anger?
Would you sacrifice pleasure and fun to meet your standards?
Do you feel you deserve to be punished when you get something wrong?
Is there a massive discrepancy between how you see yourself and how others see you?
Do you censor yourself and other people’s behavior with high moral standards?
Do you tend to minimize your distress and be ‘stoic’ about everything?
Most of the time, our society encourages us, either explicitly or inadvertently, to be self-controlled and disciplined. Our schools, workplace, and institutions all celebrate the qualities of order, diligence, discipline, performance, and compliance. We do need rules and people who respect them for our society to function and flourish, and being conscientious and disciplined are definitely virtues. However, there is indeed something as too much of a good thing. It turns out; research has indicated that the relationship between self-control tendencies and mental health falls on a bell curve— too much or too little self-control is not conducive to well-being (Lynch, Hempel & Dunkley 2015). Wanting to have some control is human, but a severe fear of losing control can be detrimental to mental health.
Overcontrol and severe fear of losing control is caused by a combination of bio-temperament (nature), upbringing (nurture), and cultural and systemic factors (nurture). Sometimes it is a function that helps you do well in the world, but to its extreme, being over-controlled is not sustainable and causes you to feel increasingly alone and unfulfilled in life. In this article, I will address overcontrol from multiple perspectives— from cognitive psychology, Schema, and Jungian Theory, to personality typologies such as MBTI and the Enneagram.
He is terribly afraid of dying because he hasn’t yet lived.”
― Franz Kafka
Having an overcontrolled personality trait is different from being ‘controlling’; it concerns self-control and does not necessarily mean you want to control other people. This is a coping style that is characterized by excessive concern about inhibiting your emotional expressions and behaviors. When you have a severe fear of losing control, you may become perfectionistic, rigid, emotionally inhibited, and critical of yourself and others. Even though you may think of yourself as ‘lazy’ and indulgent, in other people’s eyes, you are disciplined, diligent, and controlled.
Overcontrol As defined in ‘RO-DBT’
Dr. Thomas Lyncn and his team are amongst the most prominent researchers who have studied over-controlled tendencies. They founded Radically Opened Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (RO-DBT), an evidence-based treatment protocol for this trait. In their theory, people who have the overcontrol trait have the following four’ core deficits’:
Lack of Receptivity and Openness— You tend to be risk-averse and hyper-vigilant. You may avoid new and novel experiences and can be dismissive of other people’s input and feedback.
Lack of Flexible Responding— You may have a compulsive need for structure and order. You plan and rehearse everything. Your life may be governed by rigid rules you impose on yourself. You may also censor yourself and other people’s behavior with high moral standards.
Lack of Emotional Expression and Awareness— You inhibit spontaneous emotional expression, or maybe you have expressions that do not match how you feel on the inside (e.g. you smile when you are distressed). You also tend to diminish your own distress and be stoic about everything.
Lack of Social Connectedness and Intimacy— You may appear distant and aloof and keep people at arm’s length. You may also compare yourself with others often and feel envious and bitter.
Under-control vs Over-control
Dr. Lynch and colleagues conceptualized the overcontrol character by putting it in juxtaposition with the ‘under-control character. People who are under-controlled tend to struggle with emotional dysregulation and impulsivity; their personality is associated with Cluster B personality disorders such as Borderline PD, Antisocial PD, and Narcissistic PD. Symptoms associated with under-control are more widely discussed and tend to receive more attention in both the mental health field and the media. Under-controlled people tend to appear more dramatic, erratic, and expressive. In contrast, over-controlled people come across as quiet, reserved, understated, and hard to engage. They rarely get excited and are usually polite, in control, and calm. Even when they are highly anxious, they tend not to let others see it on the outside. They also tend to be self-conscious and critical of themselves. They are more likely to have Cluster-C personality disorders such as Avoidant PD, Dependent PD, and Obsessive-Compulsive PD.
(One thing to note: People with Quiet BPD have more over-controlled tendencies than their Classic BPD counterparts, which may explain their frustration with conventional treatments such as DBT. See the section below)
When someone has overcontrol tendencies, their lack of emotional expressiveness creates difficulties in the interpersonal realm. As humans, emotional exchange is essential when it comes to social bonding. When you don’t know how to express your feelings authentically, you also don’t know how to ‘signal’ friendliness to others, and that increases isolation. In fact, research has found that a non-expressive person tends to be perceived as less trustworthy, and most people prefer to not be affiliated with them. (Barnsley, Hempel & Lynch, 2011; Gross, 2002).
