Let Go of the Need to Control
By Jacquelyn Ferguson
Believing you have insufficient control is one definition of stress, like the office worker whose knuckle cracking colleague drives her nuts or the parent who becomes angry over the children’s messy rooms.
The employee blames her colleague for keeping her from concentrating thereby assumes he’s causing her stress. The paradox is that the bulk of her stress is her fixation on wanting him to stop his irritating habit.
We all tend to want to control those who bother us. But that’s our stress. Get it? Instead, for example, the parents must stop wasting their time wishing their kids were tidier and change their approach. They could impose logical consequences if their rooms remain messy, which is within the parents’ control.
Given this, then, control freaks must live highly stressful lives! They often attempt to control people and situations that are inherently beyond their control, thus the paradox.
But we’re all control freaks one degree to another. Like passive people who loathe taking the initiative and exercise their control by associating with those who are more than happy to take charge.
Who’s your control freak? Someone who tells you how to live your life or spend your money? These unwanted authorities can be irritating to those on the receiving end if not downright intimidating.
Could these control freaks be acting out their own fear of the unknown, as Pasadena psychologist Ryan Howes contends? Their unsolicited advice is an attempt to combat their feelings of powerlessness like not being able to prevent an accident if the driver does something wrong. Psychologist Steven Reiss of Ohio State University says, “The backseat driver is an individual who has a strong need to feel influence, and they’re always looking for ways to express that need.”
Where does this need for control come from? “If you grew up in an environment that was kind of chaotic, it’s almost a defensive sort of reaction,” says Jerry Burger, Santa Clara University social psychologist. “We’ve seen this in homes where a parent has an alcohol problem, for example – those children develop a need for control themselves.”
Other control freaks can trace their tendency to a specific, traumatizing life event, like mine: eye surgery at the tender age of 2 ½ after which I was tied to the crib 24 hours a day minus the 15 minutes of relief when my parents were allowed to visit. At some level of awareness I made an unconscious decision to never be out of control again!
Decades ago I worked very hard to diminish my need to control others. What helped was accepting and acknowledging what’s within my control and what’s beyond. Everything about everybody – their personalities, tendencies, habits – are beyond my control. If I want a different outcome with someone I must change my approach. For example, I could assertively ask the person to change. Or I could tolerate what they’re doing. But if my goal in changing me is to get them to change I’m still barking up a stressful tree; more on this next week.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple.