The Obsession of Power and Control

It’s seductive. It’s energizing. Dominance and authority can become an obsession once you get a taste. Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Rader, and Richard Ramirez are psychologically damaged. Killing another human being is the ultimate act of power and control. Killing many others until being caught enters the realm of obsession.

If you look at the childhoods of the men above, you notice some similarities. They did not grow up in warm and loving homes. They did not grow up with healthy views of themselves or healthy states of mind. They began their fascinations with power and control early on. And all of them admitted to killing animals before they moved on to their human targets.

It feels good to have power and to be dominant by forcing our will on others. Power increases our egocentricity. It also makes us look down on the people we see as somehow less than us, which in turn makes it impossible for us to be empathetic. People who are inferior to us seem to be less than fellow humans and more like objects.

If those men had been able to look at their victims empathetically, they couldn’t have performed such atrocities on them. In describing his first murder, Jeffrey Dahmer said as much, “I always knew that it was wrong. The first killing was not planned. I was coming back from the shopping mall back in ’78. I’d had fantasies about picking up a hitchhiker, and taking him back to the house, and having complete dominance and control over him.” At the beginning, he wasn’t obsessed with murder. It was all about dominance (power) and control.

Dennis Rader — also known as BTK — took an eerily similar stance. He stated in an interview that his lust and a desire for fame and power drove him to murder. And as Richard Ramirez pointed out, “We’ve all got the power in our hands to kill, but most people are afraid to use it. The ones who aren’t afraid, control life itself.”

They admit murder wasn’t the only reason. It was power and control.


Power decreases our ability to be empathetic. Control decreases our ability to be empathetic. Without empathy, we lose our ability to be a part of the world. We lose our ability to relate and attune to others. And in turn, we begin to act only in our own selfish interest.

Jeffrey, Dennis, and Richard lacked empathy. They also craved power and control. But what came first? How do we learn to be empathetic? Empathy is a learned behavior. When people are empathetic with us, we learn to be empathetic toward others. When we are not raised with healthy attachments and our world seems cruel and cold, it’s difficult to become an adult who thinks any differently.


I’ve always been fascinated with serial killers.

How could people go through life not caring about hurting others? How could they crave so much power and control? Did they ever look inside themselves and wonder why they were like that? Did they care how much pain they caused others?

When you can come to grips with the fact that such darkness can live in others, despite its origin, it’s utterly unsettling. There are people who walk around the world every day denying the awful things they have done to hurt others. They feel no remorse for their cruel and cold actions. They attack anyone who calls them out on their behaviors. The more chaos they create, the more dominant and controlling they believe they are. The less they feel their feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, the more powerful they perceive themselves to be. They claim to be the victims even though they’re the perpetrators. And they garner support from anyone willing to listen.

It Could Be Anyone

While Jeffrey, Dennis, and Richard provide extreme examples of psychological pathology, every day we live among people who are driven by power and control. These people can be successful business people, police officers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, bricklayers, plumbers, and even members of our families. They fly under our radar because they’re likable. And we could never imagine them being power-hungry and devoid of empathy. They’ve never acted that way in front of us.

If we look in Eastern Europe, 4,580 miles from where I sit, we can clearly see one man’s need for power and control. We see one man controlling an army of men trained to kill, rape, and destroy. We see humanity at its worst. But if we take a closer look, we can see how the people in our own lives act when trying to manipulate and cover up their appalling behavior.

Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim, and Offender

At first, we heard the leader of Russia deny any wrongdoing. He said he wasn’t going to attack Ukraine. There was no way. He was just lining tanks up at the border for a training exercise. After all, he can do training anywhere on his territory.

Then he attacked. The Russian Army began a “special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”

Then he reversed the victim and offender. He had to help Ukraine after all. There were Nazi sympathizers all over Ukraine. There was genocide going on that he needed to resolve. And let’s not forget Russia’s gas has been stolen and the country is facing such harsh sanctions.

In the world of psychology, this behavior is called DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender). And the behavior the Russian leader is partaking in works – which is why he’s using it. People obsessed with power and control – and devoid of empathy – are dangerous. Sometimes those people are dangerous to one person, sometimes to several people, and still other times to entire countries. They will say and do anything to manipulate the situation to make themselves look good. It’s their defense mechanism and it works.

As Dan Siegel writes in Mindsight, “[A] defensive reaction shuts down emotion … which then lowers the anxiety/fear and allows us to continue to function. This is why defenses are not only useful – they are often essential. … Some people deal with a painful feeling by ‘projecting’ it onto others and then hating them for it. This primitive and destructive adaptation is called ‘projective identification,’ the strategy that says the best defense is a good offense.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to stay away from anything called a destructive adaptation. The good thing is if we are mindful and realize our defense mechanisms, we can usually overcome them. That’s one good reason we should all have a therapist at some point in our lives, especially one that can help us work through specific issues. If we notice chaos is all around us, we may want to begin to look within and uncover our roles in the destruction.

Peaceful Easy Feeling

It would be lovely if we could all live in an environment of peace, safety, and joy. But the only way to do that is to understand the paradox.

We can only appreciate peace, safety, and joy if we understand what life is like when they don’t exist. We cannot remove destruction from our lives entirely. But we can learn to live with it if we’re able to define and identify what we see.

We must not bow down to the power-hungry, control-driven, empathy-deficient people among us. We must learn to identify them and not succumb to their harsh defenses. We must stand strong in our beliefs and learn how to control ourselves in the face of fear and anxiety. And we can find and stand next to those who believe similarly.

After all, there is one thing I know for sure: There are far more psychologically stable people on this planet who crave peace and safety than those who oppose us.

And the destructive darkness will only rule the world if we let it.

JoAnna Baanana
JoAnna Baanana
Mother, Marketer, Writer, and Reader. I’m a mother of two wonderful little humans. I’m also an avid reader, an insatiable learner, and a self-acknowledged survivor. I’m grateful to work at O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) because I’ve learned the self-soothing and restorative craft of writing. I used to resist calling myself a writer because I have a finance degree. I naively thought I needed an English degree to effectively express myself in writing. But now, writer is a title I proudly wear, and writing is something I’ll practice for the rest of my life.

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  1. Very compelling essay. I would add also a near enemy of equanimity-as troublesome aspect of certain individuals –indifference. There are those pwoplw who simply feel indifferent-which is disturbing because they often appear calm, centered, and peaceful-yet, they, in fact, are indifferent to the suffering of others-again, they have no empathy or compassion. Important to be discerning as best one can in a world in which dangerous-not emotionally healthy-mentally ill- humans exist. Even more disturbing are those who follow in lockstep with the ideas of a leader–the people who gathered to witness lynchings like this was entertainment-and even sent relative postcards– Reading the book, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson-I found myself so disheartened by how tribal thinking can take over even what seem to be regular folks–the opening passages of the book will give you much pause… And I highly recommend this book-eye opening and important-with some hope in the final chapters. Thank you so much for this essay, JoAnna.