Interacting with people and building intimacy involves many factors that are outside of your control, and the fear of losing control may cause you to withdraw further from the social world. You may have a lot of social ‘contact’, but not genuine, deep, and whole-hearted connections. This leaves you in a place of deep loneliness. You may appear normal, but the longing for someone who truly ‘gets’ you remain.
Overcontrol is often not recognized. Unlike people who are under-controlled, those who are over-controlled are private and reserved. Their ability to tolerate the high amount of pain and distress means they rarely seek help. Even within the mental health field, people who are over-controlled are not causing a scene or drawing any attention to themselves. This means they often slip through the net and do not receive the help they deserve.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
For a deep dive on RO-DBT and Overcontrol, here is an interview I did with RO_DBT therapist Hope Arnold.
A short trailer of the full podcast episode:
From the Schema Perspective
In the language of Schema theory, according to Dr. Jeffrey Young, when you are over-controlled, you also most likely have the schemas of ‘Emotional Inhibition’ and ‘Unrelenting Standards/ Hyper-criticalness’.
Emotional Inhibition means due to the fear of losing control, you hold back from acting or communicating spontaneously. Usually, the underlying motive is to avoid disapproval, the feeling of shame, or losing control over yourself. The most common inhibitions include Inhibition over anger and aggression, Inhibition of positive emotions such as excitement and sexual impulses, and difficulties expressing vulnerabilities. You may also use intellectualization and rationalization to deal with emotions.
In Hyper-criticalness, you have designed your life to meet very high standards about most things. These might have been standards you have internalized from other sources like your parents or competitive schooling, but they now feel like ‘yours’. You constantly feel like you must be doing something, producing something, and achieving something. You struggle to slow down or relax. In order to meet your own standards, you may sacrifice health, leisure, and relationships. You are perfectionistic and would notice the smallest thing that does not align with the bigger picture. You might also be preoccupied with speed and efficiency and feel anxious if you think you might be wasting time. You may impose a lot of rules, moral standards, and ‘shoulds’ on yourself and others. Even you know being critical of others is detrimental to your relationship, you cannot help yourself.
Overcontrol in relation to the DSM
In terms of the DSM and clinical diagnosis, overcontrol is associated with all forms of anxiety disorders (e.g. panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder). Fear of losing control is at the core of most anxiety disorders. It is also a character trait that contributes to Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (which is different from OCD), Avoidant Personality Disorder, and Schizoid Personality Disorder. The trait is also common amongst those with Anorexia Nervosa, Autism, and chronic and treatment-resistant depression.
Overcontrol and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Usually, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is considered a disorder caused by under-controlled tendencies. However, in my experience, some people who identify with most symptoms in BPD— the fear of abandonment, black-or-white thinking, mood swings, urges to self-harm and etc, also have over-controlled tendencies. They often identify as having ‘Quiet BPD‘, or ‘High-functioning BPD’.
When you have Quiet BPD, you’ act in’ rather than ‘act out. You blame yourself and feel limited and bounded by shame, but you rarely explicitly express anger. Your suffering is missed by most, including mental health professionals. (More on this here)
In High-functioning BPD, you shield your conscious and unconscious anxieties and relational wound with a facade of success. In both cases, your deepest attachment wounds and yearning for authentic love pain remain buried. (More on this here)
On the surface, you may be highly rational, logical, calm, and collected. However, on the inside, you feel lost and inept when it comes to intimacy or feeling like you are a part of humanity. Behind the screen, you may be depressed, emotionally lonely, and existentially lost, feel like you don’t know what you are living for. If you have Quiet or High-functioning BPD, what you have is considered ‘internalized disorders’ more so than ‘externalizing disorder.’ Therefore, you may feel out of place being in a group with others who have more ‘classic BPD’ symptoms may not be the best for you.
You may also find materials in traditional Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) irrelevant to you. DBT, as it is designed for people with BPD, emphasizes enhancing distress tolerance and reducing conflicts, but these are not your main struggles. You might also find DBT overly prescriptive and even reinforce your over-controlled tendencies. In contrast to a highly structured behavioral therapy, you would likely benefit from something more relationally-based and attachment-oriented.
