The Complex Psychology of Control and Coercion

by Oct 23, 2023Education, Mental Health, Mindfulness, Relationships, Self Care

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When we think about unhealthy relationship dynamics, we often think about the role of control. Tactics of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are often means of gaining control over another person. One tactic, less visible to the unassuming eye and therefore much more commonly used than we think, is coercion. In this blog, we’ll delve into the psychology of control and coercion, exploring what they are, their underlying mechanisms, and ways to navigate them in various aspects of life.


Let’s first define the two terms: 


Control refers to the ability to influence, direct, or manage someone’s behavior, decisions, or choices. While control can be exerted in both positive and negative ways, it becomes problematic when it infringes upon an individual’s autonomy and free will.


Coercion is a form of control that involves using force or manipulation to make someone do something against their true will. This may include threats, intimidation, or other forms of pressure that compromise an individual’s freedom of choice. We think about persuasiveness and convincing when we think about coercion, especially when there is an implicit expectation or possible threat around the victim’s choices. 


Now that we understand coercion as a form of control, where does the need for control come from?


Control often stems from a fear of losing something, such as power, security, or a relationship. To regain a sense of control, individuals may attempt to dominate others or their surroundings.


The desire for control is sometimes rooted in a genuine intention to protect, guide, or influence others. People may exert control because they believe their decisions are in the best interest of those involved.


Individuals who struggle with self-doubt may resort to control as a way to cope with their insecurities. By controlling others or situations, they attempt to mitigate their own anxiety.


Most of the time, control is not so much about other people, but about the internal problems a controlling person goes through. Controlling behavior can manifest in various ways, including micromanagement, manipulation, emotional blackmail, and possessiveness. It often leads to negative consequences in relationships and can damage trust and intimacy.


So, what happens if we feel the need to control the people around us?


The short answer: notice when you feel the need to control and replace that urge with an attempt to connect. Genuine emotional connection not only leads to self-preservation, but also makes others feel safe around us. It allows others to be themselves around us. It can also make it easier to reach our objectives and actually eases our fear of loss, desire for influence, and different insecurities much more effectively than control does. This way, we build emotional intimacy, long-lasting relationships, healthier families, communities, and societies. 


Begin with self-awareness, exploring the reasons why you feel the urge to control someone and when/in what contexts that urge sets in. Engage in open, honest conversations, sharing your concerns and being receptive to their feedback. And make sure you are filling your own cup, so you are not forcing others to meet needs you should be meeting on your own. 


Now, what if we’re on the other side of it, and we feel like we are being coerced into doing things we don’t really want to do? 


Coercion is a complex issue that can be highly destructive in relationships. It can show up not only in intimate partnerships, but in friendships, family systems, and workplace dynamics. Particularly where there are imbalanced power dynamics (think: parent/child, boss/employee relationships), coercers may leverage their authority to control the less powerful party. So, what does coercion look like? 


Coercive individuals often use manipulative tactics, like guilt-tripping, gaslighting, or withholding affection, to get their way. They may also threaten harm- emotional or physical- to themselves, the other party, or other people if they do not get what they want. This can put the other person in a precarious position where they have no choice but to acquiesce.


Coercion thrives on fear and compliance. People may comply with demands to avoid negative consequences or maintain peace. These tactics work particularly well on individuals who are highly sensitive, empathic, and people-pleasing, putting them at a much higher risk for coercive control. 


Coercion, especially when dealt with for a long period of time, can lead to a loss of autonomy and self-esteem. This can cause severe harm to someone’s self-worth, mental wellbeing, and even physical health in many cases. That loss of autonomy also makes it harder to remove ourselves from these controlling relationships, often making coercive control a vicious cycle.


Coercion creates toxic work cultures, toxic families, communities and countries at large. To counteract coercion and its negative effects, consider these strategies:


Learn to assert yourself and communicate your boundaries. Assertiveness empowers you to say “no” when needed and protects your autonomy. Be clear on what you want, what your limits are, and how to effectively communicate those things with other people.


If you find yourself facing coercion, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or professional for support and guidance. In some cases, law enforcement may be needed, although keep in mind that coercive control can sometimes fly under the radar in courts of law.


Prioritize self-care to build resilience against coercion. A healthy self-esteem and strong emotional well-being make it easier to resist manipulation.


The psychology behind control and coercion is multi-faceted, and modeled in toxic families, workplaces, regimes, and toxic cultures for centuries. They are deeply intertwined with human relationships and behavior. For those who often have the urge to control, recognizing that we may be resorting to such tactics as a primary way to get our needs met can be that first step in bringing change. For those who are victims of controlling behavior, fostering self-awareness, tolerance, open communication, and assertiveness can provide us and others a safe emotional, physical, and spiritual space to exist in true authenticity.


If you or a loved one is facing domestic abuse or violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788.


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