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Controlling and inflexible adults

People who experienced developmental trauma, meaning abuse and neglect as children, frequently become adults that need a high degree of control over their environments. These adults can accurately be described as controlling and inflexible. Rigid is another word that can fit. 

Their need for control makes complete sense when viewed from a developmental trauma perspective. Abused and neglected children cannot control their environments. Rather, they are dependent on their caregivers for survival and are at the mercy of the people who harm them when the whim strikes.

Abused and neglected children are unable to predict what is going to happen to them, or when it’s going to happen. In response to this unremitting threat, these children experience a constant level of increased arousal, frequently for years. These children know they are in perpetual danger and they remain hyper-vigilant, meaning hyper-alert and always scanning for danger. They are on the look-out for signs that something bad is about to happen.

When I ask my adult clients that experienced developmental trauma whether they perceive themselves to be controlling and inflexible, they will often say “yes.” These clients are often hard on themselves about this behaviour. After we discuss why they are controlling and inflexible, however, they are able to have compassion for themselves rather than remaining harsh.

Being controlling and inflexible is not the fault of people that experienced developmental trauma. Rather, being controlling and inflexible is a defense they developed as children, out of necessity, to help them stay alive.

It is understandable that people that experienced developmental trauma would have learned to try to control their environments. Being out of control left them vulnerable to neglect and abuse and they needed to do what they could to avoid being harmed, to the extent that they could.

A problem that comes with being controlling and inflexible as adults, however, is that this behaviour works against them now. It pushes people away from them and results in their being isolated.

A major task for adults that experienced developmental trauma in therapy is to learn how to safely be vulnerable with others. This is the opposite of being controlling and inflexible and is a difficult task to master. Being vulnerable was exactly what they needed to stop when they were children. Today, these adults need to learn to undo what they once had to do to keep themselves safe.

A major concept to realize is that, as adults, they are no longer at the mercy of the people who harmed them. These adults are not dependent on their abusers today. Rather, they can get up and leave situations that are unsafe.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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