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Your desire to control life is controlling you

How to loosen your grip on life and feel happier?

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The need to control life is one that comes up a lot in the work that I do with my clients, and one that impacted my life hugely for many years.

As much as we may think that controlling life helps it to flow with more ease, our desire to control life ends up controlling us.

What do I mean by ‘controlling life?

Let me ask you these questions:

  • Do you hover over your partner when he/she sets foot in the kitchen (just to be sure he/she does things ‘the right way’)?
  • Are you so involved in your children’s school projects that they have to step away and let you take the lead?
  • Is it possible that you might occasionally re-write reports a team member may have prepared to make sure it is exactly as it ‘should be’?
  • Do you have a secret ‘book of rules’ which your partner, children, friends (and you) have to live by? You know, the unspoken rules everyone else needs to guess…
  • Are you finding it impossibly frustrating not to know what the outcome of life situations will be: will your child make the team? Will your project be successful? Will your family Christmas happen just the way you imagine it?
  • Is planning your life saver? You have a black belt in planning, and your life runs like a project plan?

Often, the desire to control our life experiences is fuelled by a need to feel safe, to make sure that everything turns out to be ok.

So firstly, let me say this: if that comes up for you, please don’t blame or criticise yourself. Controlling may have been a way for you to feel safe in the past. Something that served you at a time in your life where you needed it. And perhaps it’s time to loosen your grip…

Often, we feel that controlling life will allow us to tame our worry thoughts.

But in fact, our need to control life is controlling us.

It prevents us from letting life be as it is and from accepting the life that is unfolding for us from moment to moment. Instead, we expand our energy resisting what is already here. We get caught up in a cycle of wishing things were different. We feel an irresistible desire to change and fix them.

It’s like swimming against the tide in a powerful stream.

It keeps us stuck in the past or in the future – which means we are missing the present:

  • We replay something that’s happened in the past in our mind again and again and again. As if we could re-write the ending if we played it enough times.
  • We pre-record the future, imagining terrible ‘what if scenarios’. Then we put plans in place to limit the risk of these hypothetical scenarios becoming reality. We safety-proof our life.

Letting go of controlling life has been a big theme in my self-growth journey.

It’s no surprise that my first job when I left university was in audit – the dream job for someone who likes to limit risk, keep things secure and ensure that everything runs according to set processes.

Now, that may work well in the context of corporate financial accounts and procedures, but it’s not as helpful when it comes to applying the same principles to our life (trust me on this one).

Here’s what happens when the desire to control life takes over:

We disempower others around us by constantly hovering over them, intervening in what they do, correcting, fixing and changing. Oddly enough, there is more than one way to do most things and by controlling them, we restrict their freedom, their independence and their growth.

We get exhausted – we struggle to delegate whether at home or at work because we don’t trust that our standard will be met if we do.

Instead of taming our anxiety, we become more anxious when our plans fall apart and we lose our so-called safety net.

But perhaps most importantly, we narrow down the lens through which we look at life. Our lens is set on ‘what problem needs to be fixed’. 

We constantly scan our environment for things to fix, control, plan, and resolve.  We narrow our focus so much that we no longer see the richness life has to offer. Our life literally loses part of its texture.

Control becomes addictive. Years ago, when control was a prominent part of my life, if I had a moment to sit still and do nothing, my mind would immediately start proactively looking for issues I needed to attend to.

We get caught in a cycle of controlling, managing, fixing life, which means we are moving away from actually living it.

We stop seeing the beauty, the joy, the vast expanse of experience that’s available to us.

And so, our desire to control life starts controlling us.

How do we end this cycle?

In the words of Tara Brach:

“It’s easy to feel that something bad will happen if we don’t maintain our habitual vigilance by thinking, judging, planning. Yet this is the very habit that keeps us trapped in resisting life. Only when we realise we can’t hold on to anything can we begin to relax our efforts to control our experience.”

Rather than controlling the outcome of our life situations to tame our worry and feel safe, we need to develop a deep knowing that we will be safe regardless of the outcome.

We do this by developing self-trust, which I define as the deeply rooted belief that we have the inner resilience to cope with anything life brings us. Self-trust is resourcing ourselves from within and trusting ourselves enough to know that we will be ok regardless of the outcome.

It isn’t a switch we can flick but a skill we learn and practice.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • As always, it starts with awareness. Notice the desire to control arising and press pause deliberately. Pressing pause gives us the space to choose to respond to our urge to control intentionally rather than falling into our habitual way of being.
  • Allow yourself to feel that desire without acting on it. It will feel uncomfortable and counter-intuitive at first, but stay persistent.
  • Surrender to what is without giving in to the urge to change it. Remind yourself of what you can and can’t control and let go of your tight grip on what is outside of your control. Rather than running to your child to ‘fix’ their homework if it doesn’t look as neat as what you expected to see, it’s letting that be as it is.

Like most things, it’s a practice. It might feel unnatural to start with but over time, it will become easier and the desire to control will ease off as your self-trust develops.

So this week, I encourage you to practice letting go of the desire to control life in a small way. Trust yourself enough to be with what is, and know that you have the inner resources you need to be ok.

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