There’s a lot of casual talk lately about power, control, and undue influence in relationships and communities. We banter about helicopter parents who control their children’s every move, abusive cult leaders who control how cult followers think and behave, narcissistic politicians who make up lies to control public opinion, gurus who coercively control followers, CEO’s who overstep boundaries, and power imbalances in romantic relationships that lead to one partner controlling the other. But we don’t even teach adults how to avoid controlling or being controlled, not to mention how little education we give our kids to help them retain their right to control themselves.
For example, here are a few things we have every right to control for ourselves, without anyone else’s undue influence or coercive control.
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO CONTROL:
- Who you choose as friends or romantic partners
- What schools you go to, majors you pick, or careers you pursue
- How you spend the money you earn yourself
- What you wear
- What religious beliefs you follow or reject
- How you take care of, dress, or groom your body (or don’t)
- How you vote
- How you express yourself or develop your talents
- How you behave sexually (as long as you’re not overriding someone else’s consent or violating agreements with a partner, such as monogamy)
- How we spend our time
- The privacy of our communications with other people
We Have The Right To Make Requests Or Negotiate Boundaries
Saying we can’t control others ethically does not mean we don’t have the right to make requests or negotiate boundaries around such things. As parents, we have a right (and a responsibility) to influence our children’s medical care and education and to negotiate healthy boundaries with our children about health, safety, and sexuality. We can help guide our children with healthy influence regarding career paths, romance, developing talents, and how to live a kind, healthy, loving life.
As romantic partners, we have a right to have opinions and make requests of our partners about things like how we spend our money, take care of our bodies, behave sexually, manage our time, or relate to relationships outside the romance. Such requests can be negotiated and boundaries can be agreed upon together, mutually. But that still doesn’t give us the right to control other people.
The only exception to this rule is if you are a parent or legal guardian of someone who cannot take care of themselves or exert their own free will, either because they’re too young or too disabled to safely make decisions on their own, in which case you have the right to exert a strong influence over the physical safety of a child or other dependent- but only if they are in imminent danger and need to be protected from immediate harm or cannot make any decisions on their own.
As employers, we have a right to have clear do’s and don’t with our employees. With people we hire, we’re allowed to make expectations known ahead of time and exert more control- and someone else is free to quit their job if they don’t want to live up to an employer’s expectations. But children, romantic partners, and friends are not employees- and they’re not property that we own. We do not have the right to control any person besides ourselves, no matter how much we might want to.
Your #1 Human Boundary Is Your Right To An Individual Personhood
Even with your children or romantic partner, you do not have a right to control their personhood or override their sovereignty, their autonomy, their ethics, or their birthright to have free will and individual preferences. This does not mean you don’t have a right to set limits and enforce your own boundaries on children. Raising a child with no limits is as developmentally traumatizing as raising a child you control too rigidly. If you neglect your child, let them get away with potentially dangerous behavior, and fail to set any boundaries, you will raise a boundary-injured child.
Teaching your children that there are consequences to crossing those boundaries is an important part of helping a child learn to respect their own boundaries and someone else’s boundaries. Healthy adults must be willing to cooperate with societally accepted laws, for example, and someone who thinks they are above the law will have a difficult adulthood. But setting boundaries is not the same thing as controlling someone else. Even children have a right to make their own choices and control their own lives, as is developmentally appropriate.
For people whose boundaries were wounded in childhood, such issues around power and control can be very confusing. It’s crucial to understand that your #1 human boundary is the right to your individual personhood, your unique sovereignty, your personal agency. In other words, you control you. It’s your birthright. This also means that your emotions are your emotions, and someone else’s emotions are their emotions. You’re allowed to be with someone else’s emotions (and they’re allowed to be with yours) without you having to take on those emotions empathically, like a contagion. In other words, you’re entitled to have a boundary between your own emotions and someone else’s emotions, without being insensitive or cut off from healthy compassion for someone else’s feelings.
This also means that your successes are your successes, and your children or partner’s successes are their successes. Your failures are also your own, and their failures belong to them. This means it’s not okay to view your child as a feather in your own cap, and it’s also not necessarily your failure if they make choices you don’t like, although they may act out if you’ve traumatized them or tried to exert undue influence or coercive control. The key is that you are you; other people are other people. Clear boundaries between you and other people protect this separateness.
Free Will Requires Separateness
Once you can hold your separateness and peel yourself apart from someone else who might be trying to enmesh with you, you’ll start to feel a little more space around you, physically, emotionally, and psychically. You can be like a beautiful little flower bulb preparing to bloom near someone else’s flower bulb, safely housed in a cozy greenhouse, away from scary predators. Maybe your roots even touch their roots under the soil, but you’re still separate and can live apart, even if one bulb gets dug up and transplanted someplace else.
In other words, you’re not dependent on the other person, and they’re not dependent on you, even if you rely upon them for some of your needs and they rely upon you in a healthy kind of interdependence that is a natural part of being human. If your flower bulb were to die or get transplanted, the other flower bulb could carry on and bloom. Because although you’re related to one another and you’re growing in the same greenhouse, you’re not enmeshed in a dependent or unhealthily entangled way.
This right to your individual personhood is what makes you less vulnerable to enmeshing with others who might seek to fuse with you, either because they want to overpower or control you in a “power over” dynamic, or because they want to create a dependency on you and give their power away to you in a “power under” role. Whether you’re the one at risk of being controlled or the one who thinks you’re entitled to control someone else (or a mix of both, which is common), it’s important to understand that nobody else has a right to control you, and you have no right to control anyone else, not even “for their own good.”
Controlling Behaviors Get Passed Down Generationally
We can get our boundaries wounded in countless ways when we’re children, most commonly because our parents were boundary wounded themselves and never got adequate treatment for the traumas that wounded their boundaries. Boundary wounding is usually a kind of intergenerational trauma we inherit from our parents and they inherit from theirs. Parents keep passing it on to their children, ad infinitum, unless you break the chain by getting your wounded boundaries treated with cutting-edge trauma therapies. You could be the one who breaks the chain, especially if you have kids of your own.
Take a moment to explore inside yourself. Are there any relationships where you’re letting someone else exert undue influence over you in a controlling way? Are there relationships where you might be the controlling one? If we can treat our boundary wounded tendencies as “parts” of us that think they’re protecting us and maybe needed to behave this way for survival purposes at some point in our lives, we can be gentler with ourselves and others as we learn to shore up our boundaries and heal whatever made us porous or controlling to begin with