Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Controlling To Combat Anxiety

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 19, 2011


  Van, thirty, never lets me get a word in. She talks incessantly and when I try to interrupt she takes offense. I become assertive, “I think you need to control this situation since it makes you anxious when I speak, since you are never certain about what I am going to say.” Van starts to cry and then she gets angry. “You always criticize my behavior. Now, you tell me I am controlling.” Van says with that combination of hurt and anger. “Anxiety is an interesting phenomena, and everyone copes in a different way. Sometimes you cope by trying to control the situation, in this case the psychotherapy. I don’t see how that is a criticism. I see it as an observation which might be something useful to think about.” I say, realizing that observations can sound critical at first, but with some time and distance, those observations become important ideas to bat around. “I know you always think about what I say, but I also know that your first response is to feel like I am judging you in a negative way,” I say reassuring her that we have been through this cycle before and so I trust that my words will stick in her head, but she also wants me to know that she is hurting now.

  Understanding and explaining, Heinz Kohut, taught us. Those two words stick in my mind. First, I try to understand Van’s reaction, and then I try to explain it to her. “I am sorry I got so mad at you,” she says. “No need to apologize. This is our work and we are working hard,” I say, with conviction that we are going deeper, but the waters are treacherous. “OK, I will think about what you say,” Van reassures me. “I know that.” I reassure her. Giving up control is hard. For Van, deep anxieties lie beneath her need to be in charge. She protects herself from feeling those anxieties by being controlling. Taking away that protection is a slow and delicate process. The pay-off for Van will be deeper relationships. We proceed.

4 Responses to “Controlling To Combat Anxiety”

  1. Shelly said

    Shirah, this is an interesting observation. From this fictional account, is it possible to assume that when someone is being controlling, that they are covering up anxiety? And that if we try to understand the person better, then their behavior won’t be so obnoxious and hurtful? Or are there other reasons (such as desiring power, etc…) that people are controlling, other than simple anxiety?

    • shirah said

      Controlling is an observation which leads to a question of the underlying dynamics. Sometimes, underneath the behavior is anxiety, whereas other times underneath is a very diminished sense of themselves;as you say, those who are looking for power to compensate for low self-esteem. .
      In general, the more one can see the other person’s behavior as a function of their own internal dynamics, the less reactive one can be to the irritations in the interactions.

  2. mimi said

    Anxiety is often underlying abusive controlling behavior – like with batterers. A history of insecure attachment leads them with anxiety about being abandoned and they compensate by trying to control the situation with their partners. Just a little domestic violence education for everyone!

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