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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Changing Maladaptive Coping Strategies that No Longer Work for You: Controlling Behavior

In prior blog posts, I addressed avoidant and passive coping strategies as maladaptive strategies that usually do not work by the time we become adults. I mentioned that these maladaptive coping strategies usually develop from a combination of individual temperament and early home environment. In this blog post, I will focus on controlling behavior as a maladaptive coping strategy.

What Are the Signs of Controlling Behavior?


Controlling Coping Strategy
Just like any other type of behavior, controlling behavior is very individual and it will manifest in a variety of ways. Similarly, controlling behavior is on a continuum from moderate to severe.

People who are moderately controlling will try to control some aspects of their lives and the lives of those around them, but they realize that they can't control everything. Often they will respond to others' discomfort with their controlling behavior by backing off--at least for a while.

People who are severely controlling have a need to control or micromanage nearly everything. In most severe cases, when others around them express their discomfort, people who are severely controlling become angry. In some cases, they might become violent.

In both cases, controlling behavior often stems from underlying anxiety, fear, or insecurity.

The following fictionalized vignette, which is not about any one particular person, is an example of moderately controlling behavior:

Ruth:
Ruth grew up in a household that was almost always on the verge of chaos. She was the oldest of six children. Her mother, who stayed at home, tended to be very anxious and overwhelmed most of the time. Her father spent long hours at the office, leaving the mother to take care of the children and the household.

By the time she was 10, Ruth was helping her mother to prepare meals, do the wash, and take care of chores around the house. Since her mother tended to be in a state of high anxiety most of the time, this caused Ruth to feel anxious and insecure too.

By the time Ruth was married with children, she tried to make a lot of decisions for her husband and her teenage children, which caused friction in the household. Often, when she and her husband went out to dinner, she would order his meal for him, even before he had a chance to look at the menu. Whenever her husband pointed out to her that he would like to order his own meals, Ruth would realize that she overstepped her bounds and she would apologize. Similarly, when she continued to choose clothes for her 19 and 20 year old daughters, who still lived at home, and they told her that they wanted to make their own choices, she backed off. But even though Ruth backed off, in both instances, not being in control of these situations made Ruth feel anxious. It wasn't until she began psychotherapy to deal with these issues that she realized that she had underlying family of origin issues and her own temperament that caused her to develop this maladaptive coping style.

The following fictionalized scenario is an example of the other end of the spectrum of controlling behavior, severe controlling behavior:

Henry:
When Henry was 18, he moved out of his family's household to get away from his abusive father. For most of his life, he grew up witnessing his father hit his mother. He also witnessed his mother's passive response. He thought his father was a tyrant--always wanting to control every aspect of their lives.

Henry vowed to himself that he would never be like his father. He quit high school, got his GED, began working, and got his own apartment.

In his early 20s, Henry began dating a young woman, Linda, that he really liked. After a few months, they decided to date each other exclusively. At first, their relationship was going well. But after a while, as Henry got closer to Linda, he began asking her to let him know where she was going and with whom. At first, Linda was flattered because she thought this meant that Henry really cared about her. Whenever they went to a restaurant, Henry ordered for Linda. Initially, Linda felt he was being chivalrous, and she liked this.

After a while, Linda got tired of having to answer questions all of the time about where she was going and with whom, and she wanted to order her own food when they went out. Whenever Linda tried to talk to Henry about all of this, he refused to talk about it.

One day, when Linda brought this up again, Henry felt like he was going to explode. As Linda continued to insist that they talk about Henry's controlling behavior, Henry lost his temper and he slapped her. Linda was stunned and hurt. Henry was shocked by his own behavior. After that, despite his repeated attempts to apologize to her, Henry could not get through to Linda . She wanted nothing to do with him.

Shortly after that incident, Henry began psychotherapy to understand how and why, despite his vow to himself that he would never become like his father, he had become severely controlling and violent in his relationship--just like his father.

These two vignettes illustrate that, depending upon the person and the circumstances, controlling behavior is on a continuum. I provided examples of moderate and severe controlling behavior with the understanding that there is a wide variety of behavior between those two extremes.

What Can You Do If You Engage in Controlling Behavior?
If you engage in controlling behavior and it is affecting how you feel about yourself as well as how others feel about you, you're not alone. Many individuals and couples come to therapy to work on and resolve these issues. Often, you can work through the underlying issues in psychotherapy and learn new ways of coping so that you're no longer engaging in maladaptive coping strategies.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individuals and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome maladaptive coping strategies that no longer work for them.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

Also, see my articles:
Changing Coping Strategies that No Longer Work For You: Controlling Behavior

Coping Strategies that No Longer Work For You: Avoidance




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