There are two platitudes doled out when it comes to comes to control-freak behavior: “just go with the flow,” or some variation of “control yourself, dammit!” On their own, though, neither of these are particularly helpful. It took me a long time to realize how many of my problems were (and still are) rooted in a need for control. Life can be a volatile, scary place, and besides the obvious fears associated with having no control, it can also lead to some serious existential crisis territory. I mean, if we have no power in life, who does? Does anyone? Why do bad things happen!? How can I stop bad things from happening to me!? Is there a purpose to all this or not!?
Whew. Deep breath.
We want control because we want certainty. That’s a totally reasonable thing to desire, but it’s also 100 percent impossible, so maybe let that dream go right about now. We can set up our lives for a strong sense of stability, but we will never have any guarantees in this world, no matter how we try to contrive them. For me, managing the uncertainty of this world is a game of balance and understanding the limits of my control without using it as an excuse to check out of life. In many situations, we have more power than we think, and that’s an amazing thing. Often, we can go beyond the circumstances our lives have laid out for us and choose to live in the way that makes us most fulfilled, and that’s why it can be a bit dangerous to shout from the rooftops that we have no control over anything, even though in many situations it’s true. Lots of how our future pans out has to do with how much responsibility we’re willing to take for our own happiness. Chance is a huge part of it too, but you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you leave things only to chance. It’s something of a tragedy to settle for a lifestyle you sorta hate (or to end up in a miserable situation you could have prevented) just because you’ve resigned yourself to that being “just the way it is” or feel that you have no other choice. We need to have a plan, but we also need to have a sense of humility about the fact that we can only plan for so much. Unexpected events happen on the regular, the rug is pulled out from under us, and wonderful surprises appear out of nowhere. These are the things we can’t anticipate now matter how much we plot out.
Do I sound wishy-washy enough yet? The line here is so fuzzy! For the most part, it can be boiled down to this: we’re in control of our own behavior, and nothing else. At the end of the day, it’s kind of like living the words of that faded framed serenity prayer that every aunt in middle America keeps above her kitchen sink or on her Pinterest board. We can’t do anything about the fact that our world may fall apart tomorrow, but we can control how we react, and I don’t want that to be misconstrued to mean “control your emotions,” because that’s just as dangerous as the earlier one-note advice. We all occasionally have feelings we don’t like, and letting ourselves experience them is a lot healthier than trying to keep them in. In fact, it’s the only way to get a leg up on them, because stifling emotions leads to them showing up years down the line. But just because we feel something terrible doesn’t mean we have to go and do something terrible or regrettable, and that’s where our sense of control kicks in.
A therapist in college once told me to be a rock in a stream. That’s what it feels like to give up your need for control and just…roll with it. It’s not easy, and reminding yourself to keep letting go will probably be a lifelong pursuit, but it’s not as if you’re sacrificing much for it. We aren’t letting go of actual control when we make this choice, because such a thing doesn’t exist. All you’re shedding is an illusion of control and a stifling sense of unhappiness. Many of us go through life telling ourselves we can finally relax and settle into our lives when a clue finally arrives that we’re emotionally safe. We tell ourselves that when we, say, get tenure or get married, we don’t have to feel on edge anymore because now our futures will be predictable. Unfortunately, nothing is ever promised no matter how secure it looks on paper, and when the day finally arrives, we’ll just find another thing to feel uncertain about. Not to be bleak, but nothing will fully satisfy this need for security and we’ll just keep worrying about stuff until we die, unless we actively choose to get off the roller coaster.
I’m a total hypocrite about this. I lost my dad very suddenly last year, and since then I find myself regularly imagining what I’d do if the people I love disappear tomorrow. I think about whether I’d be able to survive without them and what I’d do about their absence. Would I be able to make it without my mom, or my partner, or my best friend? It’s the last place I want to go emotionally, yet I waste so much of my limited time on earth torturing myself with it for no real reason. Knowing you could rely on yourself if you were suddenly on your own is important, but my little fear habit goes so, so far beyond healthy independence. It prevents me from leaning all the way in to my most important relationships, because I’m always unconsciously taking precautions in case I have to manage things without them. I’m robbing myself of a beautiful part of being alive. And that’s what a need for control does, no matter where it manifests in your life. Maybe for you, the biggest stressors are about being on top of your schoolwork, or trying to predict where your career will go, or trying to stockpile as much money as possible so you’ll feel safe. It’s different for everyone, but it sucks across the board. The real rub is that even I used to worry about people dying fairly regularly before my dad passed away in some attempt at control, and guess what? It happened anyway! Worrying about the unknown does nothing but waste the time you do have. The only certain thing is that everything is temporary, so all we can do is enjoy our realities while they still exist. Here are a few ways to feel a sense of calm and personal control in this frantic, ever-changing world:
1. Know yourself well. Get to know your emotional tendencies intimately. Understand how you react to certain stressors and conflicts so you can create habits that will leverage your traits in your favor when a curveball heads your way. Learn what kinds of self-talk helps or what kinds of destructive, rabbit hole thought patterns you fall into when life starts getting shitty. Know what makes you feel relaxed when you’re most overwhelmed, and do it often. This helps you prepare for future fallout.
