You like to have things under control. Your home has to be organized in a particular way, and so does your schedule. You get stressed out when your days don’t go as planned — your child gets sick and misses daycare, you run into terrible traffic, a client cancels a meeting, your partner doesn’t want to attend the party.
Often it doesn’t take much for you to feel frustrated, frazzled and downright overwhelmed. Any disturbance to the status quo feels unbearable.
Maybe you like to control how others perceive you, so you show a very specific image: You are calm, collected, poised and put together, but on the inside, you’re anything but. Maybe you like to control the people in your life, everything from their schedules to their actions.
Either way, you need to have control. And it’s a need that often feels insatiable.
Where does this relentless craving come from?
Some people need control because they grew up in an environment where they had very little of it. As kids, they were surrounded by chaos or inconsistency, said Tanvi Patel, LPC-S, a psychotherapist specializing in work with high achieving adults and adult survivors of trauma.
Maybe their parents struggled with extreme moods or addiction. Maybe their parents repeated cycles where they were emotionally unavailable and then overly involved and intrusive, she said. Maybe they grew up with many different guardians, she added.
These kinds of situations make it difficult or even impossible to develop healthy attachments—and it’s our attachments with caregivers that dictate how we see ourselves and how we see the world, Patel said.
“While the chaos and inconsistency don’t always follow us, the need for stability does, and as adults, controlling things helps us feel stable, powerful and that ‘things will be OK,’ something we probably never felt as children.”
Some people also crave control because of their perfectionistic tendencies, Patel said. They are naturally rigid and have a hard time being flexible and pivoting when big or small changes arise. Because things must, should, have to be a certain way. They want to protect themselves and others from making mistakes or getting hurt.
Whatever the reason for your persistent need, it is problematic. Because “life is fundamentally ever-changing and unpredictable,” said Diane Webb, LMHC, a mental health counselor who has a private practice in Clifton Park, N.Y., and pens the blog The Peace Journal about helping people develop emotional wellness as a lifestyle choice. Which means that your need for control will continue to go unmet—and it’ll “continue to trigger anxiety until something gives.”
Webb likened trying to stop change to trying to stop waves with a hammer: Instead of fighting needlessly against them, it’s best to go with the waves.
Below are some ways you can learn to go with the flow. Because you can learn—and that’s incredibly empowering.
Ground yourself—and get clarity. “It’s hard to give up control when you are physiologically and emotionally wound up,” Patel said. She suggested practicing this mindfulness-based process:
- Focus on your inhale and exhale, and notice how your body is responding. For instance, notice your limbs, your head, heart rate, shoulders, stomach and chest.
- “As your body and mind relax and join each other in the present, clarify what about this situation is pulling you to control it.” Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen if I relinquish my need for control?”
- As you ponder this question, pay attention to how your body feels and changes.
- Consider: What part of this can I affect? Then create your plan of action.
For instance, you can’t control gridlock traffic. But you can control leaving your house earlier (which might lead to missing the bulk of the bad traffic). You can control how you spend your time in the car. You might identify calming, even joyful, things you can do, Patel said—like “adding a Bluetooth call with a friend to catch up, buying an audiobook that keeps you actually wanting to be in the car.”
Think challenging but manageable. “Letting go of control can feel terrifying and unsafe,” Patel said. “Usually we build this wall of control around us because it has helped keep us feeling safe and structured in some way.”
This is why Patel suggested letting go at a pace that feels challenging (and uncomfortable at times) but manageable—and to have plenty of coping strategies to turn to. For instance, she said, you might practice yoga or keep a journal for your thoughts and feelings: a non-judgmental space where you jot down anything that arises. It’s so important to acknowledge and sit with our emotions. Journaling also is a helpful way to explore where your need for control derives from.
Change your perspective. “Try to adopt a ‘bird’s eye view’ of what you are trying to control that feels stressful at the moment,” Webb said. This might mean considering how you’ll feel about the issue five years from now, she said. It might mean “considering how someone else may think about the issue you are trying to control.”
Practice radical acceptance. Accepting that unpredictability is inevitable can help you relinquish an unhealthy sense of control and sink your anxiety, Webb said. She defines radical acceptance as “accepting and not resisting things you cannot change.”
Start by paying attention to your self-talk around control—and adjust it. For instance, the next time you’re craving control, you tell yourself, according to Webb: “Even though I am frustrated by change, this is my opportunity to practice acceptance and flow peacefully with these transitions.”
Sometimes your need for control is too constant, too stubborn. And that’s OK. This is when it’s most helpful to work with a therapist. You don’t have to live with anxiety or overwhelm. You can learn to let go. You can learn to pivot, adjust and adapt. You can learn to surf the waves.