Updated: Aug 13
Have you ever been told you have control issues? Or maybe been called a “control freak”? Hmm doesn’t feel good does it? Maybe you need to have things a certain way in your home, or stick to a certain schedule, or maybe you get frustrated when other people in your life, at home, or at work, don’t do things the way you think they should be done – you either keep biting your tongue or you get accused of being a nag. Maybe this sounds familiar, if not about yourself, then perhaps someone else in your life.
Control issues are also involved in abusive relationships, disordered eating, substance use and compulsive behaviours. This is the more serious end of the control spectrum but it’s important to mention nonetheless. For those on the less serious end of the spectrum, controlling behaviour can still cause distress, feelings of loneliness, conflict in relationships and avoidable nervous system activation.
Here's the thing, having, or constantly trying to have control over our lives and the lives of those around us, is just a tactic to feel safe and protected.
Just read that again, yes, control is just a maladaptive strategy to feel safe. It’s usually not because people actually think their way is the better way, their way is just safer for them. That control part of us is just trying to create less chance of any surprises happening, because for our emotional brain, our threat detection system, surprises can mean danger. Perhaps in the past something negative has happened that wasn’t part of “the plan” so your brain is desperately trying to stick to “the plan” to avoid that happening again. This is why some people who have experienced abuse, hurt, and helplessness in the past, find themselves needing to control everything they can in their present. It's anxiety about change.
The trouble is, when we exert control on our environment or on other people’s – we never heal, we get short term relief and probably don’t feel great afterwards. After all, it’s exhausting trying to get life to stick to the script and honestly, many of life's great experiences can happen off-script. By controlling everything, we never give ourselves the chance to be the real us - our true selves - and we never grow. The control part of us isn’t really us, it’s just a part of us that has adapted because of our history. (If you’d like to read more about parts work and Internal Family Systems - it’s a fascinating counselling approach - click here: (www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/internal-family-systems-therapy)
You might be reading this and saying hey but wait I only control things because I know what I like and I know how I like things done, I’m just setting good boundaries! However, knowing what you like and where you like everything to be is great, but what isn’t great is if you are one of the people whose nervous systems get activated when things don’t go to plan and stress hormones pump through your body as if there is a threat to your safety and it's hard to move forward without constantly thinking about whatever has happened. See how you feel today when you don’t control something in your environment, are you OK with it, or is it really uncomfortable? If it's uncomfortable for you then perhaps you'd like to see if there's another way.
If this speaks to you, try today to pay attention to when your control part is activated. Notice it, smile, and maybe even have a dialogue with it, ask it what will happen if you don't act, let it know you’re aware of what’s happening. Starting small, try to relinquish a little bit of control and just notice how it feels. Maybe accept that your coffee isn’t your usual type, or use a pen all day you don't usually use, perhaps stop yourself correcting someone, or leave that backpack on the floor where someone threw it, or turn a picture on the wall so it’s a little crooked and just try and sit with it for a day. Allow your environment to be not quite right and just breathe into the discomfort that follows. Starting small is the key. Start to feel the freedom of not needing to control everything to feel safe. If you have any questions about this or any other aspect of counselling please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading :)