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and Her Need for Omnipotent Control


by Martha Stark, MD / Faculty, Harvard Medical School

I present now a clinical vignette that demonstrates the powerfully healing impact of a therapist’s willingness to honor her patient’s “need for omnipotent control” of her objects when that “age-appropriate developmental need” has been “traumatically thwarted” early on – even if inadvertently – by an “impinging” and therefore “annihilating” maternal environment.


I worked with Amy, weekly, for two years (from ages 7 to 9). Mother had originally brought her in because Amy had become a “behavior problem” in school and was now also getting bad grades.


Mother reported that Amy had always been a very sad little girl but had never been willing (or able) to talk to anybody about what was really going on inside her.


Amy didn’t have any friends and mostly played by herself in her room.


Mother had taken Amy to see a number of different therapists over the course of the previous three years, but Amy had refused to talk to any of them.


Mother, who was admittedly a bit over-controlling, was nonetheless very well-intentioned and in a tremendous amount of pain because she was feeling so completely shut out of her daughter’s world.


…and, in addition to her daughter’s depression, now the problematic behaviors in school and the bad grades, in the face of which mother felt completely overwhelmed and helpless.


A colleague of mine saw mother; I saw Amy.


Every week in our therapy sessions, Amy would have us play “school.” She was the teacher, and I was her student.


Actually, it seemed to me that she was a rather strict teacher, but then she seemed to feel that I was a rather naughty student.


In truth, Amy was quite a stern taskmaster, quite a tough disciplinarian – and, I might add, not always very nice about it.


Believe me, I did the best that I could to be very good, to respond as best I could to each and every one of her many commands, but she was relentless and quite punitive.


Sometimes Amy would demand that I sit at the little school desk that I had in my office, a tiny little thing into which I could barely fit at all.


But whenever I would complain about how small the desk was, she would tell me that it only seemed that way because I was so fat and that I should be quiet.


Periodically, she would tell me to stand up and, as soon as I had struggled out of the little desk to my feet, she would insist that I be promptly seated. Up and down, up and down, again and again and again.


Amy would tell me that my posture needed improvement and that I needed to stand up straighter so that I would look taller.  


If I didn’t react quickly enough, Amy would send me to the corner of the room, where I was to stand by myself in order to think about how bad I had been.


Or if she was mad at me because she thought that I had been misbehaving and needed to be punished, she would get particular pleasure from making me go to the blackboard, where I was to write, over and over again, “I have been very bad,” “I have been very bad.” And then I was to sign it.


So, I would write that, again and again, on the doggone blackboard (and sign it), although I kept telling her that I didn’t like the chalk or the blackboard – but she would tell me that that didn’t matter and that I had to keep doing it anyway.


So, I would make a face while I was doing it, which I know she saw.


Amy would give me homework assignments that I was to do between sessions.


Of course, I would do them. But she would always give me a bad grade on them, even when I had gotten all the answers right!


When I would complain and ask her why my grade was so bad, she would tell me that it was because I was so dumb.


Oh, Amy was a tough little tyrant.


Believe me, I never once challenged her authority, and I always did the very best that I could to accommodate myself to every single one of her imperious commands.


Amy just loved bossing me around; and, as it happens, I didn’t really mind either, except for the part about the chalk and the blackboard.


Interestingly, she never once asked me to do something that I really wouldn’t have been able to do. In other words, she never once put me in the untenable position of having to say “no” to her.


So, over the course of our two years together, I did basically everything she demanded that I do – I offered her no resistance; and nor did I interpret her need to be in control.


I did not, for example, suggest that perhaps her need to have omnipotent control over me was compensatory for underlying feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy in relation to her somewhat domineering mother.


Indeed, I wanted Amy to have the experience of being able to exercise complete control over her environment – an experience that I sensed she had been denied as an infant and was now being denied as a latency age child in the relationship with her well-intentioned but anxiously over-controlling mother.


