Updated: Oct 28, 2022
What is control?
Feeling we have control over our lives is imperative to our wellbeing. It helps us feel confident, empowered, hopeful and resilient. So control is a good thing? Well, to a point.
Control is a coping mechanism. A coping mechanism is any behaviour or action we take to feel centred, grounded, safe and normal.
We increase our use of coping mechanisms any time we feel stressed, in times of change and uncertainty.
That can tip into trying to control every minute of the day, the schedule, the environment and life in general in order to feel calm and safe. The reality is, we can't be in control of every aspect of our life. If control is our main coping mechanism, it means that when change and unpredictability happen (which it always does) it means problems arise. We're not resilient, we get anxious, we get stressed, we burn out.
My experience with over-control
One of my previous go-to coping mechanisms in life was to feel in control of things. This had been a great trait in me previously, I was super organised at work and home, able to multitask, spin lots of plates and was the chief organiser amongst my friends. I loved it, I didn’t take things too seriously, life was good.
Until…during one of the trickiest times of my life my control coping mechanism spiralled, quite literally, out of control. I was hyper focused on things, anxious, over preparing, ruminating and blaming myself for things that didn't go to plan. My inner critic was on overdrive. This was when I was navigating post-natal hormones, bringing up two small children, was sleep deprived and had a pandemic thrown in for good measure. I was completely overwhelmed and burnt-out. Who wouldn’t be with all that going on! I can see that now with the benefit of hindsight.
I was having some coaching at the time and my coach asked me some questions about it like “what would happen if you did lose control” and “what would losing control look like for you” which were all good questions and gave me some perspective on it. I had some deep rooted beliefs going on that I started to work through and unpick. Some of it was to do with how I perceived myself, how I thought other people perceived me, wanting to be strong and dependable, wanting to be perfect, not wanting to ask for or accept help from people. Basically not allowing myself to be human. Slowly slowly I realised that control was a coping mechanism of mine, and whilst that coping mechanism had served me well up to that point, it wasn’t working for me any more. It was suffocating me and robbing me of joy. I aimed for 10 out of 10 in everything I did, when a 6 or 7 out of 10 in most cases was fine.
Again, slowly, I started to relax a little and relinquish control. Let’s face it when it comes to kids, a lot of stuff is completely out of your control and you can't plan for everything with them. In fact, that goes for people in general.
As well as doing things to prioritise my wellbeing to help myself feel better, I leaned into, and embraced the art of letting go. Simple things like not spotlessly tidying the house after the kids had gone to bed and becoming comfortable with a level of mess in the house was a big one. I realised that most days I needed the rest at the end of the day, not to be spending the only time I had to myself tidying when it would only become a mess again a few hours later once the kids woke up!
Another example is letting my husband pack for trips away and being ok if he didn’t do it exactly as I would. I never used to let him near this kind of task as I would be worried about him forgetting something and then blaming myself for not packing. Again, I learnt to let go. What’s the worst that could happen? He’s a grown up and sensible adult, and if he forgot something it wouldn’t actually be the end of the world.
With practice I felt a sense of peace, freedom and joy. I had more energy and headspace, and I wasn’t taking everything on myself. I got my spark back, my sense of humor back, and I allowed myself to have more fun.
6 steps to relinquishing control
1) Recognise where your control is causing you more stress than good, practice letting go when it’s not healthy. For example a coaching client of mine insisted on going to the gym so many times a week and had quite a rigid routine. She was so fixated on it that she'd get annoyed at her friends and family if they suggested she didn't go, or if they turned up unexpected. However she realised that it got in the way of her saying yes to spontaneous plans and that she was missing out, and impacting on her relationships with others. She practiced being a little more flexible so she could allow some enjoyment in.
2) Remind yourself regularly that you don’t need to control everything and you don’t need to be perfect at all times. Perfectionism is another coping mechanism. Perfectionists tend to think that if they can control everything they care about (work, plans, social media, appearance, they will gain respect, favour and love, and prevent rejection, judgement or criticism. However it's difficult to maintain this level of standards. Perfection doesn't exist and striving for it leads to anxiousness and exhaustion.
3) Focus on what you can control and let go of the things you can’t (use the circle of control image above to help with this)
4) Identify the triggers that make you want to overly control things. Notice tension in your body, anxious thoughts and what has triggered those. Then take action to relax, calm your body and mind. Reach out to someone and ask for help if you need to.
5) Be mindful. Focus on the present. The past is gone, take the lessons and move on. Whilst it’s good to think about and plan for the future, you can’t completely control that either. Enjoy now!
6) What’s the worst that can happen? Choose an area of your life that you would usually control or aim for perfection and decide not to.
You’re not trying to get rid of control completely. You’re aiming to be more kind and compassionate with yourself.
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