2. Just let go, dammit. Give yourself a fixed amount of time to go with the flow, with no attempts at control allowed, just to see what happens. Chances are life will keep going exactly as it always had (if not better!). You might just want to keep doing it forever.
3. Make some plans. If there are certain scenarios you have no control over and are particularly afraid of, write down a plan of what you would do if they happened. What would you do if you got evicted? What about if you were laid off tomorrow? Do this just once, don’t go back to it over and over to revise or it will defeat the point of getting it out of your head. Chances are, you’ll realize that you’re more equipped to handle these crises than you thought. Once you’re written down your plan, your mind has less reason to obsess over it, because you’re prepared!
4. Think of the worst that could happen. The worst-case scenario of your fears are probably not as bad as you think. This can also be a helpful tool when the unexpected does happen: “Oh look, I’m still alive. I guess getting the rug pulled out from under me isn’t gonna actually kill me.”
5. Remember all the times things worked out. Horrible things can happen out of nowhere, but so can really incredible things. Think of all the pleasant surprises in your past that stemmed from things beyond your control. Think of all the times you weren’t in control-mode and things inexplicably worked out anyway. If you’re feeling particularly neurotic, make a list of those moments to revisit when you’re not feeling great.
6. Expand your world. Relinquishing the need for control means making room for the wonderful and unfamiliar. It means building a life that will be a lot more fun to look back on when you’re 90. Get excited!
7. Say “yes” to the unexpected. This is another practice in forcing yourself to loosen your grip when you’re having trouble getting there, and something I learned from my dad growing up. He had his flaws, but I never knew anyone better at living in the moment than he did. No second was wasted in his world, no matter how mundane it may have looked from the outside, and he created his own fun everywhere he went. He did this by saying “yes” to every random invitation and sudden opportunity that showed up, even if they weren’t part of the plan. He did this by always being open to conversation and to new friendship. Barring things that make you feel unsafe (say no to those!) it’s one of the easiest ways to make everyday life exhilarating and to find the beauty in life’s uncontrollable randomness.
8. Read The Untethered Soul. Seriously.
9. Therapy. Defense #1 against control-freak tendencies.
10. Create routines. Start your morning the same way every day. Have a habit like exercising or free writing that you make time for every day, even if you only have ten minutes to spare. Create a sense of consistency to keep you grounded when everything else is spinning out of control.
11. Find your own sense of meaning. If you’re religious or a spiritual person, tap into that on a deeper level. If you’re not, create a sense of order any way you can. It can be whatever you want. It can even be “life is meaningless, but oh well!” Don’t force yourself into some form of beliefs you’re not into, but having a sense of understanding or meaning from your reality provides a sense of solidness when things go haywire.
12. Try to see the universe as a loving thing.So, this can be really hard, because as we’ve said, random and terrible things happen all the time. Every time I turn on the news I see innocent people in pain for no apparent reason. Who are we to assume we don’t live in a hostile universe that basically hates us? But as we’ve also said before, things are going to happen how they happen, with no explanation, so we may as well form our own comforting view on things and hope for the best. The universe is mysterious, and while we have no way of proving that things are ultimately working out in our favor, it helps me to frame shitty things in my life as part of a greater path that I don’t see yet. For the most part, this has ended up being true in the long run. I can count so many times in which I was forced into a circumstance I hated and had a terrible time of it until I woke up one morning to realize that it created amazing changes I’d never have been able to make had my life stayed the same. When something happens that we don’t like, it’s up to us to try to make the best of it and use it as a tool to better our lives or others’ lives. Is that fair? No way, and it’d be better if bad things didn’t happen at all, but that’s the hand we’re dealt as humans.
Being alive is a gift. No matter what the reason is that we’re here on this earth, the best we can do is enjoy it while we’re able, or at least get through it without saddling ourselves with added strife. When you open yourself up to uncertainty and move forward with only your gut feeling as a guide, with no clues as to which choice is the “right” one, incredible things can happen. Doors you never knew existed open right in front of you. And yeah, terrible things still happen, but they would’ve happened either way. We’re tiny specks of dust in a tiny galaxy in an overwhelming universe, hapless little cogs in some greater machine we may never understand. Control is laughable in the face of that, and isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Original by: Claire Hannum