“Anything you can’t control is teaching you how to let go.” ~Jackson Kiddard
Fellow perfectionists, I’m guessing you know what it’s like: the constant need to control life and other people to ensure everything goes smoothly and everyone’s okay.
It’s a maddening, exhausting habit, since the only thing we can control is ourselves. But we do it anyways—because somewhere along the line we learned this was the only way to keep ourselves (and others) safe.
Maybe you try to control your work and your colleagues, because you think you have to in order to succeed and to ensure your coworkers do the same quality work, especially when it affects you.
Maybe you try to control your family, because you think you know what’s best for them and don’t trust them to make good choices, and actually follow through with them.
Or maybe you try to control every aspect of your life, leaving absolutely nothing to chance, because if everything’s predictable, you’ll never be caught off guard. You’ll never struggle. You’ll never fail. You’ll never confirm your own (or someone else’s) belief that you’re incompetent, inadequate, or fundamentally flawed.
Except that’s not actually how it works. In fact, controlling behavior often backfires. In our attempts to ensure that nothing painful happens, we create a lot of pain, for ourselves and the people around us.
And in trying to create a specific vision of how things have to be, we limit the future to only what we can imagine—forgetting that some of the best things in life take us completely by surprise. If we’re willing and open.
Not easy for you to trust and open up to the unknown? I get it.
I’ve stayed in unhealthy relationships because I thought I couldn’t do any better and I was attached to the idea of making them work—as if they had to work for me to be happy.
I’ve gotten stuck in ruts of familiarity, doing the same thing day after day because it was predictable (and therefore controllable), even though it was also unfulfilling.
But I’ve also opened myself up to a happy relationship, after walking away from someone who was wrong for me, for the first time ever, instead of waiting for him to leave me.
And I’ve opened myself up to new possibilities—I’ve taken acting classes, written a screenplay with a film mentor, and tried my hand at a new business I know absolutely nothing about.
I know what it feels like to tightly control life, and I know the freedom of letting go. Even if I do it inconsistently and imperfectly. I’m a work in progress, and I’m guessing you are too.
So, my fellow imperfect perfectionists, who want to control less and enjoy more, this is for you:
How to Let Go of the Need to Control People and Life
Do a self-inventory to assess your controlling habit.
I know the signs all too well from personal experience. How much of this sounds familiar to you?
- You grew up in an unpredictable/unsafe environment and learned to control your surroundings and other people as a means to protect yourself.
- You’re a perfectionist and feel anxiety when things aren’t just right.
- You beat yourself up when things don’t work out as you think they should because you believe it’s entirely your fault.
- You always need a plan, and for everything to be on your schedule, and you feel stressed when you don’t know what’s going to happen when.
- You frequently imagine worst-case scenarios and put a lot of effort and energy into avoiding them.
- You have high expectations and standards, of yourself and others, and easily feel disappointed.
- You believe in the old adage “if you want something done right, do it yourself,” and feel uneasy when entrusting someone else to do something that’s important to you.
- You’d rather do things yourself than be part of a team, since you can only control your own efforts.
- You believe that you know what’s best—for you, and possibly for others as well.
- You micromanage other people and try to make them follow your advice (often unsolicited).
- You believe you need to make things happen or nothing will ever work out for you.
- You have a very rigid definition of what it means for things to “work out.”
- You want to present a specific image to the world and cause yourself stress trying to ensure that’s how other people see you.
- You’re tightly wound and have a hard time relaxing because you frequently look for ‘fires’ to put out to ensure nothing bad happens.
- Other people have communicated that they feel suffocated around you, like they’re constantly walking on eggshells, waiting for criticism or an attack.
Identify the payoff of your controlling behavior.
We don’t do anything unless there’s an emotional payoff. The biggest one for me is the illusion of safety.
There were many times in my past when people hurt me, and I felt powerless and out of control. Controlling my life is my way of trying to ensure no one and nothing can hurt me again.
Controlling also allows me to feel more comfortable with the unknown—because it’s not as scary if I can make it into what I think it has to be.
Lastly, controlling allows me to avoid feelings I don’t want to feel.
If I can control my boyfriend’s emotions, I don’t have to feel the discomfort of taking on his feelings, as I often do as an empath. And I don’t have to feel guilty for having caused them, as I often (incorrectly) assume I have.
If I can control other people’s perceptions of me, I don’t have to feel the fear of not being good enough, or the pain of reliving my childhood shame, when I was regularly called a “worthless whore.”
If I can control the outcome of my efforts, I don’t have to feel insecure about any shortcomings that may have led to failure or conflicted about whether or not I made the “right” choice.
Identify the negative consequences of your controlling behavior.
On the other side of the payoff, there are negative consequences.
Trying to control life and other people can hurt us…
We may feel physical symptoms of anxiety, like headaches, shortness of breath, and a racing heart, and may feel constant bodily tension (tight shoulders, clenched jaw, like our whole body is tightened into a fist that we’re trying to smash into the world to force our will on it). We may also have trouble sleeping, as we lie in bed at night stressing about what we can’t control and worrying about all the bad things that might happen.
While controlling can allow us to avoid some emotions, it also causes stress and frustration (as we fight against reality), anger, resentment, and disappointment (as we try to force other people to meet our will), and possibly shame and self-loathing (as we judge ourselves for failing to control things that we believe we should have been able to control).
