Why Control Feels Safer Than Love

By Molly LaCroix

Parts of us that fear adversity take control of our internal family, pushing love aside.

Jesus offers hurting people companionship, wisdom, and relief. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV). In the presence of Love, troubled souls find peace and gain strength for their healing journey.

This offer is clear and compelling, yet—in response to suffering—people often turn instead to “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The verse that underlies this twisted interpretation refers to temptation and reassures us God provides a way out of it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

How do you feel when you read the passage from Matthew compared to the statement, “God won’t give you more than you can handle”? Do you notice the protective energy in the latter, as though the person saying it wants to distance themselves from your struggle?

When we are struggling, we feel vulnerable. We have an exposed wound that is tender and easily reinjured. We need compassion but instead we are often met with the message that God is in control of the situation. God’s control is not offered as comfort but as a way to distance from—or minimize—distress.

Why is this such a common reaction to challenges? Because humans are vulnerable and afraid of vulnerability. Fear of vulnerability is a driving force that shapes our response to adversity.

Everyone experiences adversity. Sometimes, adverse experiences are traumatic. Whether or not your story contains trauma, you have experienced adversity.

The most common adverse experience is universal: You did not have primary caregivers who were always perfectly attuned to your needs. Sometimes you were tired, hungry, or sad, and the people responsible for your care did not meet your needs.

And no matter how hard you tried to please parents, teachers, or coaches, you sometimes failed and were shamed. Other adverse experiences—loss, racism, financial insecurity, moving frequently, and bullying—leave burdens of painful emotions and distorted negative beliefs.

Until we heal those wounds, they pose a risk to our well-being. Distressing emotions such as shame, grief, terror, and panic can resurface. The conviction that we are unlovable, abandoned, or not good enough can feel utterly true. We hold these burdens in our bodies as tension, anxiety, chronic illness, and pain.

How do we get through life with all of this going on? And how does our vulnerability impact our view of God?

Answers lie in a new way of understanding ourselves. As with every aspect of creation, from the Triune God to atoms to ecosystems, humans are best understood as a system. An innovative psychotherapy model provides insight into the human system.

Richard Schwartz, the developer of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, was not satisfied with patients’ progress. Setting aside what theories told him to expect, he listened with open curiosity. He noticed people referring to “parts” of themselves, and he was surprised to discover familiar family dynamics occurring between these parts in clients’ internal family systems.

Ideally, our internal family system functions harmoniously under the leadership of the “Self.” From a Christian perspective, the Self bears God’s image and is endowed with resources to support optimal functioning. A variety of inner family members contribute valuable qualities. Ideally, the Self leads the system—in harmony with the Spirit—with each member contributing their unique talents and abilities.

Unfortunately, adverse experiences throw off the harmonious balance of the system. Parts of the system become burdened with distressing emotions, beliefs, sensations, and images. This material threatens our well-being because we don’t function very well when we are overwhelmed by it.

To adapt to this threat, some internal family members respond by exiling the vulnerable, burdened parts—called exiles. Think of exiles as family members locked in the basement of the family home. Their jailers are a team of protectors—inner family members forced by adversity into protective roles.

Protectors help us get through life but also block or constrain our God-given resources. They take over the leadership of the internal family, opting for control over love. Let’s look at typical examples to see how adversity shapes the internal family.

Brian grew up in a home that appeared to offer all a child needs to thrive. In his mid-20s, he was confused by a lack of motivation and how often he felt “dead” inside. When Brian focused on one of his primary protective strategies—procrastination for fear of failing—the sensation and emotion he felt pulled him back to the many times his dad dismissed his offer to help with projects. Those memories contained grief, shame, and the belief he was not good enough to merit dad’s time and attention. When Brian tried new things, these painful memories surfaced, and his protectors jumped in to numb the pain or talk him out of trying something new.

A successful professional married with three children, Amy reached a point where the many ways she had attempted to contain childhood trauma failed, and she was overwhelmed with panic and grief. She had relied heavily on a team of protectors, including an analyst who thought she could rationalize away the impact of trauma and a minimizer who dismissed or denied painful memories. These dedicated protectors attempted to control two exiles: a four-year-old molested by her dad and a ten-year-old who tried—but failed—to take care of all the household tasks so mom wouldn’t rage at her.

Veronica couldn’t stand her mother’s affection. Part of her made sure she kept her distance, physically and emotionally. Throughout childhood, Mom was intrusive. She hovered over her, telling her how beautiful she was and sharing her deepest fear—that someone would kidnap her. Mom got angry if she was too playful or loud or was ever “unkind” to someone. Part of Veronica was enraged by how Mom tried to control her. Keeping her distance kept the rage from taking over. Underneath protective layers, Veronica’s exiles felt their needs didn’t matter, and they weren’t safe.

In each of these cases—as is true for all of us—distressing beliefs and emotions held by exiles threatened the internal system—prompting protectors to attempt to control or contain the pain.

Some protectors proactively avoid situations that trigger pain. They use strategies such as distance, denial, minimizing, perfectionism, criticism, and blame. However, pain inevitably surfaces, so other protectors reactively use distractions or numbing to soothe or contain it. Protectors are all well-intentioned, and they believe their strategy is vital for maintaining safety.

But when either proactive or reactive protectors dominate our internal family, the Self—the leader who bears God’s image—is pushed to the side. Our God-given resources are blocked or constrained. We lose access to healing qualities such as compassion, curiosity, calm, clarity, and creativity.

Protectors who are driven by fear block the Self who is motivated by love. They seek power over powerlessness through control. Their warped perspective—that control is stronger than love—informs their view of God. They don’t trust the Self to lead the system, and they don’t trust God. When they lead the internal family, their perspective informs a person’s view of God. They trust the safety of control over love.

How do we return to the ideal situation where the Self leads the internal family—in harmony with the Spirit—where love in myriad forms flows to all inner family members, healing exiles’ wounds and freeing protectors from fear? How do we trust love over control?

We restore relationships between the Self and various family members—exiles and protectors.

Because protectors took over leadership, opting for control over love, the first step is to regain their trust. Connecting with them builds hope in the Self as a leader who can bring healing resources to the vulnerable exiles. It gives them access to the power of God’s love to transform pain.

We connect with protectors by welcoming them just as they are. The presence of loving curiosity builds trust in the resources the Self offers the system. Ultimately protectors share what they fear will happen if they stop trying to control the internal family: they reveal vulnerable exiles. With newfound trust, they are ready to move aside so Self and Spirit can bring the fullness of God’s love where it is needed most. In the loving presence of Self and Spirit, the most vulnerable members of the internal family share their story—all of the beliefs, images, sensations, emotions, and impulses they have held since they were wounded. The story unfolds in a sacred space where their needs are honored.

Protectors are watching. They experience the power of love that welcomes vulnerability—“the most excellent way”—the way of love (1 Cor. 12:31). As they trust the power of love, they release control and trust the Self and Spirit to lead.

Through a spiritual practice of welcoming all internal family members just as they are, Self and Spirit meet the internal family’s needs with the most powerful resource of all: love.

Molly is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in treating the impact of trauma and adversity. She earned her MAMFT from Bethel Seminary San Diego, where she returned as adjunct professor. Her book Restoring Relationship: Transforming Fear into Love Through Connection, helps readers identify and resolve barriers to loving themselves, others, and God. Learn more about Molly at https://mollylacroix.com/.

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