Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2002 / 7 Tishrei 5763

Yom Kippur: A formula for self-liberation

By Dr. Abraham Twerski, M.D. | A mouse in a psychologist's laboratory remarked to a colleague: "I've really got this guy conditioned. Every time I push this lever, he throws me a food pellet".

Trying to control someone else in a relationship usually backfires. It is replete with internal contradictions and irrationality. Some deny trying to control others to the extent that they become utterly passive in the relationship-which is the most insidious type of control to identify and to remedy-that of passive-aggression. Some people resent being controlled but actually invite domination. In every problematic relationship-control issues are the likely culprit.

The drive to control others does not necessarily derive from hostile sources. To the contrary, it often stems from a genuine desire to help, as when parents wish to direct their children away from mistakes they themselves have made, or when a spouse tries to prevent the partner from engaging in self-destructive acts, as may occur in the family of an alcoholic.

Yet even when the attempt is benign, it is important to remember that power corrupts, and that what begins as benign and genuine concern may become domination and control.

Not infrequently, however, the attempt to control is not benign to begin with and is cloaked in altruistic garb: "I am only doing this for your own benefit".

It may be difficult to see through the delusions of control. Perhaps Yom Kippur is an opportunity to do some genuine soul searching-and to liberate oneself from the need to control and domination of others. Ease up on the control-and liberate yourself.

The delusion of control may have inadvertently been reinforced by modern technology. In wagon days the driver would pull the reins casing the horse some pain that could only be relieved by the horse turning in the desired direction. What appeared to be "control" was actually the horse "choosing" the desired action in order to be free of pain. This is totally different from turning the steering wheel of a car-where there is absolute, unilateral control by the driver.

We pull levers that move and direct giant machines and robots. Children (and some big children) play with toys that they masterfully direct by remote control. A satellite orbiting one million miles from earth obeys orders from Mission Control. Technology has finally given man a measure of absolute control, and he may think that this applies to interpersonal relationships as well.

It is difficult to overcome the urge to control when one sees a loved one behaving in a self-destructive manner. Parents and spouses often ask: "How can I stand idly by and watch him destroy himself?"

The answer is that unfortunately we have no option. All we can do is to advise the other person and try to point out the self-destructive nature of the behavior. But beyond persuasion, there is nothing we ought do.

A great deal of anger and resentment is generated when we realize how helpless we are in altering another person's behavior. The "rage of impotence" has almost no parallel in intensity of emotions. Unless we are aware of this and refrain from acting-out our fury we may do things that are counterproductive and as destructive as the behavior we are trying to control.

Acceptance of this impotence is most difficult. This is where the Serenity Prayer is of such crucial importance. When we pray for serenity to accept the things we cannot change we become aware that there are things beyond our control and that it is fruitless to exhaust ourselves in trying to accomplish the impossible.

Underlying the urge to control other people is the distorted self concept. People with feelings of inadequacy may attempt to gain relief from these distressful feelings by exerting dominance over others. This is where Yom Kippur can help. We fast and spend the day reflecting on our own actions-without even an attempt to control someone else. We focus merely on trying to control and improve ourselves. This can be a 25 hour period to liberate yourself from controlling others. Give yourself over to G-d and let go of the delusion that we control anything except our own choices for our own modes of behavior. Let go-and let G-d.

Part of the process of spiritual growth is to respect the freedom of others. If we have offended, injured or controlled another then we have encroached on his or her freedom and rights. Spiritual growth requires that we make amends and repair the imbalance that we may have created-called teshuva-returning to equilibrium.

The more we feel good about our own selves the less we will feel the need to control others. When we hit our hearts on Yom Kippur we are not knocking ourselves down. We are nudging and motivating ourselves to "return" to our true selves-where we appreciate our own self worth and value-and in turn, the value and worth of others.

Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit. He has recently launched a new 12 step program for self esteem development Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2002, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.