Wednesday, March 19, 2003

I’ve been reading a fascinating book lately, Controlling People by Patricia Evans. No, it’s not a how-to book. It offers a novel explanation for the behavior of people who are controlling, as well as examples of controlling behavior, and ways of dealing with it.

The author describes the creation of controlling people this way: We all learn about the world through our senses. In our minds, we build up models of how the world works. Some of those models include models of other people.

But what happens if someone acts in a way that doesn’t match our mental model? We can react in two ways. We can change our mental model to include the new action, which is the healthy response. But some people have built up such a strong mental model that they reject the real response in favor of the mental model, and try to force the other person to stop contradicting their mental model.

Why do people reject reality this way? Often, it’s due to childhood trauma. The book uses a great example, Teddy:

Imagine a boy who is isolated by his parents. That boy creates an imaginary friend, Teddy. The boy says, “Hi, Teddy,” and Teddy always says, “Hi.” The boy tells Teddy about his experiences, and Teddy always listens sympathetically. The boy says, “Bye, Teddy,” and Teddy alwyas says, “Bye.”

The boy continues to grow up, and every time he turns to Teddy, Teddy always says the right thing. The boy becomes a man, and he gets a good job. Still, every time he turns to Teddy and says “Bye, Teddy,” Teddy says, “Bye.”

Then one day, he says, “Bye, Teddy”, and Teddy frowns and says, “When will you be home?”

Imagine the man’s shock, confusion, and outright panic. Teddy doesn’t say things like this! What happened to Teddy?

This is the subconscious thought process for many – perhaps most – controlling people. They’ve built up a mental model of the perfect woman, or the perfect man, or whatever, and they apply that to people. When the companion does something that doesn’t match the model, the controller is so shocked and hurt that his or her natural reaction is to cut off that behavior. “Where’s Teddy?” the controller’s subconscious is saying. “I want Teddy!”

Note that this controlling viewpoint is not crazy, at least not in the clinical sense of the word. The controller is not cut off from all of reality; just a part of it. This explains why controlling people can be wonderful people to the rest of the world, but terribly controlling to a spouse. The spouse has to be Teddy; the rest of the world can be whatever.

This isn’t limited to spouses, either. Have you ever heard conversations like this between a parent and child?

“Okay, what kind of ice cream do you want?”

“Ooh, I want vanilla!”

“Really? I thought you liked chocolate.”

“But I want vanilla.”

“But you like chocolate. You want chocolate, don’t you?”

“I want vanilla!”

“No, you don’t. You want chocolate.”

The child isn’t being Teddy.

It’s provoked a lot of thought in me, and it’s made me understand a lot of behavior. For example, when we’re driving, we tend to have a mental model of how people drive. Then when people don’t conform to that model, we’re shocked and hurt, and we want to make them conform to our mental model of how people drive. This explains a lot of road rage.

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