There’s nothing like being in relationship with other humans to get you to give up your controlling behavior. Other people don’t always do what we want, so controlling them is pretty futile. Duh.
But for many of us, letting go of controlling behavior is, in a word, terrifying.
I don’t use the word “terrifying” hyperbolically. For those of us who grew up in chaotic environments, the slightest deviation from our carefully mapped out plans can send us into a state of deep panic. And when we feel ourselves dipping into panic or terror, we desperately escalate our attempts at control, often clawing at the people around us…and usually sending them running for the hills.
But why do we do this?
For some, the source of the chaos is obvious – perhaps an alcoholic or narcissistic parent who was incapable of taking care of our basic needs as a child (um, that'd be my story). Perhaps we became the gatekeeper of the thin veneer of normalcy and social acceptability, taking care of younger siblings so no one would know what was really happening behind closed doors. We learned very quickly to control the outer shell and to care for others on the inside, lest the whole house of cards came crashing down.
For others, the chaos is harder to define – it was a feeling of not being cared for, an indescribable fear or a constricting suffocation, an emotional straightjacket (me again). In many of these cases, the chaos described in the paragraph above occurred a generation or two back and the effects are being passed down, infecting the roots of the family tree, innocent branches left to wither, scared and confused.
As we grew up, these were the fears that steered our ships. This unconscious terror was at the helm and we didn’t even know it. Sadly, this has made us next to impossible to have relationships with and we have been left with the feelings we’ve desperately been fighting off—isolation and despair.
Regardless of our histories, we are now adults, and it’s time to do the work to break the cycle. But how, when it’s all you’ve ever known? It’s kind of like trying to see your own eyeballs without a mirror.
Here are some tips for helping you recover from control-itis and become a world-class go-with-the-flow-er:
Feel the feelings. If you frequently suffer bouts of anxiety when things don’t “go as planned,” rather than lashing out at those around you, sit with the feelings for a bit. Journal and meditate your way through but allow the feelings to flow. They have far less power when acknowledged than they do when stuffed, and they likely have little to do with what’s actually happening right now. The deeper you go and the more history you access, the more you will heal. Show yourself some compassion in the process. You’ve been wounded and have been given some crappy road maps. You’re doing the work now to heal and you deserve some self-lovin’ for that.
Consider the idea that someone else might be in control after all. “Man’s rejection is God’s protection.” Whether or not you believe in God, chances are you’ve experienced times when things didn’t go your way and later on you actually thanked your lucky stars. Remember that guy who broke your heart and who you’re now totally psyched you didn’t marry because holy crap that life would have sucked big time? It’s just like that. We only have that perspective when it’s said and done, but imagine if you tapped into a little faith that you’d feel that way down the line. You might find it easier to surrender to the here and now if you were sure that ultimately you were being taken care of in some cosmic way.
Get help. There are great support groups out there for people like us. Alanon Family Groups is the most common. There is nothing quite like sitting in a room full of people who are putting words to some of your deepest, most secret, and often unformed feelings for the first time. If the group setting feels uncomfortable, a therapist who specializes in this can also be very helpful. The point is to know that you are not alone. You may have some deep shit to uncover, but there are millions doing the same work. (A note about using your friends for support: friends are awesome if they support you on your journey, cheering you on from the sidelines, but they should not be counted on as your main source of support. Friends are not experts or therapists and using them as such could end the friendship when you’re not getting what you need from them or when they get tired of hearing it. Include them in your process by reporting to them, sharing with them, but not by using or leaning on them.)
Make a list of everything you can control and everything you can’t. This may sound basic and somewhat banal, but people like us generally have these lists completely backwards, everything in the wrong column. In each moment, simply ask yourself, in which column does this belong? I guarantee that as you become more and more aware of what you can’t control, you will begin to feel lighter and freer, and you might even begin to see some humor in it. (Totally the opposite of what you’re expecting, but I pinky-swear it’s true.)
Take an inventory. Take stock of the people in your life you previously thought “wronged” you. Is it possible they just weren’t doing what you wanted? Is it possible they were just being themselves and that your reaction was based on your own fears and history, rather than on them actually doing anything wrong? Where you find this to be true, take responsibility and apologize. Keep it in “I” language (no “but I wouldn’t have done x if you hadn’t done y”—because eww) and be open to their response.
Know that in every moment, you have a choice to control your own behavior and let go of everything else. By making that choice, you are not only changing your life but also the lives of future generations, who will thank you simply by being free of this systemic burden.