S1E21 Control and Behavior

Has anyone ever called you controlling? On this episode, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss what it means to be controlling from a western psychological lens (emphasizing the role of rigidity), in addition to highlighting principles related to mindfulness and how these may have an impact on control. Listen to this episode to learn strategies to manage an urge to control outcomes.




Pete: Truly something that a lot of us like, and we don't want to let go. Today, Nikki and I are going to be talking about control.

Nikki: We are, and I'm obviously already chuckling a little bit. Because Pete and I, we are...

Pete: I like me some control.

Nikki: We like some control. We admit it, though, we're aware of it. We work on it here. I would say not always, I wasn't always so aware of my controlling behavior.

Pete: Certainly during grad school, I became aware of it, more so.

Nikki: Sure.

Pete: So as a diagnostic perspective, in the West, we have an OCD o OCPD, obsessive compulsive disorder or obsessive compulsive personality disorder. And so those are two things that I think when I learned that, it helped me differentiate, and it helped me accept a bit more of my controlling aspects of myself. Perhaps it was a personality aspect to me, and I was okay with that.

Nikki: I am going to gently disagree. I don't think it's a personality. I think that with, where Pete and I are similar, and I think a lot of people, and what both of us became more aware of in grad school, because same for me as well, is that when we're feeling anxious grad schools are really anxiety inducing time for those of you other folks who have gone through.

Pete: Just any school, really.

Nikki: Any school true, you feel that level of dis-regulation, you start to realize, 'I really want to ground down some way'. And the way that we tend to try to ground down, P.S. doesn't work.

Pete: Fast forward to the ending of this movie.

Nikki: It's like, 'I'm going to make sure I do everything right. I'm going to make sure everything goes a certain way'. And yeah, it's a lot of fun.

Pete: Where do you think it stems from? Where do you think people start to develop control? Because my mom was certainly not controlling, my dad was definitely controlling and thinking about it from that perspective. But where do you think it really stems from?

Nikki: Well, I'm going to go real Western behavioral science here, because…

Pete: Yeah, it's okay.

Nikki: similar to what I talked about in our perfectionism episode, because there's some overlap here, talking about control. I think every human struggles with control oriented strategies. So obviously, there are folks like Pete and myself that might struggle with it a little bit more than others. But everybody does and so, where does it stem from? It stems from this behavioral tendency that's known in behavioral science as experiential avoidance. So that's kind of like a fancy sounding term that I'll define for our listeners hear. So basically, what experiential avoidance means is, human beings try really, really hard to actively fix, control, get rid of, ignore, suppress, figure out unpleasant internal experiences, and what are some unpleasant internal experiences? Physical sensation...

Pete: Anxiety

Nikki: Yes. Emotions, urges, memories and thoughts. So where does it stem from? Well, it stems from our really, really annoying brains that think they can figure everything out.

Pete: Don't call my brain annoying. Well, there are also different types of control and I think that that's important. So there's emotional control, cognitive control, social control. So you're describing here, the experiential avoidance related to a lot of emotional control, because if we don't want to experience something, we're trying to we're trying to avoid it. But it's across any aspect of human existence.

Nikki: Correct

Pete: And then the other psychological term is perceived control. Because we think that we have control.

Nikki: Oh, yeah. And this is something I say a lot to patients that I know Pete doesn't love that I say it this way, but it makes a lot of sense to me. So I'll say it, which is,

Pete: Just say it.

Nikki: You know what I'm going to say too. What I tell people all the time is, to the point about perceived control, is that as humans we love to focus on everything that we don't control, which is the things I just mentioned all those experiences. We don't control what shows up in our body or in our minds. We don't control events in the world, we don't control what other people do, or say, or think but we try to control those things, we try to control outcomes, we try control what people do. And I say, there is something that we control, or maybe another way to say it maybe Pete will like this better, something that we have agency over.

Pete: I'll tell you my verb, but go ahead.

Nikki: Okay, I want to hear it in a minute. Is our own behavior, and behavior includes as we've talked about in the podcast before overt behavior, things people can see you doing, and covert behavior, things you're doing inside your body. But we don't want to focus on that as humans. We're like, "Nope, I want to make sure my [inaudible 05:08] picks up his towels off the floor after he gets out of the shower.

