Therapeutic Control

By Javin Mather

Knowing what we do and don’t have control over can be scary. Let’s quell some of that fear.

Even the word “control” can muster up various negative connotations, especially in the world of counseling and psychology, perhaps bringing to mind stories of abuse, manipulative partners, or toxic parental/family relationships. Such responses are more than valid for many of us, especially taking any trauma background into account. Nonetheless, I feel “control” is also something capable of redemption, and such a concept interweaves rather appropriately with how it conceptually applies to both therapy and the character of God.

To say there are only two extremes of control in regard to love, being either controlling or uncontrolling, does not do the nuance and beauty of humanity justice, as the stories I encounter in my years of counseling clients speak to breadth and depth of both human strength as well as self-destruction. Control is a key player in the heart of this spectrum. As a concept, control is not wrong or evil, though we sadly live in a world where it is more often than not utilized in the name of more nefarious pursuits than those that are loving and constructive. I would contend having a healthy understanding of control, as guided by love for others and self and in context of God’s character, inform much of the therapeutic relationship as well as human interactions/behaviors more generally.

Whether due to biological survival mechanisms, environmental stressors, relational tensions, or an amalgamation of the three, our minds tend to default towards focusing on disruptions, abnormalities, or anything really that threatens our well-being in some capacity. Such forces are oftentimes situations beyond our control or in which we have limited control. In fact, we might define trauma as “any situation or event that occurs abruptly in which we do not have control or control is taken from us and with which we do not have the ability to cope immediately.” As such, discussing control is important. The presence of even multitudes of factors and situations over which we have no control does not, in fact, negate or erase the things we do have control over, even if their quantity feels minimal by comparison.

Viktor Frankl, counseling philosopher and Holocaust survivor, would contend we have empowering control in what attitudinal values we choose in the face of uncontrollable circumstances, in turn connected to how lives are hopefully driven by personal meaning we’ve achieved. Alfred Adler might contend that control is exercised primarily in the context of building social relationships and our positions and influence within them, both for the sake of meaningful connection as well as a sense of survival and place in the world. Albert Ellis, creator of reality therapy, might even say control is at the heart of facing our direct realities and our role and responsibilities therein to ourselves. Control, when guided and governed by love among many other positive traits and stances, can be truly instrumental in one’s well-being and even healing, and I cannot help but wonder if this is a manner similar to how God approaches the concept of control.

Control, guided by love, allows my clients permission to finally see themselves as valuable, important beings in the scope of their own lives and experiences, not merely recipients of trauma, strife, and dysfunction, tidal wave after tidal wave. They can see their own thoughts and opinions finally having weight and can see themselves as being just as relationally desirable by their friends as they view them to be. Control can influence healthy decision making and coping, again allowing a client to recognize what things they have immediate or gradual governance over in their own lives to respond to toxic situations and patterns in finally new and unique ways. Control can aid them in improving their self-concept and self-esteem, perhaps finally giving them courage to draw upon support and resources needed to leave behind negative situations and relationships.

When spirituality is sometimes addressed in counseling, this idea of control operating out of love and other strengths bear a positive impact on discussion of God and God’s place in the lives of clients who identify with Christian faith. Instead of God bearing toxic control as the arbiter of horrible things, we reinforce those things as having occurred as the result of choices and evil of others; what control God may have to some extent is nonetheless loving in seeking to use the situation for our growth towards God.

Uncontrolling love might perhaps be viewed as control being relinquished in situations that it could easily exist, whether we’re talking about God’s presence in a given situation or situations in our own lives in which we release ourselves of feeling an obligation to control that is doing our well-being more harm than good. Personal agency and autonomy as people is intimately connected to our sense of love and relationship, both controlling and uncontrolling; control is not so much the problem as is the motivations and intent behind it, though lack of control in some situations might be deemed the most loving course of action.

I see love in control in that our planet is perfectly distanced from the sun such that we do not burn or freeze to death and can uphold life across millennia. I see love in control in the design, organization, and structure of oh so many biological, ecological, and environmental systems on this earth both in nature and living creatures. I see love in control in the boundaries and healthy cautions loving parents give their young children to keep them safe. Control does not infer an utter lack of love, but rather, its execution and intent are governing factors in whether or not a given kind of control is loving or unloving in its outcomes.

By contrast, there is an inherent kind of uncontrolling love in the counseling relationship, as I do not seek to engage in decision making and advice giving for my clients; if they only arrive at healthier choices and perspectives due to blatantly direct intervention and instruction on my part, how can they fully personalize and own those things for themselves in such a way to garner effective consistency? Control is nonetheless present in our conversations, but it serves more as a topical guiding force, open-ended enough in nature to validate their own reflections and free will as opposed to my spelling everything out for them in some concrete, maybe cold-hearted manner. Control as executed by God is perhaps done in a similarly guiding manner, not forcefully or coercively, but prominently enough to allow things to happen in such a way that our agency and free will as humans is not utterly negated in the process.

Upholding love for self, love for others, and the idea of God ultimately being loving (though not devoid of others traits nor devoid of power) is integral to the counseling process. Even the smallest shred of love for self, however hidden deep down, must be present for the simple fact that someone enters my office in hopes of achieving change in their lives, sometimes even including feeling in control of them again in the face of all they’ve come through. Love for others is central to any healthy, meaningful relationship and is also integral to relational repair in the face of conflict patterns, infidelities, and toxic communication.

God as guided by love is central, in my mind, to the concept of holding space, that even in situations where God’s presence feels far off, God is nonetheless sitting right next to us, experiencing the full breadth of our pain with us, and existing solely for us in a peaceable, judgment-free manner in those very moments.

I’ve seen the beauty and power of what truly redeemed control can look like as a therapist. While I cannot speak to the depth and detail of how God exercises control in some situations and does not in others like a trained minister or professional theologian might be able to, I can say that any control God does engage with in creation and in our lives is ultimately guided by love and augmented by myriad other traits, to the benefit of creation and to the upholding of us as God’s beloved.

Javin Mather is a licensed clinical professional counselor in Idaho, having practiced for 11 years now across agency settings, hospital/triage care positions, college/university settings, in state/federal capacities, and via his private practice, Storyboard Counseling. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Boise State University in 2008, and Master’s studies in counseling were completed at Northwest Nazarene University in 2011.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love