It is always the false that makes you suffer, the false desires and fears, the false values and ideas, the false relationships between people. Abandon the false and you are free of pain; truth makes happy, truth liberates.”
- Nisargadatta Maharaj
In Part 1, we talked about how control is like a compulsion. It feels uncontrollable, it’s rooted in fear and it’s a reinforcing behavior that only temporarily relieves anxiety. Like any habit, we have a choice in each moment and our actions will either build the habit up or break it down. So here is how we can use our lumberjack axe of skills to hack away at the base of control until we triumphantly topple it.
Understand the Core Belief – Insight arises when we can get at the very bedrock of our belief in any given situation. If we keep drilling deeper, we get to the core belief which is the granddaddy of all beliefs and usually the driving force of our behavior in a specific situation. Freud had some nutty ideas, but how the subconscious drives us was a revelation.
Billy is a teen who is good at baseball. Cal is his dad and a former athlete himself. Cal is constantly trying to control Billy’s schedule and force him to practice more often. Why is that? Because Cal wants him to get a Division 1 scholarship. Why is that? Because Cal just wants him to be successful and do the best at whatever he tries, just like any good Dad. Why is that important? Because Cal grew up with a father who measured his self-worth on what he accomplished and that’s how Cal sees the world too. Problem was Cal was good at sports, but he wasn’t the best. He has a good job, but feels that he could have done better in life. The truth is that Cal has always felt not quite good enough and even if that feeling is temporarily relieved through a new accomplishment, it quickly returns as the default. Cal’s issues of control stem from the core belief that self-worth is tied to accomplishments and material success. Furthermore, his controlling tendencies are fueled by his own feelings of inadequacy. By bringing this core belief from the darkness of his subconscious to the light and questioning it, some of the knots of his controlling tendencies can begin to unwind. He can begin to see that Billy has inherent value regardless of what he accomplishes and he can break that generational cycle by not passing down the same insecurities that his father passed down to him.
Recognize the Domino Effect – We have talked before about response-ability as being our ability to respond to that which we cannot control. But it can be difficult to determine what part of any situation we actually control. I find it helpful to think of a situation in terms of the domino effect to make it clearer what is in the “accept” column and what is in the “change” column.
Let’s look at the domino effect through the eyes of Cal. Billy tells Cal that he doesn’t want to play AAU baseball in the summer. The first domino has fallen. Immediately, Cal’s mind starts telling him, “That’s a wasted opportunity, AAU is a perfect showcase for college scouts, what’s going to happen to his swing if he takes an entire summer off!?” That’s the second domino. Then Cal’s heart starts to race, his stomach tightens up and he is feeling some mixture of fear, anger and resentment toward Billy. The third domino has fallen. It’s important to note that so far, all of those dominos are outside of Cal’s control. If he does not realize this, he will waste all his efforts trying to control the uncontrollable and will add a layer of self-induced suffering on top of an already painful situation for him. Next up is the fourth domino.
Let Your Values Be Your Guide – Cal recognizes that he is at a choice point. He could decide to attempt to use force or guilt to convince Billy to play ball in the summer. He knows that this has a slim shot, but may just work with a little extra bribery thrown in for good measure. It will temporarily alleviate Cal’s anxiety and Cal can probably clear his conscience by telling himself that he “just wants the best” for his son. However, Cal has been down this road. He knows Billy will feel shame for not playing this summer, his growing resentment for baseball (and his father) will increase and Cal’s own control habit will continue to grow through this latest fueling.
So Cal looks at what he really wants for Billy. He wants Billy to enjoy life, feel autonomy and learn from his own choices. He recognizes that none of those can result from guilt or coercion. He sees that the voice in his head is still (and will continue to) operate under the old core belief system. He recognizes his freedom to disobey it. He greets the discomfort in the form of physical sensations and emotions that arise in his body with curious acceptance. He sees that they are a false alarm and thus too should not drive his behavior.
He takes this swirling storm of inner weather and decides to act from a place of values. He whispers “Fuck it” to himself and sighs. He does the complete opposite of what everything in him tells him to do. He encourages Billy to take the summer off if that feels right and with genuine curiosity, Cal asks him what he will do with all that free time he now will have. Billy is shocked and Cal recognizes that he and his son just grew a bit closer. Like any successful habit change, Cal’s new approach to Billy has just been positively reinforced by a strong Why.
Do It Now:
- Ask: What are my hang-ups? – That mind of yours is probably great at 99 things, but there is one area where it feeds you shitty advice. It causes you to try and manipulate the situation, which makes everyone (yourself included) feel worse in the long run. What is that area for you? Take out a pen and paper and go through the process above. By being aware of the core belief that drives it, the triggers that send the domino effect into motion and the consequences of your actions, you can fall for less and less.
- Be easy on yourself – Imagine on your route to work, you took a left out of your neighborhood every day for 20 years. Then you get a job on the other side of town that required you to take a right. Even though it’s not the direction you want to go anymore, you would still hang a left from time to time. That’s conditioning and you are not going to undo a lifetime habit in a couple weeks. Have some self-compassion while you make changes. You will still mess up. Your “messing up” is a misguided attempt at love. Your efforts to change this pattern is incredibly commendable. This being human is as hard as hell.
- Feel the relief in being off-duty – You are like a retired sergeant in the control police force now. Used to be that it was your job to keep everyone and everything in line. Well, good news! You have been relieved of your duties. It’s no longer your responsibility to police your kids, your spouse, your friends or co-workers. Be like Elsa and let it go. Feel the relief in that. After all, trying to control our own craziness is often a full-time job.
If you are ready to feel the relief of resigning from the control force, reach out to talk about how therapy can help.