There is a broad base of therapeutic literature focusing on self-regulation, or the ability to manage and re-direct one’s emotions in a healthy way. When individuals act out in unhealthy ways due to a lack of control over their emotions, this is called dysregulation. Most people would agree that a high level of self-control is a good thing. However, psychologists now recognize that some individuals control themselves to the point that they struggle to express their emotions and connect with others – a condition referred to as maladaptive overcontrol.
Healing from maladaptive overcontrol is not an easy process for a lot of people. It’s not the same as “letting one’s hair down” or “loosening up a little.” Many childhood trauma survivors have learned to keep themselves safe by maintaining perfect control of themselves – often the only option they had. Surrendering that control too soon or too quickly as an adult activates the sympathetic nervous system. The brain then fights to keep the person safe from what it perceives to be a threatening situation, inducing panic or defensive anger.
Psychologist Jason Luoma (2020) writes that overcontrol generally develops from two factors: biological temperament or family experiences. People who are naturally more anxious or sensitive are more likely to overcontrol themselves to prevent becoming overstimulated from the inside. The same is true when an individual grows up in a family that does not tolerate mistakes, failure, or emotional vulnerability.
Overcontrol may appear in different ways, depending on the person. Some people may have difficulty with showing what they are feeling and may smile when upset. Some may find social interactions exhausting. Others may avoid spontaneous activities like dancing at parties or meeting new people. Receiving critical feedback may be beyond painful, and an overcontrolled person might do things to prevent it rather than face the consequences of being less than perfect.
Excessive self-control is a survival mechanism, and it works very well in situations where a person has to hide who they are to keep themselves safe. In the long term, however, it is likely to lead to struggles with intimacy, social isolation, hard-to-treat depression, or anorexia nervosa (Radically Open, 2020). How does a person, who has controlled themselves for so long, learn how to embrace spontaneity, risk, or intimacy? Very gently.
In my own healing journey, I become impatient when I seem unable to do the things that “normal” people around me can do easily. Simple things like putting on a sweater when I feel cold or spontaneously buying myself a food I like from the grocery store are not things that even occur to me. But it’s okay. Learning to be free is a gradual process.
As I processed more and more of my childhood grief and neglect, I became more open to embracing new experiences and expressing different aspects of myself. I had only ever listened to soft music, as harsh or angry music was highly triggering for me. But one day, I found that I could listen to rock – as long as there was no screaming or swearing. I started confidently ordering new foods in restaurants. I even tried dancing at a young people’s conference I attended last year in Toronto (granted, I wore earplugs to block out the noise, but it was fun)! I still find making eye contact with strangers at the grocery store unbearable, and it may be months before I work up the nerve to wear makeup – something I’ve wanted to do for years. But I’ve learned to be gentle with the overcontrolled part of myself. The more I heal, the more I can find the confidence to embrace these new experiences.
How can overcontrol be treated? Therapists are beginning to use a new type of evidence-based therapy called Radically Open Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (RO-DBT). This therapy helps individuals struggling with overcontrol to practice expressing emotions, handling uncertainty, accepting feedback, and responding to social cues to form better connections with others. If you’re interested in this type of therapy, talk to your local mental health clinic to see if you might be able to find an RO-DBT certified practitioner in your area or online.
Overcoming the fear and stress associated with new situations can be difficult, tedious, and even discouraging. For me, beginning to discover aspects of myself that I had never seen before – and finding the confidence to keep exploring myself – made the pain worth it.
Luoma, J. (2020). What is Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy? Portland Psychotherapy. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/apa_style/apa_formatting_and_style_guide/reference_list_electronic_sources.html
Radically Open. (2020). Self-Control: Can You Have Too Much of a Good Thing? Radicallyopen.net. https://www.radicallyopen.net/self-control/