What is Control?

What is control?

What do you first think of, when you hear the word ‘control’?

“Control your dog!” “You need to control that temper.” Drug control, crowd control - in all these contexts, control means, to borrow Merriam-Webster's definition, “to exercise restraining or directing influence over” and “to have power over.”

M-W also list a very different definition: “skill in the use of a tool, instrument or artistic medium.” That sounds promising; I’ll come back to this one. There are yet more meanings, but the one that seems to predominate is restrictive, suppressive.

Over recent months, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the role of emotions as important players in our cognition. We appear to have collectively decided that some emotions are ‘good’ and desirable (happiness, contentment), while others are ‘bad’, undesirable and to be avoided wherever possible (sadness, anger, fear, grief), except in certain limited circumstances - and as long as they don’t go on too long...

Emotions are physiological responses that ‘come upon’ us and sometimes overwhelm us, apparently unbidden and often unwelcome. Many intellectually brilliant people, who you might expect to have a better chance of ‘figuring it all out’ than most, can be just as blindsided and incapacitated by painful emotions as anyone.

Yet ALL emotions are not only unavoidable, but a necessary and essential part of living. Every emotion you experience is trying to tell you something; whether it’s that you need to stop and take care of yourself, do the right thing, fight, run, or take time to process something important. No emotion is needless or valueless; in fact, we ignore its message at our peril. Over-expressed emotions may damage us and people around us. Avoidance and distraction may drive us towards addictions.

But most of us learn culturally, practically from infancy, to suppress our emotions. The danger here comes from building up toxic subconscious patterns that surprise us later because we’ve lost sight of their origins. We have grown so averse to experiencing the more painful emotions like anger, sadness, shame and grief that we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid them. In our modern Western cultures, we have not learned emotional competency. We have dissociated from emotions, medicalised and professionalised them. It would surely be better to develop better emotional skills, to learn not to ignore or fight them; but instead to stay with them and work through them as they arise so we don't end up in mental health crises.

When we "control," i.e. squash our feelings down – particularly “undesirable and wrong” ones – striving to be only positive, “holding it together” becomes increasingly hard work. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, when our avoided, ignored, unprocessed experiences of sadness, anger, grief or fear show up instead in movement patterns of collapse, tension, tics or distortions.

In an important chapter of his second book*, snappily entitled “Unduly Excited Fear Reflexes, Uncontrolled Emotions, and Fixed Prejudices,” Mr. Alexander’s looks into the issue. OK, so nowadays we know there are no such actual things as ‘fear reflexes’; but he wrote this in 1923, describing those super-fast, triggered fear responses familiar to most of us. We certainly all acquire “fixed prejudices” that can often get the way of good reason, and Alexander advocated questioning our beliefs and ideas on a regular basis.

But the more I read this chapter, the more it seems to me that Alexander might not be talking about “uncontrolled emotions” in the repressive sense so much as in that other, ‘skill in the use of’ sense.

When teaching, I often use the analogy of a tightrope walker, who either allows himself to be sufficiently relaxed, trusting in his system to make those continual balancing micro-adjustments (in which case you can see those constant, tiny, fine wobbles); or, he will not trust in his fine motor skills, become ‘over-involved’ and interfere with his wondrously delicate system, using larger muscle groups designed for gross (large, not yuk) movement. Clamping here and tensing there, he will inevitably overbalance and fall.

It’s fascinating that neurologically, our innermost, delicate intervertebral muscles so crucial to balance aren’t operated under direct conscious control in the same way as our prime movers. Micromanaging balance on a tightrope or a bicycle or one leg is hopeless, it just won't work. You need to trust your system, know it's working for you, 'go with it', allow it to do its job.

In this context, then, control means "letting it happen," not "getting a grip." Easy, natural movement is impossible with excessive, undue gripping, tensing, squashing and overdoing. The Alexander Technique teaches how not to do these things and instead allow that kind of easy and flowing movement you see in children. Over years, we acquire so many ideas and emotional baggage that interfere with our natural movement patterns.

So, perhaps, not only does good all-round health include learning how to regularly re-examine our beliefs, but also how to learn to listen to our emotions, understand their purpose and trust them; neither allowing them to overpower us, nor trying to overpower them, welcoming and respectfully letting all of them play their natural, necessary roles in our lives.

*Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, 1923, publ. Mouritz