Book notes: Controlling People by Patricia Evans

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This is an important book. Also, before you get the wrong idea, here’s the subtitle:
How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal With People Who Try to Control You

This book is not about how you can learn to control people. (That’s The Prince by Machiavelli.)

It’s about people who try to control you. That’s important because, guess what? People trying to control you is a lot more common than you might think.

When people attempt to control you they begin by pretending. When they define you they are acting in a senseless way. They are pretending. When people act as if you do not exist or are not a real person with a reality of your own — as did the miller — they are pretending. In this subtle and often unconscious way, they are attempting to exert control over you — your space, time, resources, or even your life. We know that they are pretending because in actual fact, no one can tell you what you want, believe, should do, or why you have done what you have done. No one can know your inner reality, your intentions, your motives, what you think…

Here’s the thing. We all try to control other people to some degree, in some situations, okay? You do, I do, everybody does. It’s a universal human response to fear. When we feel fear, we want to feel safe. To feel safe, we want to feel in control. Feeling in control might mean feeling in control of ourselves, our environment, our situation, or (here’s the tricky part!) in control of the people we interact with.

For most of us, attempts to control other people are not habitual. We might go there when we feel very overwhelmed, threatened, unsafe, insecure, or otherwise extremely stressed. But we don’t stay there, and most of us recognize that ‘going there’ is not healthy or right.

Then there are people who seek to control others as a way of life. It’s not a defense mechanism they run to when things are hairy. It’s a default mode of operating all the time.

I believe that most people who act in oppressive ways, consciously or unconsciously, attempting to control others, are trying to meet a particular need that overrides their good intentions. Misdirected, they have sought to meet this need in extraordinarily destructive ways, even while unaware of the need itself.

This book is about those people, and what a relationship with one of them might be like. A relationship might be in a work or family or romantic context, but the patterns of control and oppression are the same in any context.

One particular element seems ever-present: that controlling people seem to be unaware of the fact that they are actively seeking to control, manipulate, and oppress others:

In almost all cases, Controllers are amazingly unconscious of their behavior and their real motives. By unconscious I mean that they act without awareness. For instance, just as a person at any given moment may be unaware of how their back feels against a chair until their attention is drawn to it, Controllers are unaware of their behavior until their attention is directed to it. But it is not a simple problem of inattention — they fight awareness with great determination.

Evans goes into detail about the underlying cause that provokes a person to becoming controlling. While there are many distinct experiences and environments that might lead to the cause, the core issue seems to be that controlling people are separated from their own identities. They are out of touch with their own real selves.

People who, through training, trying, and trauma, have lost inner awareness and are, in a sense, disconnected from themselves, seem to be under a spell. Having virtually no inner world, they may easily “make up” an outer one. This world seems so real and they feel so certain as to how it all should be they may seek positions of leadership.

Because they feel disconnected from their own identity, they seek to connect (in unhealthy, controlling ways) with other people, by defining their identities for them, and manipulating and coercing them to act in a way that matches this definition.

When that definition is threatened by the controlled person actually being who they are (rather than acting as the controlling person wants them to), the controlling person feels threatened. They may rage, threaten, accuse, manipulate, seek to punish, or otherwise find a way to once again assert control.

People who act against us, who are plugged in and feeling powerless at the very moment that they act, don’t think that they are accountable for their actions, because they are reacting to the threat of separateness, which is, of course the feeling of being beside themselves. Even as they deny their wrong doing, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” they are most crucially denying the separateness of the other.

People who are caught in relationships with controlling people often don’t have a clue what’s going on.

It’s tricky. It starts slowly. And if you’re not aware of warning signs, you can miss them. Before long, you’re caught in a weird, entangled set of interactions in which a) you feel increasingly unsure about who you are, b) you feel as if your own memories, logic, reasoning, and emotions are untrustworthy, c) you doubt your own experiences in various encounters with this controlling person, and d) you have no idea how, but you seem to set off conflicts and issues all the time.

Honey, the problem isn’t you.

I have heard many people who were caught in Control Connections say that even when they use all their strength to maintain patience, to carefully articulate their truth, to share their deepest feelings, to explain their personal reality to their mates, they don’t receive understanding but instead encounter disparagement, subtle trivializing, or outright rage. People with excellent communication skills, sensitivity, and honesty can’t “get through.”
…People in personal contact with Controllers on a regular basis, such as within a family or in the workplace, suffer extraordinarily because it is their very being that threatens the Controller.

The only issue I have with this book is Evans’ use of specific terms (Teddy, Pretend Person, Witness, Control Connections, Spellbound) which kind of got on my nerves. I understand why: it’s important to define the terms clearly so the psychological interactions can be explained clearly. But I didn’t love the particular, capitalized usage terms and how often they were used. Maybe that’s just me.

Evans’ book is worth reading because, first, it’s interesting. Psychological stuff is amazing. Humans are so weird. I love us, but I’m also kind of distressed by us.

Second, as you move through life and encounter people, you are likely to encounter people who will try to control you. Maybe they won’t be people you are very close to, but knowing the warning signs can help you establish and maintain boundaries and avoid getting caught up in destructive, controlling interactions.

Third, if you grew up with controlling people, or are currently in a controlling relationship, you might not even know what’s going on. This book can help you see yourself, see the Controller in your life, understand why it’s so difficult to extricate yourself, and start figuring out how to take steps to get out from under control and live your own life.

What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.

Or, in a professional relationship, the belief that the person has authority, sees “the bigger picture,” knows more and is somehow justified in using these controlling behaviors because of greater knowledge and authority.

In either case, controlling someone else is not necessary to do a job or have a relationship. It’s not only unnecessary; it is counterproductive and destructive.

Every time we accept someone else’s definition of our own inner reality, we set aside our own experience and so lose awareness. Eventually we lose access to the information we would normally receive through our functions — information we need to make choices, to understand ourselves, and to act in the world.