When Being in Control Gets Out of Control


Allan E. Mallinger, M.D. and Jeannette De Wyze

Clarkson Potter, 1992, 208 pp. 


Mallinger is a psychiatric professor and consultant and De Wyze is a reporter and writer.  Throughout the book he gives descriptions of behaviors, underlying reasons, and practical suggestions for change.  The book neglects the power of God in changing lives.


Perfectionism and other behaviors of obsessive personalities appear to arise from a disproportionate need for control and a fear of uncertainty.  They may give one an appearance of poise, confidence, and strength, but they can cause anguish, suffering and turmoil. 


The “single quality that characterizes obsessive people is a powerful, unconscious need to feel in control—of themselves, of others, and of life’s risks.  One of the primary ways in which this need manifests itself is perfectionism.”  (3)


Some of the personality traits of obsessive people include: (p 3)

  • Fear of making mistakes or wrong decisions
  • Strong devotion to work
  • Need for order and firm routine
  • Frugality
  • Need to know and follw the rules
  • Emotional guarded ness
  • Tendency to be stubborn and oppositional
  • Heightened sensitivity to pressure
  • Inclination to worry
  • Need to be above criticism
  • Chronic inner pressure to use every minute productively


Did you find yourself in here?  I did!


Most believe you can never be too careful, hardworking, thorough, prepared, organized, etc.  They are unaware of the harm.  (4)


Some people have a constitutional predisposition but many are enhanced by early feelings of insecurity.  (8)


Many obsessive people are suffering the agony of having to do everything well, fear of embarrassment and of appearing less than perfect, an overgrown sense of duty, responsibility and fairness, inability to fully relax or play, worries about doing the right things, etc.  (9-10)


A Self Test of 25 questions on pp. 11-13 is very revealing.


The Myth of Control

One characteristic is a tendency to think in extremes.  All or nothing.  To yield to another person once may feel like humiliating total capitulation.  To tell one lie, break one appointment, shed one tear… is a frightening precedent. (16) 


There may be a need to control others, to rigidly insist on one’s own way.  (21)  They may control others by striving to make people think well of them, always, to leave no room for criticism.  (22) 


“Subtly manipulative control games are another way in which obsessives strive to assert their power over others.  Such power plays whisper: ‘I’ve got the upper hand here.  I decide whether or not we will interact.  And if we do, I decide the beginning, ending, and content of those interactions.’”  (25)


Self-control, “fashioned in childhood as protection, it has become life-constricting…a source of pride that they’re terrified of jeopardizing.”  “That fear is one of the reasons why change is particularly difficult for obsessives….” (36)


Too Perfect. 

The perfectionist believes he can, by trying his very best, avoid error.  Mistakes would show I am not competent.  Being perfect assures my security with others.  My worth depends on being good and performing well.  Failures are devastating.  (38)


Perfectionists procrastinate because the work must be flawless and therefore it looks overwhelming.  (41)  Perfectionists may need to be right about everything.  (49)  They may be very picky and inclined to be upset over flaws in others.  (51)  A hypercritical nature is painfully obvious to everyone, and it pushes people away. (61)


Decision and Commitment. 

The risk of error makes decision making and commitments extremely difficult.  The person waffles, sees all the pros and cons, weighs and thinks, postpones, can’t decide, can’t commit.  Action is the enemy.  (66-69)  Indecisiveness and fear of commitment cause one to miss numerous opportunities.  A tentative attitude prevents one from giving anything their best effort.  (78)  Don’t confuse rational caution with an irrational refusal to decide. (79)



Obsessives tend to be especially sensitive to demands, either real or imagined.  This is called “’demand-resistance,’ a chronic and automatic negative inner response to the perception of pressure, expectations, or demands (from within or without.”  They tend to exaggerate subtle or inferred demands, to read expectations into situations, to translate things they want to do into things they ‘ought’ or ‘must’ or ‘should’ do.  They are inclined to balk at expectations simply because they are perceived as demands.  Some clam up when others try to get them to talk in order to protect themselves. Some may feel resentment or have trouble concentrating or delay on the job.  Some can’t enjoy a hobby because they feel pressure to do it perfectly.  Some are afraid of potential expectations if another person acts friendly.  (90-102)


These are virtually always unconscious behaviors and nearly undetectable, but they cause inner turmoil.  Becoming conscious of it is the most crucial step. (102)


Too Guarded.

 “Obsessives are alert to everything that might go wrong in life.”  They try to protect themselves against every vulnerability and potential risk.  They tend to be wary.  They doubt people.  Good qualities are taken to extreme.  Frugality is guarding your money.  Self-reliance is guarding against being dependent on others.   Inability to delegate.  Shrinking from emotional closeness.  Keeping people at a distance so they won’t get to know you and “find you out.”  Not trusting people so they won’t let you down.  Their aloof stance may appear as arrogance or conceit.  Many fear being exploited financially.  Inability to accommodate spontaneity.   (108-120)


“Guarded obsessives commonly view any betrayal of their trust as conclusive ‘proof’ that their original guardedness was justified.”   This characteristic is extremely difficult to change and must occur in relationships. (123-24)


Worry, Rumination and Doubt.

Life is a steady stream of worries.  Some need to know every detail; may focus on details and lose the big picture.  Some continually sort and analyze.  Mental tenacity.  Worry means repetitively thinking about a problem in a way that doesn’t lead to a solution.  Rumination is unproductive thinking about a past experience.  Some tend to be preoccupied, distracted, doubting.   Worry and rumination have few redeeming virtues, but do have physical costs. (127-138)


Orderliness and Rigidity.

Some can’t tolerate any dust or disorder but it’s more common to focus on certain areas.   Perhaps activities must be orderly, a fixed routine because of the need for perfection, thoroughness, and control.  Rigidity is the tendency to resist change.  Prone to ruts.  One gets bored, misses opportunities and suffers unnecessary pressure.  One can be a slave to the rules, follow recipes to the letter.  Mental neatness includes impatience with ambiguity, a need to understand every detail, stubbornness and narrow-mindedness, resistance to growth, rigid expectations.  Once having set a course, it is very difficult to change it.  (142-153)



·   “Do your demands for neatness make family members tense or inhibited around you?

·   Is it hard for you to enjoy an unexpected visit or call….?

·   Do you get upset when unforeseen contingencies disrupt your routine?”  (153)


Too Driven.

Workaholics have a compulsive need to work, to work more than they are expected to, “who voluntarily devotes practically every waking hour to either doing or thinking about some form of work….”   Many are also driven in their spare time, compelled to use all their time productively.  (156)


Living with the Obsessive

It can be painful to be on the receiving end of the above traits.  The author lists seven suggestions: 

  1. Don’t take their foibles personally
  2. Recognize that they may be taking Your Quirks Personally
  3. Be consistent and trustworthy
  4. Don’t be pressured into disavowing your own feelings and preferences
  5. Don’t pressure the obsessive.  “Be forewarned: any direct confrontation in which you try to force the other person to change is almost certainly doomed to failure.  Your request or demand will only increase his inclination to assert his dominance or ‘rightness,’ escalating the power struggle.”   “Your reasons should always reflect your own needs, or your difficulty with the status quo, rather than a judgment about the obsessive’s behavior.”  (192-93)
  6. Foster your own self-esteem and independence
  7. Reinforce positive changes – but do it sensitively”  (186-197)



[I haven’t included the doctor’s recommendations in each chapter.  If you need it, get the book.  But in addition to the book, get God’s help.  Dlm]