Controlling Control Issues: The Lab Rats Look At Who’s In Charge

  • Someday Lesson: If you let others control you or if you try to control others your own dreams will always stay out of reach.

Foxtongue on Flickr.comControl.

Such a loaded word, no? Control-freak, self-control, lose control, keep control, the situation is under control.

What does it really mean though? In a positive way it means taking responsibility for what’s your business, like your health for example. If you aren’t in control of your health, who is? Your doctor who has a hundred other patients to worry about?

Negative control lurks at the two extremes of taking responsibility – taking none or taking on responsibility for other people when you don’t need to.

When people say they don’t have time to do what they really want to, or say that no one allows them to follow their dreams they lean to one of the two extremes in the control continuum.

People who live with a habit of extreme control (either too much or too little) don’t pursue their own dreams because they either pursue someone else’s dream or try to force others to follow what they think is the other person’s dream.

I used to be a mix of the two, taking on too much control in a business situation and handing too much control to other people in my personal relationships. I’ve since learned how to run the control maze more quickly, being more assertive in relationships and letting go of my business perfectionism.

Let’s see where the Lab Rats fall:


Michelle falls on the too little control side of the equation. She lets her family make her responsible for her sister’s life from chauffeuring her about to giving her money. And at work although everyone else is cross-trained, Michelle is the only one who does her job, so she gives her boss personal contact when she’s supposed to be taking time off. Plus she gets way stressed before and after time away from the office prepping and recovering.

She’s known her boyfriend since they were young and has always let him take the lead. Usually it’s no problem, but Michelle’s now beginning to assert her desires and her boyfriend is shocked, to no surprise. After so long of giving control to her boyfriend, the change to more personal control leaves him shaken and angry because Michelle is changing the “rules” of their interactions.


Maries goes to the other extreme and chooses to take on too much control of other people’s live to the point that if she doesn’t do it, nothing happens, from her mother’s life to work to relationships. The only place the extreme control has a positive result is with her health where insistence on her part revealed nerve damage and a vitamin deficiency that no one initially believed because they weren’t looking for it.

The most damaging part of Marie’s controlling nature is with relationships as she says:

I am very demanding. I expect the best of people and that people will use all their talents and abilities in life. I don’t understand the sitting by the sidelines mentality. I tend to be the alpha partner but will share control if the other person is deemed thoughtful and competent.

These last four words stand out for me and leave me wondering what Marie uses as a measuring rod. Sharing control happens naturally in most cases and isn’t something that gets doled out based on some internal worthiness score.

Reading Marie’s responses, I wasn’t surprised at her lack of progress on finishing her PhD. Submitting something that she’s been working on for so long for validation from a group of outsiders is a form of giving up control that must feel close to impossibly scary for her. Much easier to linger and not get anything done and not relinquish control. Better to have nothing to show than open up to possible criticism and judgment.

And in Marie’s case, the situation is made worse by hostile faculty members who will be reviewing her dissertation, doubling the reluctance to submit. When the validation isn’t going to come, why bother?


As a self-aware control freak, Helen has been working on letting go. In her family she feels that outside of her mother, if she doesn’t make arrangements to see each other, no one would make the effort. In her friendships, however, she has achieved a decent balance shedding people who only want to take or expect her to run their lives. Instead of using her controlling nature to take charge, she uses it within herself to maintain a balance of give and take in relationships. And at work she’s discovered a love of mentoring and helping out people who ask for assistance as a way to channel her love of control to create positive outcomes.

Her biggest control issue is around health, which isn’t surprising given that Helen volunteered as a Lab Rat to learn to control her body better. She’s bounced from too little control to too much control with changing sizes, suffering from bulimia, going on starvation diets and doing extreme training regimes. She’s recognized the unhealthy patterns and has recently turned to meditation and acceptance instead of self-critical control to maintain optimal health and body image.


Johnny and his wife have a good relationship with lots of communication, so they know how the division of labor breaks down and neither feels either too controlling or too passive when it comes to each other and their children.

In general, Johnny doesn’t believe that his procrastination problems come from control. At work and in friendships he feels a certain level of obligation, but that’s normal and is a natural consequence of committing to a contract or something like his garage band.


Joyce has no control issues either. She’s a single mother on disability with a mother who has begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s. Joyce is aware of what she needs to do but doesn’t overreach and start controlling other people’s lives except where she must (as with her son who is still a minor and her mother who’s unable to manage on her own).

Like Johnny, Joyce’s procrastination doesn’t come from control, so she runs through this particular maze without any confusion on which turns to take.


Kristin suffers from the control issues that many women do. In her family she’s had to learn to stay out of her siblings’ lives if she wants to avoid conflict and with her husband she does the lion’s share of household chores because doing them is easier than complaining to him because they aren’t done or getting stressed because there’s no milk and the laundry’s piling up.

It’s not a great situation, but sometimes we just accept the other person’s personality and interests as they are and get on with living. When the baby comes, however, Kristin might find that she just doesn’t have the energy to do everything and her husband might need a good kick in the butt to step up and help out.

The problem could be this: Kristin’s better at household management than her husband, so he lets her do it, rather than making the effort himself. It reminds me of a friend who worked as a delivery boy and got around town fine but if anyone else was in the car with him, he had no idea where he was going and depended on others to navigate for him.

As you can see, the control maze has many routes through it. Some like Joyce and Johnny run right through without having to consider their paths, while the other four get waylaid by others (or themselves) distracting them as they make decisions about which turns to make.

What path would you take?

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5 thoughts on “Controlling Control Issues: The Lab Rats Look At Who’s In Charge

  1. Alessio says:

    I’ve been on the wrong side of the controlling equation and have learnt that you achieve so much more freedom by not wanting to change and control things that are out of your control. Jut accept it. Work around it. Move on. It really is just a huge waste of energy that could’ve been used productively elsewhere.

  2. Alex Fayle says:

    That’s exactly it – it’s a waste of energy and extremely draining physically and emotionally.

  3. I’ve learned to let the flow of the moment be more natural instead of forced. Just the other day I caught myself getting upset because my friends were taking to long to find a place to eat lunch. They all laughed and still didn’t try to make a decision.

    There are some moment we can influence and others where we need to just be in the moment, let the other person drive and when we find a place then just be cool with it.
    .-= Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog ..Hard, Fun and Beautiful – Red Skin Edition =-.

  4. Alex Fayle says:

    I like the idea of “let the other person drive” because that’s it exactly – we don’t always need to be in the driver’s seat.

  5. […] dictate our happiness. Alex of Someday Syndrome wrote a cool post about this concept called “Controlling control issues: The lab rats look at who’s in charge.” Check it […]

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