Over the past couple of years, I’ve been surprised at how many times “control” issues have emerged as a major issue in counseling Christians with anxiety and/or depression. (It’s been a major factor in marital counseling too.) As I couldn’t find any Christian books which dealt specifically with this subject, I bought Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, put on my Calvin spectacles and started reading.

The book emerged out of the challenges and frustrations the author, psychiatrist Allan Mallinger, faced in trying to counsel obsessive people. Like other mental-health professionals, he found “obsessive people often are controlling or cerebral or distrustful or secretive or emotionally constricted or resistant to change or all of the above.”

Yes, they often have many virtues such as being hard-working, reliable, self-controlled, honest, etc. But their striving for excellence in themselves and others makes them too perfect for their own good. As Pascal said: “When we would pursue virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves.… We find fault with perfection itself.” Their perfectionism means that are never at ease with themselves or with anyone else.

By this point, you might be thinking, “Am I looking in the mirror?” Well, here are examples of the kind of person Mallinger has in mind:

  • The person so driven to meet professional and personal goals that she can’t abandon herself to a few hours of undirected leisure without feeling guilty or undisciplined.
  • The person so preoccupied with making the right choice that he has difficulty making even relatively simple decisions usually regarded as pleasurable: buying a new stereo; choosing where to go on vacation.
  • The person so finicky that his pleasure is spoiled if everything isn’t “just so.”
  • The “thinkaholic” whose keen, hyperactive mind all too often bogs her down in painful worry and rumination.
  • The perfectionist, whose need to improve and polish every piece of work chronically causes her to devote much more time than necessary to even inconsequential assignments.
  • The person so intent upon finding the ultimate romantic mate that he seems unable to commit to any long-term relationship.
  • The person so acclimated to working long hours that she can’t bring herself to cut back, even when confronted with evidence that the overwork is ruining her health or her family relationships.
  • The procrastinator who feels angry at his “laziness”—unaware that the real reason he is unable to undertake tasks is that his need to do them flawlessly makes them loom impossibly large.

One of the primary ways in which the need to be in control (of oneself, others, life’s risks) manifests itself is perfectionism. When control and perfectionism combine, a whole family of personality traits is produced, including:

  • A fear of making errors
  • A fear of making a wrong decision or choice
  • A strong devotion to work
  • A need for order or firmly established routine
  • Frugality
  • A need to know and follow the rules
  • Emotional guardedness
  • A tendency to be stubborn or oppositional
  • A heightened sensitivity to being pressured or controlled by others
  • An inclination to worry, ruminate, or doubt
  • A need to be above criticism—moral, professional, or personal
  • Cautiousness
  • A chronic inner pressure to use every minute productively

Mallinger points out that many of these traits are valuable and necessary for success. Problems arise when they become dominant and inflexible – that’s where checklists like this come in helpful.

They’re also useful because one of the greatest difficulties in counseling people with such self-generated anguish is that most obsessives are unaware that they’re harming themselves and others. Few, if any, come and say, “Hello, I’m an obsessive perfectionist with control issues!” Most come for another issue or, most commonly, because a loved one, a colleague, a boss, or a friend has encouraged them to seek help.

Having noted the symptoms, Mallinger says the next step is to trace the underlying cause or causes. I’ll return to that tomorrow, and I’d encourage all parents to tune in.

  • Roxy

    Hi, I just discovered this blog! How do I tune it to tomorrow’s discussion? I’m completely new to this website. Thank you for the good work you are doing! I will spread the word.

  • Kathleen A. Peck

    Firstly, thank you Dr. Murray for bringing up this very important topic!
    These types of controlling behaviors can be so difficult to identify because they’re so deeply entrenched in many of the positive behaviors & attributes you named here in the article. Being hard working, striving for the very best quality in everything or most effective use of time, resources, education, recreation, ALL seem to be productive life skills but where things turn the corner is our personal reactions when we’re unable to achieve these things, unable to somehow make everything right according to our high standards. Other people become annoyances, stumbling blocks, obstacles to be overcome.
    Sadly I see myself in these descriptions, & I’m sure it’s been wounding for those around me to live with me. To be out of control in one area or another brings on such a feeling of being overwhelmed often to the point of just wanting to give up trying. It’s bearing the constant “all or nothing” burden that really weighs the heart/mind/body down. Living this kind of life is exasperating for the person under these strictures &equally so for those whom they’re being imposed upon.
    God help us to turn over these fears & needs to control to the only wise One who truly does have all control & can be trusted in every circumstance to wield that control gently, graciously & altogether wisely.

    • David Murray

      Kathleen, Thank you for your transparency and your honesty. I think the way you put this could be very helpful to people. Would you mind if I published it as part of a blog post in the coming days? No worries if you just want to leave it as a comment.

      • Kathleen A. Peck

        Sure, feel free! Your series right now is touching on so many relevant issues for me that I seek to write an article that fleshes out the symptoms & it’s effects even more. How we must seek Christ to free us from the stranglehold of control, horrible childhoods & all. So thankful for Christ’s redeeming power available this side of heaven.

        • David Murray

          Thanks Kathleen. Let me know when you’ve written your article so that I can link to it.

  • SethGetz

    love this book, read it years ago and now I need to pick it up again.

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  • Lisa Mongold

    This. Is. Me. And it’s exhausting as you stated.

  • djb813

    Im married to an obsessive and the behaviors are ruining our marriage. I got the book years ago and hid it. She found it and read it and was amazed at how much it described her. The problem is that the behaviors really havent changed. It is suffocating.