Updated: Sep 4, 2020
It’s exhausting trying to control situations or people especially when we still don’t get the outcome we want. So what are we really trying to achieve, and why is it so hard to let go?
We all like to feel like we’re in control of our life. It’s completely natural and normal to feel this way. Who wouldn’t want to feel in control of their own destiny?
But more often than not we feel completely out of control, despite our best efforts. Especially now, as it can feel like the way we live our lives is dictated by ever changing rules and regulations. Our freedom is restricted. “They” seem to be making decisions on our behalf. No-one knows what’s going to happen. We can’t plan. Or plans have been changed for us.
We go into overdrive trying to second guess what might happen next month or next year. We try to keep the same routines which no longer work so well. We suggest, advise and nag in an attempt to keep our loved ones safe. Plans are changed, re-planned and changed again.
Where are we going wrong? The thing is, we’re trying to make an outcome match the result we want in our head. When we try so hard to control an outcome and the end result isn’t what we wanted, it can cause disappointment, anxiety, stress and emotional pain.
One reason for this is that human brains are hardwired to link uncertainty to fear. In my blog 5 Ways to Cope with Uncertainty I talk about how fear of the unknown triggers our fight or flight response putting our mind and bodies into survival mode.
We like comfort, familiarity and certainty. And life is making that very difficult for a lot of people right now.
The truth is life was always unpredictable, uncertain and changeable, but the difference is that before the Pandemic there used to be some sense of the way things usually worked that was enough to give us the illusion of certainty and control.
So when we’re trying to be in control, what we really want is a sense of certainty and safety.
This is why I believe you need to re-think what it means to be in control for you, and focus on where your real power lies – in your own mind.
What does it mean to be in control?
The dictionary definition of control is “to order, limit or rule something or someone’s actions or behaviour”.
Do you really want to be ordering, ruling or limiting someone else? If you’re a power-crazy narcissistic sociopath or a global dictator then maybe you do. But I doubt you’d be reading my blogs….
For most of us that’s not our intention. But we still try because we unwittingly associate this behaviour with making ourselves feel better by taking some action that we think is going to lead to the outcome we want. Now more than ever it’s important for us to understand what we are really trying to achieve by attempting to control external events and people and instead get control of our inner world.
Firstly, accept that there is no control outside of your own mind.
You know logically you can't control the weather, the traffic, other people’s behaviour, the virus (despite what the government said). But what you can control is what you think about these things. What you think affects how you feel and how you react.
A lot of my coaching and therapy clients will start the conversation telling me about what their partner/friend/boss/parent is doing to cause them a problem. It’s completely valid, but at the end of the day it’s only possible to influence the situation and that’s down to what you say and do. They don’t have to comply.
I struggle with this too. I’m a natural planner. My career was built on my ability to project manage, risk assess and deliver the thing on time and budget. You can never guarantee a project goes to plan but every risk was identified and mitigated to minimize the chance of something being derailed. It’s a great skill to have but the downside is I find it difficult to go anywhere without researching everything in advance. I don’t like to see people making “unnecessary” mistakes so try and help and then find when something goes wrong it becomes my fault. And I find it hard to let go.
So I haven’t got this completely cracked either. I told you before, I’m a work in progress!! Check out my blog on Perfectionism – The impossible goal.
So just how do you take control of your inner world so you can be more accepting of the outer one?
Notice how you attempt to control
If you’re familiar with my writing you’ll know I often talk about getting aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions. Spend some time noticing how you try to control situations or people.
It’s not easy to spot unconscious patterns but it’s possible with practice. Don’t judge yourself, this isn’t the point of the exercise. It’s about becoming more aware of your natural responses. Yes you can have these valid reactions in a difficult or high conflict situation, but just for now, see when these tend to show up the most and notice if it's because you feel out of control.
Do you find yourself acting helpless? Maybe a bit of crying and what-about-me thrown in?
Can you get angry and aggressive, often resorting to telling people what to do?
Are you a hint-dropper? Compelled to make “helpful” comments and suggestions and feeling slightly irritated when it falls on deaf ears?
Do you frequently offer unsolicited advice in a bid to come up with solutions for someone else’s problems?
Is it so important for you to be “right” that you are terrified of making a mistake and looking bad/silly/incompetent?
Do you suffer in silence. Ruminating and worrying. Becoming anxious and stressed?
And when all this is going on, how are you feeling inside? What thoughts are running through your mind? How are other people reacting to you?
Work out what is within your control
If you don’t feel in control of your thoughts then your life is always going to feel out of control.
This is where getting practical and writing stuff down can help clear your head and create some options.
Make a list of all your worries and then work out what you can do something about and what you can’t.
It’s useful to use these 3 headings:
1. What I can control
2. What I can influence
3. What I can’t control.
Make a plan of action for the first 2. There’s no solution for the 3rd one other than acceptance.
There’s 3 reasons why this is a good exercise.
1. It gets it all out of your head and on to paper so you can see what’s real.
2. You get a new perspective on how much of these things you can influence.
3. You can make decisions on what action you can take to change or influence the situation.
Experiment with letting go
Now you’re more self-aware, make a decision to relinquish a bit of control. Pick something that feels relatively low risk to you such as letting your partner plan what to have for dinner. Delegate a small task at work that you’d normally prefer to do yourself. Go for a walk without planning the route.
Having the outcome turn out the way we wanted makes us feel safe and comfortable so the idea is to take away some of the predictability and start being comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling!
There’s been many times recently where I’ve sat on my hands, gritted my teeth and let someone else fend for themselves. Yep, it’s uncomfortable. But sometimes, the end result is better than the one I was trying to force.
Imagine that, letting go of control could result in a better result, like a new opportunity, a new experience or seeing a new side to someone that you didn’t know they had.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”
Charles R. Swindoll
Life can be tough I know. 2019 was probably one of the best and worst years of my life. It depends if I view it from a place of loss or gain. But even that view assumes that it has to be either/or. But really, I’m sharing this as a reminder that we can all decide how we see the world, and if we just shift how we think about control, we just might feel more in control.
If you enjoyed this blog and want more insights and tips, I’ve created a Mini Mindset Makeover. It’s a guide that reveals some secrets about how the mind works and gives you even more tips on how you can make friends with yours so it works for you and not against you! Download your FREE copy now.