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
― Salvador Dali
Overcontrol and Attachment Styles
Attachment patterns can be broadly categorized as secure, anxious-resistant, avoidant, disorganized. (And they can overlap. I won’t go into details here, but there are many good resources for a deeper dive on attachment theory) Instead of being on the ‘anxious’ spectrum, people who severely fear losing control are more likely to have avoidance attachment patterns — at least in terms of their behaviors. Through early experiences, you might have developed a schema that tells you reaching out for help is futile, or even dangerous. When you reach out for help, you were dismissed or even punished. Thus, you have learned to rely on absolutely no one but yourself. The message you have internalized is that vulnerability puts you at risk, so it is best that you hide it, suppress it, so no one can take advantage of you. Even as a child, ’emotional over-regulation, rather than under-regulation, is observed in your behaviors (Martins et al., 2012). If you have adopted this survival strategy as a child, you may continue with the same pattern. Even now, you see yourself as being completely self-reliant. You tend to hide your true self and avoid close bonds. Instead of support from others, self-restraint, discipline, the accumulation of knowledge, resources, and power are what you rely on to feel safe in life.
Overcontrol in the Enneagram
Overcontrol and severe fear of losing control can be found in all enneagram types, depending on people’s unique coping styles and type manifestation. However, we can assume that overcontrol is the most associated with Type 1 personality, followed by Type 5 and Type 8.
Enneagram Type One is endowed with hypersensitivity towards anything that seems wrong, out of line, or imperfect. There is a compulsive need to fix things, and one can almost never be satisfied with the way things are. They are usually inhibited, and the fear of losing control is at the core of their personality characterization.
When Ones look around, they see other people not doing their part, getting away with irresponsibilities, over-indulge in selfish desires, and breaking ‘rules’ that they so dutifully follow. Deep down, you are enraged by the unfairness of it all though you usually don’t allow yourself to lash out. Subconsciously, you feel it is your duty to fix the world for the better. Your criticalness towards yourself and others, however, makes your life incredibly lonely. Ones can appear critical, judgemental, and moralistic to others, but really, you are the harshest critic of yourself.
Spiritually, it is said that Ones have lost contact with their ‘essential nature’, which is inherent perfection with all that exists and their intrinsic perfection (Maitri, 2000). In order to make up for a sense of spiritual lack, they strive for perfection that does not really exist in this world.
Ones’ wonderful trait makes them highly productive, dutiful, conscientious people. Enneagram teacher Riso (1993) prescribes the following affirmations for the Ones: “I now release holding myself and others to impossible standards.” “I now affirm that I can make mistakes without condemning myself.”
People who are Enneagram Type 5 have an excessive need to rely on themselves and limit their reliance on others. Fives use intellectualizing and isolation as ways to avoid feeling empty. You are wary of dependency of any kind and would ‘hoard’ knowledge and resources to make sure you will never have to be dependent on someone or something that is outside of your control. Embedded inside the facade of self-sufficiency is the fear of feeling helpless and incapable, which was once your experience as a child.
People who are Type 8 are wary of revealing any vulnerability. You do not ever want to be bullied, humiliated, looked down upon, or taken advantage of. When plans don’t go your way, you will do all that you can to regain control and a sense of power, which reinforces the need to control yourself and sometimes your environment. As an Eight, you may use denial as a way of defending against tender feelings. As time goes on, you become completely disconnected from your inner world and don’t know how to seek help even when you want to.
Overcontrol and The Big Five Personality Model
The traits in the Big Five personality model can be remembered via the OCEAN acronym: extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and agreeableness. People who are over-controlled tend to score high in conscientiousness (Claes et al., 2006), which is defined as the propensity to be self-controlled, responsible to others, hardworking, orderly, dependable, goal-directed, combined with a high ability to delay gratification (Brent et al., 2009). They tend to be efficient but struggle with relaxation.
Conscientiousness is not a bad trait. To the right degree, it is positively associated with a sense of wellbeing, health, and longevity, lower divorce rate, even lower risk of dementia (Bogg and Roberts, 2004; Jackson and Roberts, 2017; Sutin, Stephan, and Terracciano, 2018; Tabernero, 2019). It is worth pointing out that even the ability to control oneself is conducive to good health and interpersonal relationship; It is only when one is overcontrolled and plague by the fear of losing control to an extreme degree that it becomes detrimental.
Overcontrol in MBTI Typology
There has not been any official research on the link between MBTI and overcontrol. But anecdotally, overcontrol is probably the most associated with the Introverted Intuitive types; namely INFJs and INTJs. Please note that this is a potential link, not causation or equivalence.
When most people think of INTJs, they think of someone who appears calm, collected, and intelligent. They are usually private people who keep to themselves. Not tending to display a wide range of emotions, however, does not mean they do not feel them. Usually, unlike INFJs, INTJs do not think of themselves as sentimental people. But it is a myth to say that INTJs are non-feelings. Deep down, they can be feeling as intensely as everyone else, but they have developed emotional Inhibition and avoidance as a way of dealing with life.
INFJs or INTJs usually do not feel they fit into the world. When you have tried again and again to express yourself but hit a wall of misunderstanding, it becomes natural for you to eventually hide and ‘socially give up’. This reinforces the tendency to be excessively self-reliant, and not talk to others about your sorrow.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
― Marcus Aurelius
Overcontrol Tendencies From a Jungian Psychology Perspective
For Carl Jung and Jungian therapists, ‘Individuation’ is our central goal in life and in therapy. This process is what moves us away from inertia and illnesses and towards wholeness. Individuation means embracing our innermost uniqueness and coming into our own. We can all be afraid of things in life— uncertainty, rejection, exposure, failure. But if we allow our fear to hold us back, we will remain stuck in a limbo. As a part of our Hero’s journey— we must boldly and recently challenge our fears. In Jung’s own words, he said: ‘For the hero, fear is a challenge and a task, because only boldness can deliver from fear. And if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is somehow violated, and the whole future is condemned to hopeless staleness, to a drab grey lit only by will-o’-the-wisps.’ Overcontrol, in many ways, is our way of trying to defy gravity. Instead of learning to come to terms with the uncertainties in life and proceed with all that we have got, we fall back on rules, withdraw from people, and harshly censor ourselves to sustain a sense of pseudo-safety. Yet the more we use these overcontrol strategies, the more we feel unfulfilled and depressed. Even when we narcotize ourselves with activities, addiction, drugs, food; if deep down we know we are leaving behind an unlived life, the nagging existential angst would still haunt us every day.
The paradox is that even the task of individuation can seem like a daunting task, it is our way out of despair, depression, and stuckness in life. Ultimately, Only boldness can save us from psychic deadening. To do so, we must create our own meaning in life. When overtaken by a purpose bigger than ourselves, we can transcend our fear of losing control and move forward, even with all the uncertainties in life.
Overcontrol and Fear of Losing Control Form a Buddhist Psychology Perspective
From a Buddhist perspective, not being able to relinquish control comes from a deep-rooted misunderstanding about how the world works. Suffering finds its root in attachment to an illusory sense of ‘self’, and derived from it, cravings and aversions. The fear of losing what would reinforce the sense of self (reputation, possession, loved ones, things that define oneself), and the fear of sense of self-being directly diminished (being attacked, humiliated, losing things one cherishes) are what cause a ‘whole mass of suffering.’ From the Buddhist perspective, eradicating spiritually ignorant views of the world and understanding the principle of interconnectedness is a path to freedom from the need to control.
Causes of Overcontrol and the Fear of Losing Control
Biotemperament— The ‘Nature’ Factor
Dr. Thomas Lynch, the founder of Radically-Open DBT considers ‘bio-temperament’ — the biological predisposition that affects how we perceive the world and regulate emotions — to be the core cause of over-controlled tendencies.
His research builds on earlier studies done on highly sensitive children (Kagan, 1994), and the hypothesis that some of us are born with a more sensitive system and more alert to stressors and threats in the environment. (For more on this, please see the page on the Highly Sensitive Person)
Being born with a heightened ‘threat sensitivity’ means you are more likely than others to interpret social cues negatively, which also means it is more difficult for you to feel safe. When you don’t feel safe, you would naturally amp up the use of overcontrol defenses, which perpetuate the cycle of social isolation (Chen et al., 2015).
Another quality of this bio-temperament is the ability to control impulses (think the kids who manage to wait in the famous Marshmallow Experiment). Compared to your peers, you innately have a diminished experience of spontaneous pleasure and excitatory arousal. This means it takes a higher level of intensity to make you feel engaged and stimulated.
These biology-based traits are powerful because they are unconscious and affect us without us even realizing it. Because this is an innate predisposition, you cannot will yourself, think yourself, or use more willpower to control or talk your way out of it.
Having this natural temperament will not necessarily cause pathological overcontrol. Usually, only when the’ nature’ factors are compounded with factors in your environment and other potentially traumatic life circumstances would dysfunctional overcontrol be resulted.
Experience in your Family of Origin— ‘Nurture’ Factors
It is not possible to come up with an exhaustive list of family situations that could contribute to over-controlled tendencies, but here are a few primary examples.