Pete: Yeah, and that's control, and a lot of times it's because there's another issue going on in the world, or in their world or their internal experience that creates that sort of outward overt control. The word I like Nikki, is manage.

Nikki: Tell me why.

Pete: Well, I feel like because manage has this collaborative nature, whereas control is like authoritarian. So control is like,

Nikki: Oh, interesting.

Pete: It's like a puppeteer, like 'I got you'. Where as manage is, 'we're going to work on this together'. Because I think it's about accepting that that's going to be a piece of it.

Nikki: I like that, that makes sense to me. And obviously, in the work that we do in cognitive behavioral therapies, we're very into collaboration. That's a big part of sort of our treatment approaches. So I'm going to come back to another point about why I like to use the word control. I tell people, “let’s kind of throw your brain a bone". Like you want to control something. And it's like, 'okay, let's be really literal'. There's only one thing that you control, or in Pete's words manage in the whole universe,

Pete: Thank you.

Nikki: Which is your own behavior. You're welcome. No one way to say it here.

Pete: No, exactly. And I'm sure we could think of, and listeners find your own verb too. But Nikki, I think one of the things we can jump in here is relational frame theory. So I think for me, control based on how that word, it's a very negative word. Control.

Nikki: Yeah, well, that's interesting you say that, because I think some people view it as negative. Obviously, if you hear someone say, "I'm being controlled", or "they're being controlling". Though I would say that a lot of people that I work with, have a real positive judgment about control, because it comes down to this notion of like, 'I can make things happen the way they're supposed to be', like, again, obviously, I'm referencing a lot of our episodes here, because they all sort of converge on this concept of controllers, strategies,

Pete: Of course.

Nikki: It's like with uncertainty, we talked about this in the uncertainty episode, people think they control outcomes. And Pete and I talk a lot about, that's actually something we can't do. W only own the process, we can only own what we're doing in this moment.

Pete: Well, that's huge in sports world, because it can't be about outcome. It's got to be about process. And that's key. So I think I observe my desire, or yearning to control and then I read focus on the process.

Nikki: But what about for people, that maybe they're listening to this, and they're thinking, 'Okay, I mean, yeah, I guess I could try and notice that urge, and come back'. But then they have that little part of their brains like, 'but you know, I kind of like my control strategies', like, 'I kind of feel better if I have everything neat'. Or if I say to myself, 'if I get the best job, or the best romantic partner', or I don't know, I'm trying to think of...

Pete: But then you just want the next thing after that, frankly. But that's another episode.

Nikki: That's a whole other episode, sure. But what do you say to those people? Because I think that's also something where people don't necessarily think of those as control oriented strategies, these thought patterns of like, 'I'm going to do it this way. This is how it's going to happen.'

Pete: We'll just practice awareness of it. For me, I think I would see that as a OCPD sort of presentation.

Nikki: Sure.

Pete: It doesn't have to be diagnosed. I'm just saying for the differentiation.

Nikki: Yes, sure.

Pete: Of the behavioral strategy. And so that's one of the things that we look at. And I just think it's not easy to let it go. And that's where mindfulness comes in. So mindfully pay attention to my desire to do things. I want to eat a lot of Oreos, and I have to watch, or Domino's, we still have to do that.

Nikki: I know, we will. I'm sure there are people listening that hear that and are gagging now, they're probably horrified.

Pete:  Yeah, Dominoes and Oreos, we are really classy. Sorry, maybe Domino's is going to be another sponsor soon. Hey,

Nikki: I mean, wow, what a dream!

Pete: You would love that.

Nikki: Free pizza for life.

Pete: I mean, hello.

Nikki: Don't hate that idea.

Pete: I'll control all the way to my free pizza. Yeah, and so again, I think for me, it's always a balance, like everything else. And in Zen, so let me bring some Zen into this. In the Buddhism world, we look at middle path, and it's always about finding this middle ground to what you're doing. So I never can fully control like, my social standing, my motivation, my emotion, my cognitions. I have to just understand that thoughts are going to be there and my desire to do it, and I can try and manage those by, whatever strategies I can have to let them go. Because, frankly, say during a pandemic, when I was feeling really anxious at times, I would try and assert and insert a bit more control. Because we want to create structure when we're otherwise feeling very unstructured.

