I can remember a time in my late teens when I thought I had life all figured out. I would get a job, make lots of money, do some travelling, get married, get a house, have some kids and so on. It seemed so simple. I had an idea that at certain points in my life I should be doing specific things. Firstly, I thought, when I am in my late teens and early twenties I will go to university. Then after that, I will look for work, well a ‘career’ to be more precise. Following my inevitable success in the workplace, I would then look for someone to marry. If I were to miss out any of these steps ie not have my career figured out by 24 or 25, I would feel some strange sense of anxiety, “Oh god, I am so far behind everyone, I need to do something about it. But you can’t you have missed your chance, you are passed it now, you are a failure”
It took the best part of 10 years, maybe when I was 26 or 27 to realise life does not work in this odd linear fashion. I used to have a sense that you have some kind of control over how your life will go. This step by step plan I had was something I had constructed from the culture I lived in, and the expectations that people in society had of other people. It wasn’t me. I have already had 3 dead-end careers, never owned a house, and been bankrupt. That wasn’t part of the plan!
Anyway I digress, the point is I felt I had some form of control over my life and when I felt it slipping away I would get very anxious.
This is my experience of trying to control things. As far as it goes this is fairly mild. There are some who suffer from a need to control everything in their daily lives. There are extreme forms of this such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is an acute psychological condition. This post is less about that extreme and more about the day to day control that people strive for that they are maybe unaware of.
So, What Do I Mean By Control?
When I talk about control I am thinking of people who feel they have to have things just right. They struggle to function comfortably in an environment that isn’t they way they would like it. It is a need for the security that you know what is going to happen. There are no surprises.
One form of control is to try and get people to see the world the way you do. If you have ever tried to live like this it is immensely energy sapping. Have you ever tried to control the way someone thinks by attempting to change their mind? I know I used to be guilty of this a lot. I still am sometimes. Of course when I say sometimes I mean quite a lot of the time.
Constantly attempting to change people’s ideas, is not only incredibly emotionally draining, but it is almost always completely fruitless, people are not going to change their mind because you happen to have some really interesting facts.
However, what I am talking about is the kind of control you exert to get the outcome you believe to be most favourable. Whether that be forcing your opinion on a colleague to do a piece of work in a particular way or manufacturing reasons to convince your friends to go to a certain place. Living like this makes one huge assumption; you always know what is best. An expectation that is more often than not hidden from the believer because it mainly resides at a subconscious level.
This belief is strong in a lot of people, and although it is subconscious it can be viewed by putting conscious attention on your actions and getting curious about the real drivers beneath. Given that this is a belief it often feels like it is completely true, “but I do know what is right”, of course on reflection this simply cannot be true, It would require you to basically know everything, which you don’t and you can’t.
Why Do People Try and Control Things?
One of the ideas wrapped up in trying to control our lives is the idea that we somehow have actual control over life’s events. When you examine this for even the smallest of moments you realise this is obviously completely false. Think back 5 years did you ever think we would be experiencing the things we are right now, the UK leaving the EU, Donald Trump as President or that you would be doing exactly what you are doing today?
You cannot know the future and you cannot control it. So, why do people try to?
It is all about fear. When people suffer some heightened sense of fear or anxiety one of the ways they attempt to suppress it is to try and ensure life goes the way you think it should. The idea of a shock or a surprise poses so much terror that day to day you attempt to ensure they never happen. This is a subconscious process driven by the amygdala in the brain. Its overactivity drives the anxiety that you feel (for more info on this particularly larger area of research go here). The irony is that the desire to feel safe is exactly what makes you feel so insecure. In order to feel truly secure, you must give up your need for certainty. You must endeavour to do this because the world is not giving up its uncertainty for you, ever!
Giving up your need for certainty can sound extremely difficult. It is all about being more realistic about what is actually within your power. That can be defined as your ability to take responsibility. You can’t control the outcome of a piece of work but you can control the effort and time you put into it. You also have the power to say “I won’t fear the future”. That is something you can tell yourself, you have the power to stop your necessity for certainty.
Most of all become aware of your need for control. Then take steps to release it. Trying to control everything takes huge amounts of time and energy and is ultimately fruitless. Learning to go with the flow can really help open you up to new ideas, opportunities and life experiences.