Here’s a measure of “progress.” What have you let go of today? What have you said and meant “Fuck it” to today? Each letting go is a relief, a move toward increased tranquility, awareness, a joy and fulfillment.
- A Mentor
A mother brings her child to Gandhi to seek counsel because the child is eating too much candy. Gandhi tells the mother, “Bring him back in one week and I’ll talk to him about it.” The child and mother come back in a week and Gandhi says to the child, “Stop eating so much candy; it’s not good for you.” The mother thanks him, but pauses and asks, “Why didn’t you tell him to stop doing that one week ago during our initial visit” and Gandhi responds, “Well I needed to stop eating candy myself first.”
The analogy is not perfect because I’m sure as hell not Gandhi and my goal is never to tell anyone what to do. However, that’s kind of how I feel about writing this blog. It’s been on my mind. I’ve been wanting to write it. But I needed to take some steps at letting go of my own burgeoning control issues first.
I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way I started caring too much. Not like “I care too much for world peace or my fellow humans.” No, sometimes I care too much about dumb shit. Sometimes this monkey mind succeeds in convincing me this is not acceptable and it’s not how it’s “supposed to be.” Unfortunately, caring too much and control are like evil twins and unchecked they result in the assumption that “it’s my job to come in and make this crooked road straight.”
From what I can gather, many of us have these little neurotic hang-ups, those recurring instances in life when we push too hard, restrict too much or try to make sure things are “just right” for as long as we can maintain them. Our triggers may differ, but our experience of “needing” to control is probably pretty similar.
The need to control feels like a compulsion. We don’t want to be controlling, but the mind has convinced us that circumstances should be a specific way or else some vague negative consequence will take place. When life happens not according to our wishes, which is roughly 95% of the time from what I can gather, we start to feel uncertain, uncomfortable and fearful.
We then try to cope with these emotions through control. And it works — very temporarily. The control quells the anxiety. But then that very attempt to control creates more anxiety for two reasons. Like any habit, when we act on that compulsion to control, we reinforce the mind’s belief that this area needs to be controlled and that our actions are justified. We strengthen that very tendency to control that causes us so much suffering. To make matters worse, that tendency can start to spread like a wildfire and seep into other areas of life. Life being what it is though, we start to realize that it is impossible to control everything (most things) and we feel more and more uncertain and fearful. It’s a “feedback loop from hell” to borrow a phrase from Mark Manson.
It’s bad enough that control makes us suffer, but think about the impact that our attempt at control has on the very ones we are often trying to protect. When we try to control a situation at the expense of another person, we are basically saying, “Your instincts are wrong here and I’m going to impose my will so that I can feel better about this.” It’s almost laughable how selfish that is. The attempt at controlling others, even if we color it with a benevolent brush, is all about us feeling better at the expense of others. Yeah, definitely not Gandhi material.
Not only is control selfish, but it’s also blatantly obvious that it is unrealistic. Personally, I have pretty convincing evidence that control over even myself is very limited at best. I’m often reminded of this when this mind decides yet again that it’s “giving up X or going to do Y every day for 30 days” and then three days in, that same mind convinces me that that was a terrible idea. There are innumerable factors, many of which lie beyond our awareness, that go into whether we will have the capacity for self-control in any given moment. The classic is HALT — hungry, angry, lonely or tired. When you are feeling any of those four things, your willpower and ability to control your own impulses are drastically diminished. This isn’t to say self-discipline isn’t possible or healthy; it very much is. But to think that we have the ability to get our bodies and mind to consistently act just like we want them to is a myth that many of us have seen through. Of course, we could keep peeling back the onion here on how free will and the ego are an illusion, but we can tackle that one another day.
So if we can’t control ourselves half the time, how the hell do we convince ourselves that we can control our loved ones, neighbors or co-workers?! Many of us love to say “live and let live,” but what many of us actually mean is “live and let live AS LONG AS you agree with me on most major points and do what I consider moral and healthy.” I see this in therapy often. People will start therapy thinking that they want to improve their relationships. However, sometimes we realize early on that what they really want to do is learn to do the impossible — control the actions of others.
So, let’s learn to get radical with this — and say those two magical words, “Fuck it,” as often as possible to the things that don’t matter so that we have enough bandwidth for the things that do. We can remind ourselves of that key phrase that our friends in recovery use so beautifully: “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” We and the people around us will be much less annoyed and happier along the way.
In Part 2, we will cover some specific strategies we can use to tame the control monster that is wreaking havoc on your relationships.
If you are losing the battle more often than not with the compulsion to control, then reach out to talk about how therapy can help.