Nikki:  Yes, and I would say that look, the sort of something important to say about that is, it is okay when you're feeling overwhelmed, or everybody has that experience of feeling out of control, sometimes, it is okay to say, 'All right, I'm going to implement some structure here to help orient myself and help regulate a little bit'. And that again, in the type of work that Pete and I do, that is something that we often do with people that are presenting with anxiety. It's like, 'Okay, let me focus on [inaudible10:40] like organizing your desk or something. Again, what you can actually control that, or using Pete's language again, you can manage that. Though, I want to caution anyone that sort of over relies on that, because I think where people get stuck is they think that 'if I just focus on making things a certain way, then everything will be okay. Things will turn out the way that I want. I can', again, force an outcome. Because, I'm curious what you think about this, I think that's what this comes back to, I think our control..

Pete: Yeah you keep focusing on this idea of forcing the outcome?

Nikki: Yeah, because I think control oriented strategies are about making something a way that we want it to be, it's this linearness that we don't want to be uncomfortable, we want it to be okay.

Pete: Yeah. And in Buddhism, we sit with that, because nothing is linear, but I hear you with the outcome. And so actually, when I work with people that are trying to learn meditation, one of the first things they want is to see the benefits of it, the outcome.

Nikki: Of course, Yes, I know.

Pete: And they just sit because I want to see at work. And actually, the whole teachings of Buddhism is to sit just to sit

Nikki: Totally, yeah.

Pete: And to let go, because I think a lot of us are like, 'okay', we've all been on a date, or out with a family member, and they're like, "Oh, she's going to have the salmon and the [inaudible-12:04], and so people are like very, that's another strategy.

Nikki: That's another strategy, yes.

Pete: To manage the outcome of a date, let's say, because I want her or him to feel really loved or flowered with things. And so let me try and,

Nikki: Well control them, make it be this way. And I think what you're saying about what's practicing Buddhism and of course, behavioral science; we've borrowed these concepts, and applied it inside our psychotherapy, treatments that we practice. It's the same thing, it's like letting go of those behavioral strategies and being open and curious to the moment and seeing what comes. And that's really hard for people, there's such vulnerability involved in that, it takes such willingness to say, "I'm just going to be with the discomfort."

Pete: Yeah, that's the hard part of sitting, if anyone does meditate with a meditation practice, it is vulnerable to just sit and to watch what comes up because a lot comes up. And as I get busy, as I get into a semester, when I sit, sometimes some things come into my mind of like, what I need to be doing, once I'm done, and so the practice is to be like, 'that's okay, right now, I'm just sitting'. And so it's this constant back and forth. It's like a pendulum.

Nikki: Absolutely.

Pete: And those are control strategies. They come, they go, and I don't know, I'm never going to get rid of them. You?

Nikki: No, and that's...we're having another ESPN moment here, Pete coast to coast. Yeah, what I was just thinking about was, another thing that I often hear from patients when we're working on mindfulness or, they'll come back to you and they'll say they're new to meditating, we've practiced in session, they go do it for homework, and they come back, and they'll say, "I did a really bad job". They'll go into judgment.

Pete: Oh, totally. Yeah,

Nikki: "I didn't realize I did so bad because I was so distracted". And so I have to spend a lot of time, not have to, that sounds pejorative, it's not hove to, I want to I spend time, kind of returning to explaining the concept that that's not a bad job, that you're not supposed to stay in the present moment.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: That that's not the intention of mindfulness, the intention of mindfulness is to just, as you said, just sit and watch, and that your brain is designed to go all over the place. And so what you have, again, the control here Pete's word, and manage, the option is how you interact with that. So when your mind goes to like, what you're going to have for lunch on Thursday. It's like, 'Okay, my mind is going to what I want to have for lunch on Thursday, I'm going to choose to pull it back to my breath, and then it's off to the races again', but people want to control it, even meaning like they want to control like, 'and now I'm meditating, I'm focused on the present', and I'm like, "yeah, that's not going to work".

Pete: Or wanting to please us and be like, "I meditated for 30 minutes every day this week", it's like, "did you though?" And again, it's like if you did great, and like,

Nikki: It's okay not to.