Neglectful Parenting and a Lonely Childhood
When a child is chronically neglected, or when their primary caregivers are not responsive to or reject their needs, they may learn to diminish and reject their own needs and feelings as a way of coping. Emotions are there to signal us what we need, but if your experience has taught you that there is ‘no point’ in knowing your needs, for they will never be met, you would of course find it easier if you are no longer aware of your needs. After all, continuing to be made aware of our needs and not having them met is a painful state to be in. You may recognize the value of relationships and have a strong desire for them, but have difficulty trusting others. Even inside you feel anxious and worry about others leaving you (Anxious attachment style); you would rather not risk seeking out the attachment and be rejected. Instead, you fall back on the set of trialed- and true overcontrol strategies to try and get your needs met.
Excessive Focus on Achievement and Performance.
Some parents, sometimes due to transgenerational trauma or their values, place an excessive focus on performance and exert pressure on their children to be exceptionally capable. Hothousing, for example, is often done to intellectually intense and gifted children. This is when children are being pressured to perform beyond the norm academically or with a talent. Usually, the drive behind the push belongs to the parents, not the child. When overly pressured with tiger parenting, you as a child may suffer from intense academic anxiety, low confidence, extreme fear of losing control, and low self-esteem. You may also shut down emotionally.
Usually, in a family where performance is everything, intimacy between parents and the child, room for emotional expressions, and play are sacrificed. If you already have the innate disposition to be highly conscientious, the idea that you must be perfect to be good would easily become inscribed in your psyche. The message you have internalized is that you must be special, ‘perfect’, even superior to your peers and siblings in order to be loved. This message plans the seeds of later-life issues such as a tendency to compare yourself to others, over-competitiveness, high anxiety, and toxic perfectionism.
Chaotic Family and Parentification
Either due to their own psychological constraints, lack of maturity, or trauma, some parents are unable to fulfill their parental role with a stable and solid presence. They may be depressed, withdrawn, abusive; they may also be struggling in poverty or dealing with addictions.
In these situations, the most sensitive and empathic child of the family would either volunteer or unconsciously get ‘elected’ by the family members to step up and play the role of the leader/ confidant/ therapist. They may physically and emotionally take care of their parents and siblings. They may also have to do tasks buying groceries, disciplining their younger siblings, or counseling their parents.
More and more research is supporting the longstanding negative impact of parent-child role reversal. If you were being pushed to play a mini-adult in your family from a young age, you were robbed of a carefree childhood and the right to learn from mistakes. This burden was more than you can handle, so you were pushed to exercise an excessive amount of self-control and discipline just to get by. Also, seeing the suffering your parents have caused you and your siblings, you may vow never to be as chaotic and disorganized as they are and over-corrected to the point where your discipline and restraint become dysfunctional.
Overprotective and Intrusive Parenting
Some parents are highly anxious and struggle to let go. Even if they live in grown-up bodies, they feel or behave like a frightened child. They may believe in conspiracy theories, threatening narratives about the world and have little trust in people. Not only do they have mind filters that pay selective attention to danger, they also over-analyze everything and assume everyone have ulterior motives. They are the ones who fear losing control, but this fear is projected outward into the world. Growing up with these parents, you might have internalized their fears of the world, and adopted their beliefs about the world.
Highly anxious and controlling parents may shield you from all potentially challenging situations like parties or camps. They constantly warn you of all the bad things that can happen and discourage you from trusting people. Directly and inadvertently, they have made you believe that the world is a dangerous place and that people are not to be trusted.
Since the world is unsafe and you cannot count on others, over-controlled and ritualistic behaviors naturally become what you fall back on. Instead of tolerating risks in life, you have opted to limit your world for the sake of feeling safe.
Emotionally Inhibited Family
You might also have learned to become emotionally inhibited and perfectionistic because all your life you have been surrounded by people who have these traits. You might have been shamed by your emotions-phobic parents when you were a child or got scorned by your peers and school teachers when you were exuberant and expressive. Perhaps you were punished for being ‘out of control’ when you were acting like a normal child— making messes, speaking up, and being spontaneous. The underlying doctrine that runs in the family and your culture might have been that it is self-indulgent or selfish to show feelings or act upon them. The hidden family or cultural ‘rule’ says it is virtuous to tolerate distress and never complain. It can be difficult to shift these deeply ingrained doctrines.
A psychology concept called ‘invisible loyalties‘ explains how behaviors and mindsets can be passed down through generations, often not by choice but unconsciously and detrimentally. We might have vowed to never repeat our parents’ dysfunction, but we are unconsciously drawn to the same worldview and coping strategies.
Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.
