Exploring Control Mastery Theory & Practice

Michael S. Isaacs, MSW, NCPsyA, JD
Member of The San Francisco PsychotherapyResearch Group
October, 2007
For publication in SFPRG online newsletter


One of the major benefits from moving to San Francisco from New Jersey three years ago has been learning about control mastery theory and practice.

I discovered SPRG soon after I arrived here three years ago. Prior to moving, a friend of my wife suggested that we contact a psychotherapist (both my wife and I are therapists) in San Francisco that she knew. Soon after coming here, my wife met with her. In the course of the conversation, she told her that she was a member of the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group and suggested that we make a connection with this group.

My first exposure to SPRG was attendance at two classes at the annual March week workshop. The first was led by Peter Schumacher and Norman Sohn. Dr. Sohn presented one of his own cases and invited the group to make comments or ask questions. The emphasis of the discussion that ensued was different than I expected. It was on concepts and terminology such as control mastery, testing, and survivor and separation guilt. I was intrigued by what I heard and interested by the fact that research was involved. I decided to find out more about control mastery. Over the next few years, I attended workshops, weekly courses, and read the available literature voraciously.

What I have learned so far about control mastery principles has greatly improved my clinical effectiveness with a keener understanding as to “how psychotherapy works”. For this, I am most grateful.

In my psychoanalytic training days, when the term “corrective emotional experience” came up in the literature, it was downplayed as not being truly analytic. However, although this was a relatively simple concept, it made total sense to me compared to the vagueness and a lack of clarity of many other concepts. Control mastery theory, as I understand it, elevates the importance of the corrective emotional experience in transference and passive to active testing and its emphasis on safety.

A most helpful tool has been the emphasis of the passive to active test. In the past my main focus had been on transference testing (although I had not conceptualized this relationship as a “test”). Control mastery has expanded my horizon to the other side of the coin. I am more alert to passive to active testing; understand with more depth that the patient is unconsciously sharing and communicating important past experiences; and know better how to respond to it in a calm way.

Control mastery has rekindled a greater appreciation for the tenacity of the unconscious. I had been focusing more on cognitive, transpersonal, and existential ways of working with some of my patients. Now my approach is more balanced in these cases.

I have found that in some cases, pathogenic beliefs around basic badness can be caused by fear, shame, and guilt induced by religious teachings and indoctrination.

Exploring control mastery, has led me to reexamine how memories can be accessed. In traditional psychoanalysis the route is through free association, dreams, slips, and interpretation. In control mastery, in general, the focus shifts to creating a safe relational place and passing tests to reach this goal, with interpretation playing a lesser role. In the last few years I have familiarized myself with the ideas of existential psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Thomas Hora, MD. His emphasis is patient’s becoming aware of their mode of being from a philosophical and spiritual perspective. Uncovering pathogenic beliefs are part of his methodology. These beliefs, however, are viewed as an accumulation of invalid and misguided thoughts about how to achieve happiness and freedom. He has written that one does not heal by remembering, but one remembers as a result of healing. (“Existential Psychotherapy: Basic Principles”:  IN QUEST OF WHOLENESS, 1998, PAGL Foundation Inc, page125).  This paradigm is accord with control mastery thinking, as I understand it.

Lastly, I more appreciate the pervasive role of guilt as a source of pathology and suffering in the human scene. I have observed more keenly how many patients atone for imaginary crimes by unconsciously sabotaging relationships, health, and career. This has enabled me in the first few sessions to hypothesize and focus as to what pathogenic beliefs may be operating.  

Control mastery has led me to an insight as to a personal family matter. My mother-in-law lived with us during the last few years of her life. She was a loving, nurturing, related, intellectual, and artistic person. We were fond of each other. I knew that she would have loved me to call her “mom”. Yet I could not bring myself to do so. I felt that I only had one mother and that to call my mother-in-law “mom” didn’t feel right.  

Understanding control mastery’s emphasis on a child’s loyalty to family members has brought me insight as to my attitude. My mother, who died many years before my mother-in- law, though she had many wonderful traits, was distant, uneducated, and superficial. Withholding recognition of motherliness to my mother-in-law was out of loyalty to my natural mother. To grant my mother-in-law’s wish would force me to face guilt over disappointment, sadness, and anger about my mother’s not being good enough in her nurturing.  

With this insight I have allowed myself, in general, to experience a degree of this repressed disappointment, sadness, and anger about my mother.

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