Breaking the Internal Cycle of Control: Understanding the Disapproving Voices in Our Heads

In my recent post on the voice I hear in my head, I wrote about the “dictator.”

This is the internal voice I hear when I’m making choices or doing things I “shouldn’t” be doing. The dictator is also the voice that tells me that I should be perfect all the time.

I know so many people who hear this voice in different forms.

This voice has its origins in the loss of control we experience as children. It comes from the ways we are controlled as children in so many aspects of our lives.

This voice can be incredibly loud and strong.

It can overshadow every choice we make as adults (and as children). The belief that the voice is necessary or we would dissolve into anarchy and chaos is based on a very skewed view of human development and behavior.

We learn to believe as children that we’re wild and can’t be trusted. We grow up and become parents and adults who have internalized and accepted this belief.

Because we were controlled as children, we believe it is necessary to control children in order for them to develop appropriately.

Control can take on many forms in the child-parent relationship. Control can come in the form of tangible rewards and punishments. We can withdraw our love and affection from children when they behave in ways we disapprove of.

We can use controlling words like “You must…”, “You should…”, “You have to…”, even “I trust you will…”. We might physically control a child as well.

What happens when we feel controlled is that we lose a feeling of autonomy and freedom. There is ample evidence that when we (adults and children) feel a sense of autonomy, a feeling of being free, that we are happier and healthier. And when the need for autonomy and freedom is thwarted, we suffer physically and psychologically. (1)

When the need for a sense of autonomy is thwarted by parental control, frustration and anger are likely to result. And, children who feel controlled by parents also showed greater anti-social behavior. (2)

What happens as we grow up, is that we internalize the outside control and disapproval we experienced as children.

This disapproving voice becomes an internal pressure. When we choose to take actions that this internal voice doesn’t approve of, we experience a kind of control that is rooted in the external control we experienced at other times in our lives.

We then fight against this control and wage an internal war against the control we feel. Control that started externally, perhaps in our childhoods, becomes an internal struggle that can overshadow our daily lives.

We feel controlled and we rebel.

Our actions are not coming from a place of connection to our inner voice and power, but instead, they come in reaction to the outside control we’ve internalized. Rather than acting from an authentic place, we are reacting.

This internal cycle of control can be broken.

We first need to recognize how it operates in our daily lives within us and how we feel in this struggle. The recognition and acknowledgement can allow us to accept the loss of control as part of our experience and move through it.

One strategy that I’ve used came from Martha Beck, who wrote The Four Day Win. She suggested naming the disapproving voice. I took the term “dictator” from her book and have used it to name the voice in my own head.

Naming is an important part of the process of stepping back from our daily experiences and gaining perspective. I name what is happening to me as a way to understand why I might be reacting the way I am.

When I’m in the midst of the struggle against the dictator, I am resisting what is happening to me. In the fight against it, it remains powerful and I remain in the struggle.

When I can name the voice, the experience, and the emotions, I take the first step toward acceptance of the experience. I can embrace what is happening and I reduce the power and hold it has over me.

I can also offer the dictator unconditional love and acceptance.

When I do this, I am offering myself the love and acceptance I didn’t receive as a child. I can heal from the pain I experienced from not being able to meet the expectations of the adults around me.

We can also break the generational cycle of control.

By choosing to parent differently than we were parented, we break the cycle.

By moving into unconditional acceptance of ourselves, and the children in our lives, we break the cycle.

And if we break the cycle with us, the children in our lives won’t have to worry about the disapproving voices in their heads when they grow up.

(1) Arlen C. Moller and Edward L. Deci, “Interpersonal control, dehumanization, and violence: A self-determination theory perspective,” Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 41, January 2010.

(2) Michal Kanat-Maymon and Avi Assor, “Perceived Maternal Control and Responsiveness to Distress as Predictors of Young Adults’ Empathic Responses,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2009.