Need for Control – Parshat Vayechi

Famous Viennese psychiatrist, Alfred Adler (1870-1937), declared that the primary motivation of human behavior is the drive for control.1 We grow as children with an inferiority complex, he explained, that we seek to overcome through increased self-confidence and control as we mature. Many people recognize this complex in themselves and can appreciate Adler for his work in sharing this insight with us. Yet, even this need for control is not necessarily a healthy drive for all. Indeed, an unhindered drive for control can obviously lead to neurotic thoughts and behavior as a person constantly tries to control events and people in his life. Even a regular drive can often lead to frustration as a person learns that other people, too, have a drive for control. (Note: frustration is not necessarily a bad thing. It is just a sign that I am upset with how things are progressing.)

We find in this week's parsha, Parshat Vayechi, Yosef addressing this same issue. When his father dies, Yosef's brothers approach him and, in their father's name, ask for a royal pardon from Yosef for having sold him to slavery. Yosef answers that "I am not in God's stead". Even if I wanted to punish you or take revenge on you, Rashi explains, I can never know the outcome of my actions. Therefore, I will not try.2 It would seem then, that Yosef, by understanding that he is not the one in control, relinquishes his need for control, and in fact retains even greater control over his own self, his emotions and the actions stemming from those unchecked emotions.

Our emotions or thoughts can, at times, get the better of us. We then attempt to control them and that is what often gets people into trouble - that need for control. One of the most difficult tasks for my clients on their path to better emotional health is to learn NOT to control those thoughts but allow them to appear without fighting them. By fighting them we actually empower them and they try harder to be present. These thoughts then often disappear by themselves.Learning to trust that by relinquishing control they actually gain control is a difficult lesson.

I had an issue I struggled with over the past two weeks. I allowed myself to become angry at the people involved and was so upset with the whole matter that even my work was impaired. I tried to control events and the people around me. Nothing seemed to have worked out until the moment I said that this is obviously not in my hands and I let go. I understood that someone else (God) was pulling the strings here. The anger then subsided and the problem worked itself out quickly. Relinquishing control helped me.

This recipe does not always work. Sometimes we need to show the anger. Sometimes we are asked to control the situation. Each situation calls for the right solution. How do we know when to retain that control and when to surrender it?

We have the freedom to accept responsibility, says Dr. Viktor Frankl.4 He too, during the Holocaust had a number of situations where he needed to make a decision which had life or death consequences. Through his own self-transcendence, he learned to let go and surrender to his own conscience. He eventually came to believe that this was the preferred mode.5

In any given situation, we have a responsibility to heed the call made to us. Every situation has one right solution. When asked to make the right decision, sometimes we control and sometimes we cede that control. Either way, do so with full conviction.


  1. It is often called the drive for power but to me that seems a misnomer or perhaps just a mistranslation of Adler's intent.
  2. Bereishit 50:15-21. The explanation by Rashi was written on verse 18
  3. This is one of the coping mechanisms of The Journey by Brandon Bays which works very well.
  4. Doctor and the Soul. P.53
  5. Man's Search for Meaning, in numerous places.

Have A Great Shabbat!laughing

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