When Control Controls You
By Colin Turpin, MA, LPC-C
Edmond Family Counseling
Has your relationship with control in your life ever controlled you? Control is your ability to influence behavior, beliefs, or the outcome of a situation. You have zero control over the weather; you have full control over what your favorite food is. Think about how much control you have over everything in your life. In what areas do you feel in-control and powerful? In what areas do you feel out-of-control and powerless? Having at least a little control in your life is extremely important to stay psychologically healthy. But is too much control also a bad thing?
We see individual differences on how people interact with the idea of control. Some people tend to be control-seeking, trying to ensure that their life goes exactly as they want it to. Others tend to be control-avoiding and put that responsibility (for better or for worse) onto others. What is your reaction when something goes wrong in your life? Do you tend to take more responsibility to keep it from happening again? Or do you pull away from the situation to make it hurt less? Both gut reactions, when taken to an extreme, can lead to an unhealthy view of the world. So why do we do them?
Control-Seeking: People try to gain total control of a situation often to make sure that bad things won’t happen. If I cook the entire Thanksgiving feast, I can guarantee that Aunt Margaret won’t ruin the mashed potatoes again. While it seems like a good idea at the time, this mentality can lead to unmanageable levels of stress and anxiety long-term as you not only try to influence your own actions, but also the actions of others. You might imagine some situations, such as planning a wedding, where people would be okay taking on these stresses to try to create a perfect day. But trying to make every day your wedding day will quickly lead to burnout.
Control-Avoiding: Another common human reaction is to blame others to preserve our pride and self-worth. Surely it wasn’t your poor time management skills that made you late, everyone was just driving too slowly! When taken to an extreme, however, avoiding control will only make things worse. Whether your preferred scapegoat is a disliked coworker, a political party that doesn’t follow your values, or a nameless global shadow organization, you are not doing yourself any favors by thinking this way. Studies have shown that it is better to actively make the wrong decision than to make no decision at all. The process of taking responsibility, even when you make mistakes, will help you learn how to be better next time. Denying your control by pushing off unfair blame onto others will only leave you bitter and angry when things go wrong.
So, what do we do about it? Taking zero control will lead to continual frustration while too much control breeds stress and anxiety. There must be a goldilocks zone here; how do you find the happy middle? First, let go of the things outside your control. Putting trust into others is hard. Being okay with things not going your way is hard. The more that you practice delegating tasks or accepting non-perfect results, the easier it will be to let go. Next, focus on what you can control. Spending time and energy on the things that you can influence will be a good use of your effort and will help keep you grounded and responsible for the good times and the bad.
If you’re still having trouble, I like to use a technique called Responsibility Pie. For those who have been out of school for a while, a pie graph is just a circle that is split into different “pie slices” that add up to 100%. Try making a pie graph to see if you can identify who all is responsible for a situation. For example, when graphing the who’s responsible for chores at their house, one might put themselves at 40%, their spouse at 40%, and the kids at 20%. This exercise is meant to have you think realistically about what your responsibility is to help you focus on your portion and let go of others’ portions. Most of these patterns that we fall into are often learned for a reason, so it will likely take time and effort to change. As always, talk to a mental health professional in your area if you want to change but need some help to get there!
Colin Turpin, MA, LPC-C, is a staff therapist at Edmond Family Counseling. Edmond Family Counseling is a non-profit organization. We may be reached at 405-341-3554 to schedule an appointment with one of our professional counselors. Donations may be made to Edmond Family Counseling, 1251, N. Broadway, Edmond, OK 73034, or online @ www.edmondfamily.org by clicking on the YELLOW DONATE button. Follow us on our Facebook page @ Edmond Family Counseling for additional information regarding mental health awareness.