A couple days ago I wrote a post about the nature of control and trying to figure out how to resisting participating in a culture of power and control while not abdicating and surrendering up all control. We have distorted views of power and control and through a set of practices we can learn how to reform our sense of power and control and the way we do and not control. However, if we simply look at the act of controlling, as if it is some behavior trait that happens independent of situations and our responses to the situations, we are still engaging in a distorted view of power and control. It is important understand what motivates control.
Erik Erikson observes that in the development of people, the most important theme they are learning about in the first of life is about hope and trust. IS the world trustworthy or untrustworthy? This theorizedzed to be rooted in the parental relationship, whether the parents are responsive to the needs of infants to build trust or not. Then, if we look at the prominent themes at the rest of the life stages Erikson theorizes about, they all pertain to action, such as will, competence, care, or what motivates and directs our actions, such as purpose, fidelity, love, and wisdom. Put roughly speaking, in the first few months of life we are learning what is and is not to be trusted, which will then determine how we are to be motivated to act. Our actions flow our from our trust.
But I believe there is one critical flaw in Erikson’s work. He contrasts things in terms of trust and mistrust, as if trust and mistrust are the same thing but on the opposite spectrums. However, as more evidence has amassed that positive and negative emotions are not simply different degrees on the same spectrum of feeling, but are actually two distinct emotional subsytems, it would be better to split the trust vs. mistrust dichotomy into two different tensions: trust vs. irrelevance; irrelevance vs. mistrust. As infants, we are not simply learning whether something is to be trusted or not; we are learning what is and is not relevant. A child that is not well nurtured may not mistrust their parents in terms of fear, but rather view them as irrelevant.
In light of that premise, we can surmise the following states of trust in relation to control, at the risk of oversimplification:
Communion – We accept who and what we trust.
Irrelevance – We are unconcerned about who or what we neither trust nor mistrust.
Fear – We control who and what we mistrust.
Ambivalence – We both accept and control who and what we both ambivalently trust and mistrust.
AT this stage then, we begin to have a good understanding of the basic rationale of why people do and do not seek to control. But this is still not well-tuned for real world understanding. There are many different reasons why we trust, mistrust, or consider something irrelevant. One person may fear another person because they have learned that all people are untrustworthy; another person may fear another because that person has actively threatened them. Along a similar line, I remember something my mother, who is a retired psychiatrist told me about people: “Crazy people do crazy things in normal situations. Normal people do crazy things in crazy situations.”
What I am getting at can be (over)simplified into the explanatory categories of trait and circumstance, where we attribute people’s actions towards some internal or external factor. But, trying to explain something through either internal, personality traits or external, circumstantial events can begin to mislead us as all actions are a combination of internal AND external factors. My internal neuro-biological networks lead me to interpret and respond to external events. Thus, there is really no such thing as “controlling” or “untrusting” people. Rather, there are people who control in certain types of circumstances and do not trust under certain circumstances.
The key, then, is to identify both what a person thinks and feels and why it is a person thinks and feels that way. Then, we can begin to assess why people do or do not control. For instance, I am a person who is very wary of situations where people’s words and actions contradict themselves, so if I note a significant contradiction, I will endeavor to engage in a degree of control in how much impact they will have on me and others. Meanwhile, another person’s trust may be simply contingent on whether the person is saying the right things, such as a narcissist who wants everything another person says to reflect whatever grandiose self-impression they have at that moment, and so mistrust people simply on the basis of criticism.
Understand trust and control is a complex issue, and one that can only be reliably discerned by SUSTAINED attention and listening . But once one is willing to discipline thier mind and heart to discern the relationship between interior motivations and exterior circumstances, it provides an effective basis to then move towards ceasing to control others by controlling them and instead fostering trust. Controlling others is the quick, instinctive response to someone’s actions we don’t like and may sometimes be morally necessary to get people acting badly to rethink their actions, to learning what is it one can do to build trust so as to potentially address issues where we think people are wrongly controlling. But this then puts the onus on us to attempt to consider how to build trust with those who we think are controlling, rather than simply putting the burden on them. And who knows, maybe in doing that, you will discover that the person who you think has been controlling has actually has not been controlling as much as you think they have been, but that in fact, it is your own instinct to control that you have projected onto them. For instance, often times, ambivalence may appear as solely mistrust, when in fact there may be grounds of trust, but if we are in the mindset of another being threatening and must be managed, we might miss the degree of openness that they have and miss an opportunity to achieve communion.