As we engage in distorted thinking (which I’ll get into shortly), we may experience anxiety and eventually sink into depression.
As other people feel judged, manipulated, limited, or in the worst-case scenario, abused, they may distance themselves from us for their own sanity and freedom.
In trying to control the people we work with and the results of team efforts, we might alienate ourselves from coworkers, or miss out on opportunities because people don’t want to work with us.
Recognize the thoughts, fears, and beliefs that drive your controlling habit.
I used to say I’m a control freak, as if it’s just part of my nature, but controlling isn’t who I am, and I wasn’t born that way. It’s a learned behavior, and something I turn to in response to certain thoughts (cognitive distortions, as mentioned above), fears, and beliefs.
Here are some of the cognitive distortions that often precede my controlling behavior, that may sound familiar to you:
Filtering: only seeing the negative in a situation, and exerting control to combat it. For example, you may see only the negative in your job and create a lot of stress around your job search as a result.
Black-and-white/all-or-nothing thinking: thinking it has to be this way, or everything will fall apart.
Overgeneralization: forming a negative conclusion based on one piece of evidence; expecting something bad to happen over and over again because it happened once, then controlling as a means to avoid it.
Catrastrophizing: exaggerating the negative in your current situation, expecting disaster to strike, and trying to control the future to avoid it. This is my specialty! “OH NO! Sales are down. We’re gonna lose everything! I have to turn things around RIGHT NOW!”
Control fallacies (the obvious one): thinking we have more control than we do; for example, thinking we’re responsible for other people’s pain and happiness, and if they’re upset, there’s something we did wrong—something we need to change or fix to control how they feel.
Shoulds: thinking we know how people should behave, including ourselves.
Fallacy of change: thinking we’d be happy if other people would just change and pressuring them to do so as a result.
Here are some of the fears that often fuel controlling behavior:
- If X doesn’t happen, everything will fall apart, or things will get worse than they are now.
- If they don’t do what I think they should, they’re going to get hurt (or hurt worse than they are now).
- If I can’t make this happen, I’m going to get hurt.
- If things don’t happen as I believe they should, I’ll be abandoned or rejected.
- If I can’t control the future, I might not be able to handle it.
And lastly, here are some of the beliefs that often fuel controlling behavior:
- I know what’s best, for myself and others.
- People are better off when they allow me to intervene or take the wheel.
- Other people can’t be trusted to do the right thing or make good decisions for themselves.
- I am 100 percent in control of my success or failure.
- Things have to go to plan or bad things will happen.
Practice self-awareness and challenge your thoughts, beliefs, and fears.
The goal is to be able to catch ourselves when we’re controlling and recognize the thoughts, fears, and beliefs that are driving us—and how this is negatively impacting us and the people around us. But I know from personal experience how hard it is to catch ourselves in a moment, recognize our behavior, and make a different choice.
So for now, as practice, think of a recent time when you tried to control a situation or person and try to identify the thoughts, fears, and beliefs that were driving you.
Here’s an example from own recent experience: I am currently waiting to move into a house that’s not going to be available as soon as I thought it was because the current tenant is staying longer than anticipated.
I have tried repeatedly to push things to happen sooner than they may have otherwise because I am pregnant; and I’m anxious to “nest,” to get my toddler used to his new environment before his brother comes, and to find my new doctor near our future home.
I know I’ve engaged in black-and-white thinking and catastrophizing, telling myself, “We have to get in there soon or I might not find the right doctor, or I might go into labor in temporary housing, or my son’s poor sleep might get even worse because he’s not in his own room yet…”
I know I’m afraid that it will be emotionally draining if we stay in limbo a lot longer (ironic, since I have emotionally drained myself with worrying and controlling!)
And I also know I’ve been acting on the false belief that I know what’s best—that we get in there ASAP—and nothing else is satisfactory.
As a result of all of this, I am causing myself stress and anxiety, and also stressing out my boyfriend, who can only do so much.
Challenging these thoughts, fears, and beliefs is the key to letting go. And that looks like this:
-We don’t have to do anything. There are always multiple options available, and accepting this is the key to finding them.
-Even if we don’t move in until after I give birth, everything will be okay, because we will have all our needs met, we’ll all have each other, and we’re strong enough to handle an unexpected plot twist and whatever that may entail.
-Maybe I don’t know what’s best. Maybe we’d enjoy the interim plan we choose. Maybe something amazing will happen that would only have happened because of this change of plans. I simply don’t know, so it’s safe to let go.
The reality is I need to challenge these thoughts and beliefs over and over again because they pop up often. Letting go, for me at least, isn’t a one-time choice. But every time I do it, I feel relief. And in that moment, I stop pushing. I stop stressing. I stop stressing the people around me. And I create the possibility of actually being in this moment, where there’s a lot more right than wrong, and a lot to enjoy if I’m willing to recognize it.
Is there someone or something you’re trying to control now? What’s behind it? What are you thinking, what are you afraid of, what beliefs are you feeding into? What would you do differently if you thought differently? And what would change around you if you made this change within you—and acted on it?
*This is the third post in a five-part series on letting go, echoing the themes in my guided meditation/EFT tapping package ($99 value)—now available as a FREE bonus with Tiny Buddha’s Mindfulness Kit (which is now on sale for $39). You can find the first post introducing the series here and the second post on letting go of approval here.
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