Meanwhile, I was beginning to hear from mother’s therapist that Amy was behaving much better in school and was no longer engaging in the negative attention-getting behaviors that had originally brought her to treatment.


Amy was also beginning to talk to her mother – now even had a few friends.


And mother reported that Amy didn’t seem to be so sad anymore.


Simultaneously, there also came a time in our own work when my little friend appeared to need less and less for me to accommodate myself to her every need.


And as she developed confidence in her ability to control her world, she no longer had the same need to be constantly demonstrating this power in relation to me and was indeed gradually “abrogating” some of her defensive “omnipotence.”


In our sessions, Amy became less tyrannical, less bossy, less controlling – more vulnerable, more accessible, softer, gentler, more tender.


And, sometimes, to reward me when she thought that I had been particularly obedient or when she was especially pleased with my “progress” (as she called it), she would give me a little pat on my shoulder.


One time she even told me that something I had done was “very good.”


Amy also started to give me As on my homework assignments. And, sometimes, she would even give me a little star for my homework because I had done it so neatly – lovely shiny gold stars that she would bring in from home for me.


And then one day Amy brought in her own report card for me to see – without a word but with a big happy triumphant smile, she proudly presented it to me – and it had all As on it!


My little friend and I, we certainly did other things over the course of our two years together (including a little bit of interpretive work), but I believe that what was most healing for her was my non-demanding, non-intrusive, non-controlling stance and my willingness to provide her with consistent gratification of her need for omnipotent control of her environment, a developmental (ego) need that had been traumatically thwarted early on, thereby prompting her “psychic retreat” and “schizoid withdrawal” from the world.


At the end of the day, I believe that what was transformative for Amy was my ability to create a “safe space” into which she could deliver what most needed to be delivered, namely, her need to be able to feel in control so that she would be able to risk becoming “absolutely dependent” on me (a stand-in for her mother) without fear of a “catastrophically annihilating response” that would shatter her heart once again.


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Actually, I remember an incident from my own analysis, a time when I, who was going through a difficult time in my treatment and was feeling somewhat shut down, announced to my analyst that I thought the waiting room for his new office was definitely arranged the wrong way!


I told him that I thought the chair was too close to the door and that the bookcase should not be there at all.  Rather boldly and probably somewhat obnoxiously, I suggested an alternative arrangement that I thought would be much better.


You can imagine my surprise (and delight) when, upon my return the next day, I discovered that he had rearranged his waiting room in accordance with what I had suggested the previous day.


What a generous gift he gave me in that – and it was all the more powerful in that it happened at a time in our work when I felt that he was not really hearing what I was saying and so I had self-protectively retreated.


That he was able to “meet” my need to be heard and willing to respond in the way that he did was a wonderfully affirming and healing experience for me – and enabled me to restore my sense of connectedness with him.


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Winnicott would seem to suggest that when a child has had the opportunity to be absolutely dependent on someone who makes the child the center of her world (at least for as long as the child needs it), then the child, in time and of her own accord, will begin to direct her energies elsewhere.  It is an inborn maturational thrust towards autonomy that provides the impetus for the child to progress from a stage in which the mother is experienced as a part of the child's self to a stage in which the mother is experienced as separate from the self. 


But when the child has not had the age-appropriate experience of being able to exert omnipotent control over her objects, has not been given the opportunity to feel that she is the center of another’s universe, has not had occasion to feel (at least for a while) that her every need is being recognized and responded to by a mother emotionally attuned to her, then her infantile need to possess and control the object will become defensively reinforced and, as she grows older, she may well find herself needing to feel that she can force her objects to accommodate themselves to her every need.


In our work with people who were deprived of the experience of being the center of someone’s universe, it is therefore important that we be able, and willing, to adapt ourselves to their need to control us and for as long as they need us to do that.


And not only must we be able, and willing, to adapt in this way but we also must do it with pleasure and delight…

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