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Theory Overview

Control-Mastery Theory is a theory of the mind, of how psychopathology develops, and how psychotherapy works. The theory derives its name from two foundational premises: that a person’s control over their mental life is regulated by subjective feelings and perceptions of safety and danger, and that patients come to therapy in order to achieve mastery over their problems and conflicts. The theory assumes that patients are highly motivated both consciously and unconsciously to solve their problems, to rid themselves of symptoms, and to pursue important life goals such as a sense of well-being, a satisfying relationship, or a meaningful career. Patients are typically in conflict about wanting to accomplish these things because they suffer from pathogenic beliefs or schemas. These beliefs, which are often unconscious, warn the patient that moving toward their goals will endanger themselves or their loved ones. Patients work throughout therapy to change these beliefs and to reach their forbidden goals. They work to disconfirm their pathogenic beliefs by testing them in relation to the therapist, hoping that the therapist will pass their tests (i.e., disconfirm their pathogenic beliefs). In addition, patients use the therapeutic relationship, therapist interventions and interpretations to realize that their pathogenic beliefs are maladaptive and a poor guide to behavior. The therapist’s primary task is to help patients in their efforts to disprove their pathogenic beliefs and to achieve their adaptive life goals. Numerous articles and book chapters on Control-Mastery Theory, its clinical applications, and the research evidence for the theory can be found in the Publications page.