Three Causes of Controlling Behavior

Regardless of whether the causes are psychological, biological, or spiritual, the engine room of a an obsessive is a constant effort to control everything in the world around them (and inside them)

These are helpful observations for understanding how such traits can develop, and should increase our compassion and understanding for such sufferers. However, as Christians with Calvin’s spectacles, we have to go further in three ways. First, we have to say that even if the causes have parental or genetic components, we must believe that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit have a necessary and important role to play in conditioning how we react to our parental or genetic inheritance.

 

Yesterday we looked at some of the symptoms and character traits of controlling people. But what are the deeper underlying causes? Unsurprisingly for a secular book that pays tribute to Freud, Mallinger traces the roots to one’s parents. However, in this case, he’s probably on to something, at least as a partial answer. He says the most common scenario he hears in his practice from obsessives and controllers is:

A parent whose love seemed conditional, tied to such things as how well they performed, and how “good” or capable they were. Because they also perceived their parents as critical, negativistic, and hard to please, these bright, sensitive children felt caught in a no-win situation, never feeling that they were good enough—never feeling secure. (7)

Mallinger does allow that this is based on the reporting of controlling types, and that this may simply be the way they perceive their parents. However, it’s too common a narrative to dismiss altogether, and it also makes sense that such parenting would often result in these traits being internalized by children.

Many of Mallinger’s obsessive patients did not feel liked by one or both parents. They’d tried to be good kids but were either not appreciated or frequently criticized. Nothing was ever good enough. The resulting feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and longing to be liked, engendered perfectionism, caution, drivenness, and other obsessive traits.

Moving on from the parental cause, Mallinger then identifies genes. Some kids are just perfectionist, picky, cautious, etc. from birth. They seem to have a constitutional pre-disposition to obsessiveness that is then often multiplied by early childhood experiences.

Christian Qualifications and Additions

These are helpful observations for understanding how such traits can develop, and should increase our compassion and understanding for such sufferers. However, as Christians with Calvin’s spectacles, we have to go further in three ways. First, we have to say that even if the causes have parental or genetic components, we must believe that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit have a necessary and important role to play in conditioning how we react to our parental or genetic inheritance. We are still responsible for seeking spiritual resources to re-condition or overcome our responses to such social or physical factors. (In extreme cases, this may be in combination with meds.) Hopefully we can explore what this looks like in further posts.

Second, there can also be spiritual causes such as a failure to trust in the sovereignty of God, refusal to accept one’s fallenness, denial of the world’s imperfection, or just plain pride and man- (and woman-) pleasing.

Third, we have to adjust our parenting so that we do not cause such problems for our children (and repent if we have). It’s hardly surprising in an age of hyper-achieving children (and parents) that there’s a growing epidemic of mental disorders in our kids. Mallinger speaks of the need for unconditional love. Unfortunately, for him that means simply accepting virtually everything our kids say and do. However, without going to that extreme, I’m sure it would help many of our kids to know that their parents love them regardless of their GPA. We might be sparing them a lifetime of misery.

The Controller’s Engine Room 

Regardless of whether the causes are psychological, biological, or spiritual, the engine room of a an obsessive is a constant effort to control everything in the world around them (and inside them). It’s an attempt to guarantee security; to assure safe passage through the risks and uncertainties of living. They somehow think that if they try hard enough they can eliminate risk.

Such behavior can pay handsome dividends, as it tends to produce high-achievers, people who are admired for their self-discipline and organization. However, it comes with a dreadful inner price tag of loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Here’s how Mallinger puts it:

Many obsessives suffer the endless agony of having to do everything well—an unnecessary imperative that can ruin even the most enjoyable of activities. Their fear of embarrassment and appearing less than perfect may keep them from trying new things. They struggle daily under the weight of a massive inner rulebook, an overgrown sense of duty, responsibility, and fairness. Most obsessives rarely taste the joys of the moment; the present hardly exists for them. Even in their time off, many can’t fully relax, or just play. Indeed, they never are really “off.” Worries bedevil them as they plow through life doing the “right” things, hoping that caution, diligence, and sacrifice will pay off—someday. (9)

Does this sound painfully familiar? Tomorrow we’ll look at Mallinger’s diagnostic tool to help us decide if our orderliness has become a disorder.

Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets out of Control by Allen Mallinger.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.