Control Theory by William Glasser

Control Theory by William Glasser

William Glasser’s 1985 book Control Theory is subtitled “A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives.” This review covers many components of the book, which makes it fairly long. In short, Control Theory is an excellent read that I heartily recommend.

Control Theory details a framework for understanding how humans choose behaviors to assert control over the world. These behaviors include depressing, angering, phobicking, etc. Glasser reframes all feelings as behaviors that you choose. As such, individuals go from being something to doing something.

This is expressed right out the gate in the Author’s Note:

Much of this book is concerned with the behaviors we choose as we attempt to control our lives. As I will explain in great detail, all behavior is made up of three* components: what we do, what we think, and what we feel. Doing and thinking are always expressed as verbs, like running or meditating, but feelings are usually expressed as adjectives, like depressed, or nouns, like depression. . . .

To say the man is depressed would be to infer that the depression happened to him. What I will explain in this book is that it is a behavior he is choosing in order to deal with the difficulty of losing his job. To describe accurately what this man is feeling as a behavior and also be grammatically correct, I would have to say that he is depressing or choosing to depress.

When feelings turn into things we do — Though you might be inclined to write-off talking about feelings like “anxiety” as “anxieting,” having read Glasser’s work and reflected on my own behaviors I think he is really on to something. The telltale sign of a good idea is it’s usefulness, and it has become incredibly useful to view my own behaviors and those of friends and family from the perspective of control theory.

For example, when a friend starts depressing about their job, he is actually trying to control a situation where he has lost control. Through depressing he can exact behavioral change — i.e. people react to his depressing by trying to cheer him up. Of in the case of someone who could effect change in the friend’s job, reorganize the workflow. Via depressing the friend can take back some control.

Awareness of how we work to exert control is paramount. Being aware of how I can use painful emotional behaviors (like depressing) to re-exert control makes me more aware that I could choose other, more productive behaviors. Rather than depressing to control, I can go play a sport, read a book, or do some chores. I may not want to do something more productive — sometimes its very clear to me that I just want to depress/anger/whatever — but since it is very difficult to change my feelings or think my way out of an out-of-control situation, at least by doing something productive I can improve my situation.

Control theory does not mean that all misery is chosen. In the short term, our reaction to losing control is usually some form of painful emotion. It’s the longer-term reaction whereby we either choose to emote our way back into control, which is almost always counterproductive, emotionally painful, or a waste of energy, or we do something which may change our feelings, buy us time or improve our situation, snapping us back into control of our lives.

Pictures in our heads — Glasser explains that humans convert experience into mental “pictures” that we file away in our memory for future reference. For example, a chocolate-chip cookie satisfies a baby’s hunger for something sweet. Chapter 3, The Pictures in our Heads notes:

This means that we store in our personal picture albums the pictures of anything in the world that we believe will satisfy one or more of our basic needs. For the rest of his life, when that baby gets hungry, he will start turning the food apges of his album. Many times, when he comes to the pictures of chocolate-chip cookies, he will say to himself, “That’s what I want right now,” and he’ll try to find a chocolate-chip cookie in the real world. . . . With a little thought, it will become apparent that your personal picture album is the specific motivation for all you attempt to do with your life.

And later:

It is not easy to change our own pictures, but it is even more difficult to persuade others to change theirs. To change a picture, we have to replace it with another that, if not equally satisfying to the need in question, is at least reasonably satisfying. This can be done only through negotiation and compromise; force will not work.

We behave to satisfy the pictures in our heads. It’s a simple truth that has some profound implications, particularly with regard to relationships. In particular, Glasser discusses how relationships that succeed are those where the friends, family or lovers have enough common pictures to share. In a situation like a marriage (or with parents or children), it is paramount to the ongoing success of the relationship to share common pictures.

Sometimes one person may have a picture that is irreconcilable with the picture of their significant other. Compromise and negotiation are key in these situations. What more, the couple should work towards finding ever more pictures that both can share with each other. Success in relationships is dependent on sharing mutually satisfying pictures (This doesn’t mean all the pictures have to be the same).