Pete: It's okay not to, because there's no right or wrong way to do this. And so I think also in Buddhism, another term that's related is this sort of self-control,  because there are benefits of self-control.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. And that comes back to that, like, what can we do? What are the behaviors that we choose? And I'm actually wondering, with the term self-control that's used in Buddhism, does that relate at all, kind of like to bring in the western concept from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to like, acting in line with your values, like, the self control is something important, like doing things that are important to you? Or, I don't know, maybe in Buddhism, it talks more about virtues or something?

Pete: Yeah, I want to say yes, because I think it makes sense. And it's really about like self-control. And there's these five precepts, which are like refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, lying, refrain from intoxicants and from sexual misconduct. And so it's really about self-control around, I guess, pleasure, or sort of, I guess, in psychology, we would also call like, the ego, the super ego,

Nikki: Right.

Pete: So just trying to like manage, the super ego is in between the ego and the

Nikki: See Pete and I are not Freudian therapist, so we'll talk about that another time. Another way to say it, we could use more behavioral terms would be, it sounds like staying away from getting emotionally disregulated, with regards to pleasant emotions. By the way, I think a lot of people don't recognize that comfortable and pleasant emotions get dysregulated too. Because people know, if you're depressed, or you're having panic symptoms, like 'oh, that's dysregulation are really intense emotion'. But when people feel infatuation,  cool. This is cool. Or I'm like passion, sometimes I get nothing bad or good about it. I'm not judging it, it's just,

Pete: This middle path. It's too extreme. It isn't usually not healthy. And I was actually thinking I did an exercise, we were doing a diversity training with our faculty and I did a mindfulness exercise. And I had people kind of put their hands on their heart, and think about their racial and ethnic identity, and all the emotions that comes up there. And so certainly, my image in that moment was my colleagues of color are likely going to have a lot of negative emotions, especially during a racial pandemic, and that my white colleagues, I'm not sure what they're going to feel. So I think that that was another thing about control, is that allowing emotion to come in wherever it is, because it's not always pleasant. There's going to be both pleasant and unpleasant experiences in life, that that is this game called life.

Nikki: Absolutely. And what I was thinking, as you're saying that is that people are afraid of their unpleasant emotions. That's why we as humans engage in control-oriented oriented strategies. And when I say people, I mean all people like Pete and I as well. That even, we're psychologists, we're trained in this, we practice what we preach, and our brains are afraid of discomfort, they don't want to be uncomfortable. And so, this is really the downside of having the very evolved brains that we do.

Pete:  Our beautiful brains that you were calling [inaudible18:24]. So what are some strategies for control? We have a couple minutes left. If you think about strategies for control, because one thing I think about Buddhism is we use mantras, because that could help a little bit with at least creating this sort of repetitive...

Nikki: Say more about that, say more.

Pete:  Well mantra would be, it could be a prayer, it could be anything that someone's related to in their religious doctrine, it could be just any word that they choose. And the repetitive nature of practicing that mantra creates new neurological pathways, and also just creates moment to moment awareness of just those words, and then the repetitive nature and the sort of cadence creates that little piece internally.

Nikki: So kind of anchoring someone.

Pete: Yes, anchoring is good. What else would you say for control? So for any listeners that are maybe trying to manage their control?

Nikki:  Well I feel like all roads lead to mindfulness, honestly, that I think the first step is just, as Pete and I shared, we became more aware when we were graduate students, that in awareness of like where we're trying to get curious around, which is part of awareness here in mindful practice. Where might you be engaging in control-oriented strategies to get rid of, suppress, fix, problem solve, run away from, avoid something uncomfortable. And, I think that's something that some people might be surprised about when they really start to curiously observe, because I'm sure there are people that are listening that have in their minds like, 'Oh, I know this person's super controlling in my life,

Pete:  Sure, of course,

Nikki: But I'm not controlling, I'm super chill'. And it's like I think if you guys met Pete or I, we are pretty like 'go with the flow' in a lot of ways. You might not on the surface go like "they're controlling". And we're human beings we have control-oriented strategies too, so I think that's like the first step, is like just really openly kind of getting curious about where am I trying to fix something that's uncomfortable for me.

Pete: Yeah and so I think hopefully leaders have that, listeners have something to take away.

Nikki: They could be leaders.

Pete: They probably should be leading us. If you're out there to want to produce us, help us. But I'll leave you with this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh who was a Buddhist scholar “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness". So that letting go is about recognizing this release of control.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin, Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. All material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.