/ 20 October 2023

Obsession with power and control is a disease

Why power sought through force can never work and could be a sign of a mental illness

“Chaos is found in abundance wherever order is being sought, it always defeats order because it is better organised” – Ly Tin Wheedle 

The need for control or to hold power can stem from a fear of uncertainty. A lot of times, it can also be associated with a mental health condition.

In this article we will dive deeper and attempt to answer the question of why people are power hungry. 

Below is a picture that has been circulating on social media and can be found on the Facebook account of one of Lesotho’s MPs. 

It is “no-confidence motion in the government of Lesotho”, hand-written on rather colourful paper, and assumed to have been penned by Machesetsa Mofomobe. 

I believe if you follow the MP’s social media account, perhaps he might remind you of someone — or some people —- in South Africa. 

Now back to the subject. Being in control of your life, and leading a nation, sounds like a positive thing but the two have distinct differences. 

First, you can have supreme power over your life and how you want to live it, however, leading a nation is a lot more complicated. 

If we can learn anything from current political events in Lesotho, it is that the need to control, and have power over, everything in your ambit is dangerous — especially where politics is involved. 

Similar sentiments were shared by Lesotho’s Prime Minister Sam Matekane, who made bold statements in an interview, accusing some MPs of just wanting “to satisfy their self-interests”. 

A quick question — do you ever feel the need to control everything and all events around you? Perhaps you see yourself as a perfectionist and expect high standards of yourself (and others). Do you tend to respond negatively when things don’t go according to plan or unexpectedly change? Perhaps you often find yourself mentally replaying situations as you regain a sense of control. 

Like many factors of mental health, controlling behaviours are found on all levels of the spectrum — a good number of people experience them. However, the persistent need to control every situation is likely to put strain on your relationships and mental health. And, as you work on managing that need for control, it is useful to know where it comes from.

Power obsession. 

The need for control can be linked to difficulty accepting defeat or uncertainty. By constantly working to exert control over every aspect of a situation, you may be trying to create a sense of security and predictability.

This need to be in control can, in turn, result from:

1. Traumatic events

Trauma — an incident that causes significant physical, emotional or psychological pain — can have a great influence on many aspects of our lives. It can result in a deep need for control and power. 

Living with trauma can get you stuck in cognitive distortions, such as catastrophising. Catastrophising is the habit of always assuming the worst or having a negative reaction to any given event. 

Then there is hypervigilance — when you experience increased alertness and frequently investigate your environment, expecting danger. The need to control everything could start unconsciously with an attempt to protect yourself against experiencing trauma again.

Research suggests feelings of needing to be in control over outcomes can mitigate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, excessive control can overwhelm your resources and affect your quality of life.

2. Childhood experiences

The environment mostly plays a critical role in your growth and development as a person. The place you grew up can affect how you see the world.

For example, growing up in a family that never included you in any decision-making can lead to the development of controlling behaviours as a coping mechanism. 

Another example is living with guardians who had alcohol or substance-use disorders. This can have a negative effect on your relationships and your behaviour as an adult. 

Children growing up in this kind of environment often have to face unexpected situations. As adults, they might have an intense need to control everything.

Growing up with emotionally unavailable parents, guardians or caregivers can also create a need to control your interactions with other people, in order to get reassurance and validation. 

For example, anxious attachment styles are related to both unpredictable primary caregivers and a tendency to be controlling in relationships.

3. Personality disorders

An excessive need for control can sometimes be a symptom of certain personality disorders.

People with borderline personality disorder, for example, may feel intense fears of abandonment. This fear could lead them to want to control their interactions with others and their relationships, in an effort to stop people leaving them.

Some people living with narcissistic personality disorder also engage in controlling behaviours, such using manipulation tactics to direct situations in their favour.

4. Learned behaviours

The tendency to control can be a learnt behaviour, if this is something you experience growing up. 

For example, having a parent who used to micromanage you or monitored everything you ate or did may lead you to repeat these patterns as an adult.

Perhaps you find reassurance in repeating these behaviours, or maybe you assume this is how things need to be managed at home. You could also confuse control in certain situations with caring for others.

From the dramatic political events of Lesotho, one can conclude by saying, power sought through force can never work and could be a sign of a mental challenge. 

Childhood experiences contribute to the cognitive development of a person and often re-appear in their adult lives. Control and power might seem to taste sweet from afar, however, once seated, you start to feel the pinch that comes with the chair. 

Control should in no way be the primary choice when bringing law and order or exposing corrupt politicians — or even teaching a lesson. Instead, when the urge presents itself, it is always a good idea to engage in coping mechanisms that will calm you down.