Most of us feel better when we have some degree of control over our lives. After all, feeling on top of things gives us a sense of security and competence. Learning a new skill can increase our self-confidence. Acing an interview and getting the job for which we were vying boosts our morale. Figuring out by ourselves how to fix a computer glitch brings a huge sense of relief.
However, if we need every aspect of our existence to run according to our plan, we can cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary suffering. Do you find yourself becoming unduly anxious, angry, or desperate when faced with a traffic jam, friend who’s running late, child who won’t pick up his or her toys, or other people’s rudeness?
Focusing on what we can’t control drains our energy, which might otherwise be spent on dealing with what we can control. The former also distracts us from using our mind creatively and effectively.
It’s best to put energy into what you can control (to some extent). This includes:
- Your reactions to situations
- Your ability and willingness to forgive
- Where you spend or invest your time
- Who your friends are
- How much effort and practice you put into various aspects of your life
- What you eat
- How much you sleep
- What sort of exercise you do, and how often
- How you talk to yourself
- Your level and expressions of gratitude
- Your body language
- How kind you are to others
- The boundaries you set with others (regarding what you will and will not accept, what you are willing to do, etc.)
- When and how you reach out for help
- What books, movies, TV shows. and on-line material you read and watch
- Your level of honesty
- That’s a long list, and I’m sure you could add a number of items. Consider where you spend the majority of your energy. As you focus more on those items you can influence, you’ll spend less time worrying about what you can’t control.
And what might this “beyond your control” list include?
- What other people say
- What other people think
- What other people do
- What happens around you
- The outcome of your efforts
- The past
- The passage of time (tick, tick, tick…)
However, being a control freak isn’t a habit that’s likely to go away without a concerted effort on our part. Here are some tips for breaking the control habit:
- Focus on the footwork, not the results. In other words, take the words “Easy does it, but do it” to heart. We do have a responsibility to take action where need be, so don’t procrastinate. Sometimes waiting is a proactive choice- it depends on your intentions. Have you mindfully chosen that there’s nothing within your power to do and thus you are practicing acceptance, or are you procrastinating?
- Have faith in yourself, others, and the universe. You don’t need to agonize over trying to make things work out your way or think that things will be awful if they don’t pan out as you had hoped. You can release your tendency to obsess or overthink things. You can simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, relying on your intuition to guide you, no matter how much you’d rather go back to bed and pull the covers over your head.
- Be willing to move forward rather than succumbing to your resistance to change. Sometimes control shows up as a refusal to take action when needed. Even if you’re digging your heels in at the thought of things changing against your will, if it’s the best interest of all concerned you can still suit up and show up.
- Who do you want to be, given your situation? Remember that our characters are revealed by how we respond when things don’t go our way. Do you throw a temper tantrum? Fume with resentment at everyone and everything? Or do you acknowledge your disappointment but do your best to adjust to the situation as it actually is? Do you practice acceptance?
- Remember that our attempts to control actually often lead to giving others control over us. If we try to control another person or situation, we are actually putting ourselves in the position of being controlled by that person or situation. After all, if they don’t respond according to our plan, we become their victim. Our happiness becomes contingent on their response rather than our happiness being determined by our own attitudes and actions.
- Think about why you have clung so tightly to the wish to control. What are you afraid might happen if you let go? Control is generally rooted in fear, either that we won’t get something we want, or that we’ll lose something we have. This could be fear that other people might change in ways you wouldn’t want (such as choosing not to spend as much time with you, or not agreeing with you on all matters). Or you might fear uncertainty and the unknown. Or your making a mistake and embarrassing yourself. Or your long-held beliefs being cast into doubt.
- Ask yourself how likely it is that any of these scenarios will occur. If it’s highly possible, then imagine how you might handle the situation. In other words, problem-solve ahead of time. There’s a difference between problem-solving and ruminating.
- Try letting go of minor things first, such as the perceived need to check Facebook or Instagram THIS INSTANT. Wait 15 minutes. The world will not end.
- Be organized, but resist over-planning. Allow yourself to be surprised by how your day unfolds.
- Tell your friends and family about your intentions to loosen your grip on trying to control things. Allow them to hold you accountable. Share your process with them.
- If you’re obsessing about the past, which falls into the category of things you can’t control, remember that you can still choose to learn what you can from the past. Was there anything you could have done differently that might have led to a more positive outcome? If so, chalk this up to a learning experience, being grateful that you now know more than you did before and can thus positively influence the future. No blaming or shaming yourself here!
- Relinquish or lower expectations. It’s been said that expectations are resentments in training. When you have exceedingly high or rigid expectations, you run the risk of being disappointed. A preference that something work out in a particular way is one thing – demanding that it do so is something else.
- Consider the physiological and emotional difference between trying to be in control (with its accompanying adrenalin rush, anxiety, hypervigilance, and focus on minutiae) and letting go (with its attendant peace, calmness, and ability to see the big picture). Your body is listening and will respond, for better or for worse, to your interpretation of your situation.
- Practice deep, slow breaths as you remind yourself of your intention to relax and let go.
- Visualize relaxing surroundings when you practice letting go, such as floating in a boat or in a lake, lying on a beach, or sitting in a forest.
- Notice what happens when you’re in a position of trust. How do you feel physically? Emotionally? In your relationships? Work environment? Carry this feeling with you.
- Wanting control is not the same thing as having control. You can loosen your death grip on having complete control over all matters – because you will not ever achieve it. And that’s okay. Welcome to the human race. You have plenty of company. Happiness is in large part a serene existence built on a conscious effort to accept what life presents to us with gratitude, creativity, resilience, humility, and flexibility.
Recognize your place in the universe and believe that there is a much bigger plan at play than you can possibly see. Remember: sometimes the universe answers your prayers with Yes, sometimes with Yes, but not yet, and sometimes with No, I have something better for you.