Power and Control


Each and every day, we engage in social interactions that require us to use our power to give and take control. These constant interpersonal negotiations serve to make our needs and desires known, and allow us to meet them through cooperation with others (Greene, 1998). 

Within the field of psychology, power is defined as our ability to alter our own, or someone else’s, state of mind or physical condition through influence and/or manipulation. We do this by providing or withholding resources like food, knowledge or affection. We can also utilize our power by implementing punishments through direct harm or social exclusion, or by offering rewards like gifts or attention (Keltner, 2007).

Consider the graphic below to better understand what power looks like in our daily life (HCSAT, 2011):

Control describes our ability, and more importantly our perception of our ability, to engage with and change ourselves, others, our situation and our environments. The perception of our ability to influence the world around us is detailed through a term called locus of control, which can be either external or internal (Potter, 2020). 

If we have an external locus of control, we believe that our actions cannot alter the outcomes of events. That events are influenced entirely by those in power, and that no matter what we do, the results will be the same. The consequences we experience will come to pass regardless of how we choose to participate (Potter, 2020).

If we have an internal locus of control, we believe that the outcomes of events are influenced by the actions we choose to take or not take. Control over self and others lies within, and while we may not have the power to alter every aspect of our circumstances, we can influence the future through actions taken today (Potter, 2020).

Research has shown that those with an external locus of control tend to have increased levels of depression, higher levels of reported stress and a reduced self-image over those who have an internal locus. When we believe we have the agency to influence our life direction, we make more of an effort to self-regulate, problem solve and cope adaptively to the changes we experience (Potter, 2020).

Control theory rests on the ideas that all individuals desire control, that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to obtain control, and that we each use specific strategies to take or regain control. This theory also suggests that personal control issues (desire for control, fear of losing control, interpersonal power struggles) are the basic foundation of most concerns brought up in therapy (Weiner, 2010).

Individual styles of taking control or regaining control that are productive in nature are detailed below (Weiner, 2010):

  • Agency Motivated - defined by the sense that we are the origin of the actions we take and active participants in power struggles.
  • Yielding - using sensitivity and a sense of timing to anticipate, adapt and direct the control efforts of others.
  • Accepting - allowing those around us to take control in their way, and adapting to changes as they come.
  • Assertive - using control to meet our needs, while taking the needs of others into consideration.
  • Change Oriented - seeking out and creating alternatives to present reality that account for our needs and the needs of others.

Under control theory, our best and most adaptive form of individual control is a combination of the factors listed below (Weiner, 2010):

  • An high level of conscious awareness of our own relationship dynamics including our own needs and the needs of those we interact with.
  • An understanding of when and how our desires for control are expressed.
  • An understanding of our beliefs about control, what our goals are for using control, and what strategies we use.
  • Knowledge of when to use which strategies, and adaptability to when those strategies should be increased, decreased, or otherwise channeled into more positive or more constructive efforts.
  • An ability to integrate and balance the styles of control (assertive, yielding, etc) to match the situation as well as the motivations and temperaments of those we are interacting with.
  • An ability to gain a sense of control over ourselves through emotional regulation.
  • An ability to gain a sense of control over others and our environment through cooperation and problem solving.

Understanding Our Own Control Needs

Now that we know more about control, we can use that information to advance our understanding of how a desire for control manifests within us. 

One tool available is called the Shapiro Control Inventory (SCI). It is made up of over 180 questions that allow us to better understand four primary components of our personal sense of control (Weiner, 2010). Here we consider the following topics and associated questions to identify important ideas we may have about our own sense of control:

  • Details about the desire for control.
    • Why do we want control?
    • What do we want control over?
  • Current sense of control.
    • Which specific areas of life do we feel we have control over? 
    • Which specific areas of life do we feel we have no control over?
    • Generally, do we feel in control of our life?
  • Modes used to gain control.
    • Do we use assertive/change modes?
    • Yielding/accepting modes?
    • Agency of control mode?
  • Use of self, others and institutions to gain control.
    • What tools do we use to help gain/regain control?
    • What tools are available to us to help gain/regain control? 
    • What tools would we like to have to help gain/regain control?

Another helpful resource on understanding our own sense of control is the Control Research Foundation, available by clicking here. This resource offers free information on control aimed at improving our ability to control our lives. Below is a list of questions and prompts sourced from Control Research Foundation that may help offer insight into our ideas and understanding surrounding control (JTSLLC, 2015):

  • Describe a time in life when we felt that we had a positive sense of control.
  • Describe what it felt like to have a positive sense of control.
  • How do we seek out and maintain control in our life positively?
  • How can others help us seek out and maintain a positive sense of control?
  • Do we think that change is a requirement of seeking out and maintaining control?
  • How does acceptance manifest within our efforts to regain and maintain control?
  • Are there areas of life where we desire more control?
  • Are there areas of life where we take on, or are given, too much control?
  • Do we feel that our desire for control or efforts to exert control are helpful and beneficial in getting our needs met?
  • What does an optimal level of control and sense of control mean to us?