Systemic Factors that contribute to the Fear of Losing Control
Consciously or not, we are all affected by a culture that promotes hegemonic masculinity ideals (Connell, 1995). In Western and Westernized societies, the ideal hegemonic masculinity is one that is invulnerable. Most emotional expressions, except for anger, are discouraged or deem as ‘weak’. This notion is so pervasive in our culture that it affects not just men but for everyone. (Kupers 2005) Dependency and other softer attributes are considered undesirable. Such notions foster counter-dependency and emotional Inhibition at hefty social and psychological costs.
A Caveat: Cultural Adjustment
The tendency to be over-controlled is more prevalent, encouraged, and is even an inherent part of certain cultures. For example, in many East-Asian cultures, the primary goal of social relationships is to anticipate and accommodate other people’s needs. (Morling et al., 2002). As a norm, emotions that focus on individual preferences and needs are concealed. Self-expression and open communication of feelings are not as valued in these cultures when compared to their Western counterparts (Markus and Kitayama 2003). For example, in a culture that is ‘shame-based’ (Ho & Got 2017), where pride and honor are valued above many other things, it is considered ‘normal’ to have a high tolerance for distress.
Cultural variants that contribute to differences in the level of emotional control raise the question of cultural sensitivity. When assessing whether someone is over-controlled to the point of being dysfunctional, we must take cultural factors into account. Rather than making it a tick-box exercise, a better question to ask may be: Is someone over-controlled as compared to others in their culture? Is it causing distress or dysfunction in the context in which they exist?
Flipping From Being Undercontrol to Being Overcontrol, and Vice Versa
Within the framework of Dr. Thomas Lynch’s theory of under-control, it seems unlikely that one’s tendency to be over or under-control could shift. This is because these patterns find their roots in bio-temperaments. However, in my experience, people can certainly swing from under-control to being over-control, and vice versa.
If in your younger years, you leaned towards under-controlled and have suffered social consequences — losing friends, people you love, jobs, becoming a scapegoat, etc, you might have made an unconscious vow to never let yourself be out of control again. When you have ‘over-corrected to the point of detriment, a rigidly held overcontrol pattern results.
On the other hand, if you felt the pressure to be over-controlled all your life, you might reach a breaking point where you feel the urge to do the opposite. In some extreme examples, you might have been in a cult or had early religious trauma, where you have internalized a set of oppressive rules. When you grow out of that limited circle and have a glimpse of freedom, you feel compelled to over-indulge in the newfound pleasure and freedom.
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”
What Can Be Done with the Fear of Losing Control?
Most existing mental health treatments and psychotherapy are geared towards helping people who have under-control tendencies— for e.g. helping them to track emotional triggers, manage their impulses, curb addictions and manage conflicts. If you are an over-controlled person, and your underlying difficulty is the fear of losing control over yourself, much traditional treatment may not be the best suited to you. If your therapist does not have enough knowledge and awareness of overcontrol tendencies, they may inadvertently reinforce your desire to be a ‘good client’, to’ be better, or even more disciplined on your track. Your therapist may go along with your people-pleasing tendencies and not encourage you to express anger and disappointment, especially if it is towards them.
You may wish to approach a therapist who has been trained in treatment protocols that are specifically designed for overcontrol, such as Radically Open Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (RO-DBT). If you already have a therapist, you can explain what you have learned about over-control with them, and work on this within your existing relationship and their repertoire.
An integrative therapist, like myself, will combine different therapeutic approaches according to your individual temperament and needs. To heal in a holistic way, we shall tackle the issue on various levels— emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally, and spiritually. To formulate an effective treatment plan, different theories will be employed— psychodynamic, behaviorist, cognitive, systemic theories, Jungian psychology. None of these approaches have the full picture, and they complement each other to help in your journey towards wholeness.
The following are some approaches and methods that can potentially be helpful:
At the beginning phase of coaching and therapy, you and your coach/therapist can have an open and congruent discussion about how your overcontrol trait have come to be. Through a deep dive in your past and present, we can examine the overcontrol psychological and behavioral strategies that you have adopted throughout the years— working hard, restricting leisure, constantly checking yourself, being perfectionistic, and etc, their advantages and disadvantages, and engage your logical thinking to discern whether or not you want to change. This way, If you do decide to commit to change, you know it is a decision that is congruent to what you want.