The process of creative reorganization — Another great concept that Glasser describes in Control Theory is that of “creative reorganization,” which is a process by which our minds attempt find usable ideas and behaviors. In Chapter 10, Creativity and Reorganization, Glasser writes:

The behavioral system is a two-part system. One part contains our familiar organized behaviors; the other part, which is the source of our creativity, contains the building blocks of all behaviors in a constant state of reorganization. By themselves these building blocks could not be recognized as discrete actions, thoughts, or feelings; but as they reorganize, they may become recognizable and usable. . . .

As active as this process is, we may have little or no awareness that it is going on. . . .

From this bubbling, ongoing creative reorganization comes a random stream of mostly minimal but occasionally well-organized new behaviors that are available to us to try if (1) we pay attention to them and (2) we decide that those two which we pay attention may help us gain or regain control over our lives.

Glasser importantly notes that creative reorganization often produces junk ideas. It’s up to us to sort out the good ideas from the bad.

Creative reorganization hits on an idea that is so pervasive in life and success that I have to mention it here: it is that the best ideas, businesses and, well, things emerge from massively iterative processes. They survive by being most fit and useful. Look at markets, biology, ideas, blogs, products, etc. And most of the time, these things aren’t planned in advance — they emerge out of the ether — the random iterations of life. Robust, dynamic and successful systems provide for huge volumes of iterations.

Other useful clippings — While reading the book, I typed up some more insightful quotes.

From Chapter 17, Taking Control of Your Life:

In an effort to deny what they really want, people like Susan often sigh and say, “What’s the difference what I want? I’ll never get it.” But her sighs and depressing are still her way of choosing to suffer to try to get what she denies she wants. From the standpoint of the pain she chooses, it makes no difference if she is aware of what she wants or not. If we don’t have what we want, we will choose to anger or suffer just the same. Once you know control theory, you will not waste your time and energy refusing to face what you want just because it is hard to get, because you know that you will choose to suffer just the same.

Chapter 18 Control Theory and Raising Children:

Try as hard as possible to teach, show, and help your children to gain effective control of their lives.

I was remarking yesterday about extending the above quote on child-rearing to managing employees. A powerful manager empowers employees to improved responsibility and control over their job. The opposite is also true: the manager who strips control from employees will have miserable employees who essentially do very little productive work.

Conclusion — Glasser discusses control theory as it pertains to drugs and alcohol, child-rearing, health and more. This idea-packed, paradigm-shifting book weighs in at a paltry 236 pages. It is out of print, but as you can see there are some 70+ copies at Amazon. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Glasser discusses towards the end of Control Theory a book he wrote in 1976 titled Positive Addiction. Glasser describes Positive Addiction as an activity where, while in a state of control, you achieve a period of creative reorganization. The example of positive addiction he describes is running. Running allows for a period of “in-control time” (Something we all need every day) and can take the runner into a meditative state of creativity. Because creative states have the potential to produce unpredictably good ideas via the iterative process, finding and pursuing positive addictions could be incredibly beneficial. Since I’m no runner, I’d like to discover what other activities might qualify. I might need to pick up this book, too.

Finally, hat tip to Dr. Michael Eades for alerting me to this great book.

*Glasser actually writes about a fourth component of behavior, the physiological response (i.e. the way our bodies react to a stimulus — usually a reaction we cannot control).

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.
  1. Don Bouchard

    Thanks for a concise synopsis on Control Theory.

    Glasser’s theory and sub-theories applied to educational psychology were touted while I was in my masters in the early nineties. I bought several of his books, including Schools Without Failure, in which he posits that the drive to quantitatively assess learning deleteriously affects the learner’s desire or capacity to think about qualitative, even unanswerable (at the moment) questions.

    I still think back to who is in control and what to do about my personal response to events in life, based on control theory….

    I don’t hear much about Wm Glasser or his theories any more, and I wonder why.

    • Bette Blance

      There is a worldwide organisation the William Glasser Institute with institutes in 27 different countries. Dr Glasser lives in LA where there will be an International Convention in 2012. He has just released an updated re-write of this book.

  2. Shirnetha Belk

    I am concerned about this book. My son has been reading it and has changed his behavior towards our whole family. He seems sad, depressed somewhat and angry about everything that we have always shared as a family. Is this book speaking in anyway to a difference in adult behaviors?

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