Monday, August 24, 2009


Life can sometimes be likened to being on a train. Most of the time, it is going along quite well, getting to the appropriate destinations on time and without incident. Sometimes, it is a bumpy ride or there is some need for a diversion. On a few rare occasions, however, there can be a derailment that leads to disaster.

We are the train drivers of our lives. As long as we are in the driver's seat, we can have a clear view of what is in front of us. We can have clarity about where we've been, and can anticipate what stop is coming up next. We can be satisfied that we can have some reasonable control of the train, yet recognize that there might be some things that might occur, from time to time, that are outside of our control.

Sometimes, however, for some people, the ride is not always  a smooth one. In fact, for some, it is downright out of control. For children who have been the product of a chaotic early life, life can be described as the equivalent of being on a roller coaster train. A chaotic early life can result from the presence of parental alcohol or drug abuse, parental conflict, chronic parental disorganization or significant psychological difficulties in a parent. Unexpected childhood traumas, such as a life-threatening illness or the loss of a parent or sibling, could also contribute to an emotional upheaval. These experiences may leave a child with the fear that they are on a train that is going or has gone off the tracks, out of control. That is, the chaotic external life becomes the child's chaotic internal life. Sometimes, children raised in these situations become helpless, succumbing to a life of chaos and out of control behaviors. Others employ Herculean efforts in an attempt to bring some order to their otherwise chaotic experience.

They try to exercise CONTROL.

Think of the following examples. The young boy of the alcoholic parent who spent much of his young life making sure his mother was put to bed at night after an alcohol binge, or who would have suffer her rages throughout the day as she cursed him and everyone else in the world. The young girl who experienced abuse in early life and did not feel protected or supported by her family. Both of these children may have had the experience of feeling like they were on a train that was going off the tracks. While children like them may later live in an adult life that reflects derailment, others may work in an excessively disciplined way to correct the course and get their train back on track.

That person might become the adult who emerges from these situations paying very close attention to keeping things under control. Behaviors such as restrictive eating, excessive stinginess, perfectionism, obsessive cleaning, rigidity of personality or other ritualistic behaviors might reflect an attempt to bring order to what would otherwise feel like a chaotic world.

The fear for the now adult is that the train could go out of control, go off the tracks, but for the vigilance and CONTROL of the driver. The driver must apply the brakes, swerve hard, and avoid disaster.

Sometimes however, being chronically fearful of the possibility of the train going off the track, (or one's life going off track in some way) or being finely attuned to any slight bumpiness, the driver spends a lifetime with his or her foot on the brakes, and swerving from left to right. This 'over-correction', a response to the feared out-of-control train, ultimately leads to a train that is at risk of actually going off the tracks. That is, paradoxically, the attempts to control the feared out-of-control train, may itself lead to an out-of-control train or a train wreck. A person, fearful of becoming or feeling out of control, may ultimately engage in damaging out-of-control over-controlling behaviors.

For example, Gabrielle, a survivor of a chaotic early life, struggled with chronic anxiety and fears of her life becoming out of control. She has spent a lifetime over-controlling her food intake with the unconscious fantasy that, by so doing, she could free herself from the feeling of being out of control. Paradoxically, her attempts to control her out of control feelings resulted in an out-of-control eating disorder.

When thinking about your own controlling tendencies, pay close attention to what might be behind the need for such control. Remember that controlling behaviors emanate from fears of being out of control. Think about what is really out of control that might require inflexibility in relationships, spotless cleaning, or rigid rule bound behaviors. Do your attempts to correct your course ultimately lead to something else out of control? Is your train really out of control or do you just fear that it might be? Are your attempts at correction appropriate to the actual deviation of your train, or do you risk derailing your train by overreacting and overcontrolling?


  1. Thanks Dr. Paula. Very clear examples. I appreciate how you sorted out the source of the issues you describe...


  2. I found this article particularly interesting as I work with animals, who by human standards, are out of control in one way or the other. The reality is that often they feel that they have no control at all over the choices that they can make so make ones that don't fit well into their human dominated world. People often say that we are anthropormophizing. The more logical assumption is that we are closer than we'd like to believe. A scared animal will attempt to control their world and everything in it in very similar ways that humans do.