Intellectual insights alone, however, may not be able to create lasting change. We may want to go back into the past, uncover the emotional root of your current predicament, and give you a different emotional experience. In the past, when you were trying to express yourself naturally, you were dismissed, punished, or neglected. These experiences have left a mark on your psyche. Like a cage, they limit what you feel and do, and make you trapped in fear. Therefore, we want to create a safe and non-judgemental space for your inner child to express themselves. For example, we can have a guided visualization exercise, in which we summon resources or the stronger, bigger you to help your younger self. You may go back in time and console them when they are in fear, give them a chance to express their anger and fears, and tell them the burdens that they carried were not theirs. We can give them a chance to play, to make a mess without being punished, and let the child in you be a child. Apart from visual imagery exercises, we can also use the Empty Chair exercise to confront the parents or authorities who had hurt, humiliated, or shamed you. These experiential strategies are powerful as they touch your psyche on an emotional level.
Tackling Experiential Avoidance
Recent research has found a strong correlation between overcontrol traits, especially in OCD and OCPD, with what psychologists call “experiential avoidance (Hayes-Skelton & Eustis 2020).
Experiential avoidance is defined by an unwillingness to stay in contact with your distressing feelings and experience. (For more on experiential avoidance, here is a good video for it. The irony is that experiential avoidance is actually what often sustains our distress (Hayes et al., 1996). Avoidance makes what you want to avoid run more rampant. For example, trying not to feel anxious may perpetuate anxiety instead of allowing it to go away in its own time. Fearing social situations and locking oneself in isolation make social anxiety worse. As a human, it is natural to want to avoid pain, but when this coping style is over-used, your problem is likely compounded rather than otherwise. It may be difficult for you to believe that the only way through is through, but if what you are doing is not working, it may be time to try another way. In this regard, approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based practices would be helpful.
We can also conduct behaviors experiments to apply the new insights into your life. For example, we can conduct role-plays, or help you make plans to start expressing feelings to your significant others, introducing more fun and playfulness into your life, reconnecting with your body, or trying something spontaneous. By doing series of behavioral experiments, your mind and body will slowly learn that it is safe to act without too much Inhibition and planning.
Corrective Experience and Relational Healing
Above all theories, I always believe in the tremendous power of a healing relationship. Usually, overcontrol is a result of early relational trauma, thus, the best healing agent for it would be found in the relational realm. ‘Emotionally Corrective Experience’ is the term used to describe the healing process that happens in your relationship with your therapist.
Through repeated exchange in a secure relationship, either with your therapist or a trusted significant other, you get to experience, again and again, that it is safe for you to express yourself— you can scream, cry and laugh without being shamed. Ideally, you would even feel safe enough to assert yourself and tell the other person you are angry or disappointed with them. Gradually, you can apply this learning to other realms of your life, and feel more able to be expressive and assertive without being paralyzed in shame or fear.
Furthermore, A therapist who is expressive and open can model healthy ways of being; you may get to enjoy moments of humorous exchange and intimacy. Essentially, by having a relationally corrective experience, hardwired neuropathways in your brain are rewired. This has now been validated by abundant research. An emotionally corrective experience offers you a powerful, first-hand experience that challenges distorted self-beliefs and behavioral patterns that were residual of your relational trauma. It opens the doorway to building secure and stable relationships with people in your life, and more peace and freedom.
Couple’s Counselling or Family Therapy
As an over-controlled person, you may find yourself being drawn to someone with the opposite tendency. It can be because your psyche yearns to heal and integrate with your shadow side. There is a healthy drive in you that is moving towards wholeness, and that part of you wants to re-embrace your inner child, one that is carefree, playful, and spontaneous. If, as an over-controlled person, you have chosen a partner that leans towards being under-controlled, the dynamic may become polarised over time. The same polarising dynamics can happen in a family system and can be illustrated as the over-functioner/ under—functioner dynamic. You may find yourself constantly ‘picking up the slack’ for them, or having to take care of them. The ‘opposites’ that originally attracted both of you may later become the source of conflicts— your carefree and emotional partner criticizes you for your rigidity, whilst you find their chaos, neediness, and emotional volatility unbearable. However, if you can both recognize your personality differences and the dynamic that is involved, you can learn from each other and grow in a healthy direction. Ultimately, psychological growth is found in a middle ground where you are neither too rigid nor too loose, neither too inhibited nor extravagant. With the help of a mediator, a couple’s counselor, or a family therapist, you can be helped to reconcile your difference. In an ideal situation, the relationship you have with your romantic partner/ family member can serve as a ‘secure base’ for you, through which you can experiment with becoming more open, vulnerable, and connected.
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.
As someone with the overcontrol trait, you tolerate distress too much to the point you don’t seek help even when you should. You delay gratification so much to the point you restrict yourself too much and don’t have enough fun. You are already organized and restrained, and so the goal of therapy is not to help you tolerate more pain or be even more disciplined, but to become more open, flexible, spontaneous, expressive, and seize joy out of life.