Developing a Sense of Control

One of the most important skills in terms of power and control is the ability to regulate our emotions. Without that skill, we are at the mercy of external forces that move us to great action without allowing us foresight into whether or not those actions help us meet our needs. Strong emotional reactions in response to others gives them power over us, allowing them to manipulate us as they wish (Greene, 1998). For more information about emotional regulation, click here.

The development of a sense of agency allows us to see ourselves as active participants in our lives. As able to influence others and the direction of our lives in a way that promotes our own internal emotional and physical balance. This allows us to understand our needs and goals, think with clarity, and advocate for ourselves so our future self is safe and stable. Consider the following tips on how to develop and enhance a sense of agency (Rao, 2019):

  • Control Stimulation - limit intrusive or negative influences by reducing time spent exposed to them. Unsubscribe to email lists or online forums that serve to target and enhance feelings of anger, frustration or inadequacy. We may limit notifications on our devices that can interrupt our trains of thought. Make time each day to be away from phones, televisions and audio streams.
  • Be Selective When Associating - our emotions are influenced by the emotions of those we spend time with, and others may pressure us to behave or think in certain ways that benefit them at our expense. Limiting the time spent interacting with people who leave us feeling empty and depleted is self-preservation. Instead, seek out people and environments that enhance and improve a positive and productive sense of self.
  • Address Physical Needs - when we are properly rested, have adequate nutrition, and engage in mind/body connectedness through physicality - our motivation, strength and stamina are all enhanced. Increased physicality is associated with a higher level of self control.
  • Prioritize Learning - when we live life through the perspective of continuing education, we create a growth mindset that allows us to be more open to possibilities and adaptable to change. Nurturing curiosity makes our internal world become physical reality, and allows us to let go of perfectionism and recognize ourselves as a work-in-progress.
  • Tune Into Intuition - the gut feeling we have when meeting someone for the first time or engaging in a new social situation is made up of thousands of pieces of information that our minds process without entering our consciousness. That information is coming from our current environment, our past experiences, and our innate physical desire to remain safe. We are well served by making room for intuition to influence our interpretation of the world around us.
    • Keep in mind that intuition can be influenced by bias, prejudice or emotions. While intuition excels at interpretation, be sure to use critical thinking when making final decisions.
  • Set Limits on Deliberation - for those of us with a low sense of agency, we may procrastinate, fixate on small parts of problems, worry without limits or crowdsource our decisions from others without considering our own needs. We may also fear making a decision to the point where we act on impulse, so we don’t have to decide at all. A strategy to help address this is to set a time limit on major decisions. This way, we take the time needed to prevent pressured or uninformed decisions, while choosing a date and time in the future that we will make a decision to prevent procrastination.
    • When someone is pressuring us to make a decision quickly, it typically is because it benefits them for us to be agreeable. We must always advocate for ourselves and take the time we need to decide on what is best for us and our loved ones.

Roadblocks to Understanding Control

Maladaptive thoughts, coping strategies and behaviors can heavily influence our needs, desires and goals, and can also form the foundation of the strategies we use to seek out and maintain control. The use of defense mechanisms, blaming our failures on others, and taking control in situations where we are emotionally out of control are considered maladaptive and can cause harm to ourselves and others (Weiner, 2010). 

Maladaptives also prevent us from understanding our desires for control, which makes our actions reactive and unconscious. Additionally, maladaptives serve to insulate us from the outcomes of our behavior, preventing us from thinking critically and stopping us from learning from our mistakes (Weiner, 2010). For more information on maladaptives, click here.

Coping with a Controlling Person

Controlling people aren’t always aware of their desires to control others, and they are typically motivated by fear, anxiety or disordered personalities. However, some controlling people are motivated by the desire to assert dominance and act ruthlessly in an effort to isolate and manipulate those around them (Huizen, 2020). 

Unfortunately, we can’t always tell why people act how they act, and while it is helpful to understand the needs and motivations of others, our safety comes first. If you feel you are being harmed or abused by a controlling person in the home, please reach out to the national domestic violence hotline by calling 800-799-7233 (Huizen, 2020).

If there is a desire to work with the controlling person, and it is safe to do so, we may consider the following communication strategies (Huizen, 2020):

  • Decide on a safe time and place to have a conversation about their behavior and its impact. 
    • Consider a time of low relative stress.
    • Seek out a public setting where a private conversation can take place. A restaurant or coffee shop for example.
  • Use ‘I’ statements to describe the outcomes of their behavior. 
    • ‘I feel ignored when…’
    • ‘I feel patronized when…’
    • ‘I lose trust in you when…’
  • Brainstorm ways to share control and responsibility.
    • Think about areas of life where more control is desired by each party.
    • Be clear when defining these areas and what the other person’s involvement will look like.
  • Define boundaries around what we will and will not accept from them moving forward. 

Keep in mind that someone who wants to work with us on improving our mutual relationship will make an effort to do so. If the controlling person denies a problem exists, shuts down emotionally, shifts blame onto us, makes themselves the victim, or otherwise gets defensive or combative, they are not in a mental space where they can make change or compromise (Huizen, 2020).