From Responsibility to Control

There is a lot of talking about ways of managing the current situation regarding safety, health and wellbeing, locally and internationally. Depending on what Life is giving each of us to deal with, in terms of day to day experiences and relationships, there are certain values, beliefs and expectations around caring and being cared for that we are all holding, whether being aware or not.

Watching the current events, as they unfold and are presented in the media, one can notice many different initiatives, reactions and decisions on the Responsibility-Control spectrum, taken in the name of caring.

So, how does the intention to care for oneself and others, in dealing with real life challenges, may start in the mind and manifest in the practical reality, when one does their best to live and enjoy life?

Thinking about responsibility and control, my thoughts went to the ideas of Virginia Satir, American author and psychotherapist, known for her contribution to family systems therapy, and whose book “Peoplemaking” written in the 1970s, describes fully human but problematic patterns of communication between people. These patterns were derived from her family therapy work, and in summary they consist of four stances:

Placate: always agreeing for the sake of peace, submissive.

Blame: finding fault, pointing the finger at somebody else, dictating.

Compute (Super reasonable): say the right words, coming across as a machine, being correct, show no feeling.

Distract (Irrelevant): words do not connect, being on the move, the response is off the point.

Satir suggests that a 5th stance, which she calls “Levelling response”, would add ease to relationships, it is honest and free of blame.

“In this response, all parts of the message are going in the same direction. The voice says words that match the facial expression, the body position and the voice tone. […] The levelling response is real for whatever is. […] The message is single and straight.”(p. 72-73)

“So when you are leveling, you apologise in reality when you realize you’ve done something you didn’t intend. You are apologising for an act, not for your existence. There are times when you need to criticize and evaluate. When you do this in a leveling way, you are evaluating an act, not blaming the person, and there is usually a new direction you have to offer. “(p. 73).

The link below shows Satir leading a role-play of the four communication stances in a family, with their potential implications on the mind – body and the other people involved. It shows the effects on the group dynamic and on the individual, when people “fall” in certain roles.  

In our times, the above classification of patterns of communication may seem to the reader somewhat clinical and focused on pathology. In the same book though, Satir also wrote about the family of the future and how she imagined and wished the world to be a place where acceptance of diversity and more conscious communication between people would be practiced more freely.

It is interesting that in the 1970s she wrote that the family of the future “[…] would be people coming together, trying to make life richer for each other and at the same time for themselves, with the kind of understanding that variation is an important adjunct to the stimulation of life.” (p. 302)

“[…] In the light of this, what do we seem to be heading for? A more responsible human being who can make choices, who can plan according to his needs, and not according to someone else’s plan for him; someone who will recognise that there are differences concerning people as well as predictable similarities.” (p. 303)

Another writer who comes to mind, touching on psychological and spiritual ideas regarding roles in communication, is James Redfield. Many years ago, a friend introduced me to The Celestine Prophecy, a best-selling novel written by James Redfield in 1993. Recently I picked it up again and was surprised to find new meanings on the same old pages.

“The little theatre of control” presented in the novel’s “Manuscript” consists of “four dramas” or main roles, and anything in between, that people take in communication in order to gain attention or energy:

The Intimidator: behaving aggressively or threatening

The Interrogator: showing subtle aggression, questioning, looking for weaknesses and slowly undermining somebody else’s world

The Aloof: attract energy to themselves by behaving withdrawn and being reserved

The Poor me: seeking help from somebody else in a passive way, their message may be intended at making you feel guilty or responsible for their troubles.

According to James Redfield’s novel, the theatre of control begins in one’s family of origin and is perpetuated by repeating the patterns one has grown up with.

It needs to be said here that, while it may be easy for anybody to recognise themselves in certain roles at certain times, fortunately, there are also useful and constructive patterns of communication that one learns from their family or other relationships. It is not about placing people and their behaviours in boxes with labels on them. Yet, slowly sorting between the constructive and less constructive roles, one finds help to figure their way through the realtionship maze, over and over again. Anything can get entangled from time to time in the flow of life.

As a way to move forward from the power struggles that people experience in relationships, the book introduces the reader to 9 Insights, which the main character experiences and understands during his journey in Peru. You will find the Insights presented in the film, which can be watched by clicking the link at the end of the blog.

It is much easier to point at the shortcomings of another person, a group, a system or social structure, as they appear to us, although those shortcomings might be real, than to look in our own minds and hearts,. And even pointing the finger can lead to new understandings. The reflection that appears does not fail to show the truth of the matter, in the eyes of the one who points, if they are also looking inside, not only outside. After all, according to science, approximately 60% of the human body is water.

Without suggesting that either Satir’s 5th stance or Redfield’s roles in communication and Insights are the answers to the questions around the caring theme, their ideas are presented here to generate reflection.

Often there is a fine line between responsibility and control, depending on each specific context, and sometimes taking control may be necessary. On the other side, it can be hard to get it always right for everyone involved or those affected by the decisions.

And if you have not yet read the Celestine Prophecy book and would like to know more about the Insights, there is a film released in 2006 and based on the best-selling novel of the same name; the link below is available through the generosity of the person who shared it online.

Let’s imagine that you have a gas heater and you switch it on and off from the Control knob when needed. Suppose taking Responsibility was at the Cool end of the heater’s thermostat, taking Control was at the Hot end, and the Medium was everything in between. If you found yourself having to make decisions and choices in the name of caring, where would you place them on the Responsibility-Control spectrum on the thermostat?

Warm Easter wishes!


Satir, V. (1978). Peoplemaking. UK: The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd, Guernsey, Channel Islands.

Redfield, J. (1993). The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure. New York: Warner Books

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