To sum up, some of the basic premises of successful treatment with someone who has the overcontrol trait are: a solid and trusting relationship to heal the attachment trauma of being neglected or shunned; experiential strategies and exercises to help you integrate different parts of yourself, to have the therapist as a role model for spontaneity, openness and emotional expressions; healing from the shame of making ‘messes’, spiritual guidance to become okay with uncertainty in life.
It is likely that, for most of your life, you have spent a lot of energy meeting other people’s needs— be it your family, loved ones, or your work.
You may be a company director, a community leader, the action-taker in the family system, the ‘strong one’ in your relationship. It has always been about your responsibilities and duties and rarely does anyone wonder about your need for joy and relaxation.
No matter where you are in life, as you emerge into a healthier, more integrated self, it would be integral that you reclaim the part of you that yearns to be carefree. It is absolutely possible— once your inner protector learns that it truly is safe for you to let go, and to trust life to hold you, it will.
And when you find the whole new world that awaits you— one in which you feel light and free, one that is full of love and warmth — there is no turning back.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
― Joseph Campbell
My Words To You Who Fear Losing Control: It Is Not All On You
When we have been traumatized or over-burdened as a child, we have a tendency to assume everything is ‘down to us’.
When things happen according to plan, we assume that we have been successful because we have worked hard to make it happen.
we are safe because we have been hyper-vigilant and not trusted anyone.
But then, when things do not go our way, when we are in danger when we are harmed, betrayed, abandoned,
…we also assume it is because we have made a huge mistake, been a ‘bad person,’ been ‘too much,’ not worked hard enough, or that we are fundamentally defective.
This pattern finds its root in a well-meaning protective mechanism created by our psyche.
When you were little, and your parents, sibling, teachers, and peers were mean to you, or those who were supposed to protect you did not protect you, you would not know what to do.
Even when you were neglected and abused, you could not blame your parents because
being angry at those you depend on was an extremely frightening thing to do.
Your young mind feared: ‘If these ONLY people that I must depend on are “bad,” then what else have I got?’
You asked yourself, ‘If there is absolutely nothing I can do to control what happens to me, how can I even survive in this scary world?’
So naturally, you resorted to the only thing you could do: Driving all blame onto yourself.
Subconsciously, you thought:
When bad things happen, it must be because I have not done good enough, that I was somehow defective, or I did something wrong. That way, at least I preserve the ideas that the parents I depend on are ‘good’.
And if it was ME that was bad, then at least there is something I can do!
Maybe I can work harder to become a better person.
I can be extremely careful and diligent, so I never make any mistakes.
I will ALWAYS put others’ needs above mine to make sure I am a good person.
I will always study hard, work hard, and make sure I am perfect in whatever I do.
I will always strive for success and recognition; hopefully, that can secure me love.
I will always jump in to mediate the situation when I see conflicts arise.
I will always put on a brave, happy face and never burden anyone with my sorrow.
I will always be strong and never warrant anyone else to protect me.
I will stop being a child and grow up fast.
I will stop having any needs or feelings.
These hums become our narratives. They seep deeply into our psyche and become the cardinal rules that run our lives.
One day, we realize we have lost our innocence, the ability to taste joy or to relax in life.
If you can rewind the clock and go back in time, I wish you could hold the hand of that scared young child and tell them everything is not their fault and that everything was not on their shoulders.
It should never have been their job to cheer up their parents, counsel their family, appease the bullies. They were entitled to the right to be clumsy, to be self-focused, and to make many, many mistakes. They should never have been blamed for being a child.
Perhaps you can take away their heavy burdens of blame, shame and guilt.
Perhaps, if you can go back in time and liberate that young child of their burden,
You would also, in the present day, feel lighter, freer.
Be kind, but remember other people’s happiness and ease are not your responsibility even when they are your close loved ones, even when they blame you for hurting their feelings.
You have the right to be angry, speak up, and stop people from violating your boundaries.
Nothing needs to be perfect, and it is not all up to you.
Everything is a collaboration with forces outside of yourself that you can’t see.
When things do not happen according to plan, there might be an order or a reason that you do not yet see.
When you want something to happen, you do not have to live under extreme stress and believe you alone need to make it all happen.
You can set an intention, put in your best effort, then let go.
Remember these, and see if today, just for this one day, you can breathe a little better and feel a little lighter.
For just a moment, can you relax into the fact that your reality is a co-creation with the universe?
You deserve to be free.
You deserve to live for yourself.
Breath, you are okay.
You are held by something bigger than you.
Written by Imi Lo
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.