As a bit of a control freak myself, I may be a little biased here, but being a control freak isn’t all bad! Another way to look at it is you’re super competent, efficient, have high standards, and a go-getter. You get things done right the first time. Plus, when things are spiraling, a little extra control can be a healthy way of coping. It took me awhile to make the connection, but I realized that when the world makes me feel small and helpless, I cope by finding something in my life that I can control. But of course, there’s a dark side to control. Complete control can never be achieved, so you can never relax. Relaxation and “down time” feel unproductive or weak, which leaves you restless. No one else can reach your standards, which leaves you lonely. Additionally, without quite meaning to, you use a collection of sharp, pointy tools – criticism, judgment, and micromanaging – towards yourself and others to keep your anxiety at bay. Control is a cover for anxiety. Here’s how it works: anxiety is caused by uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s unclear if your decisions were exactly right. There’s no guarantee that everything will be okay. So being a control freak is the attempt to eliminate all uncertainty.
We’ve seen that, on one hand, control can be a healthy way to cope. However, wanting to control everything all the time can also be severely debilitating. Like everything, there needs to be a happy medium. So how do you break free from the strong grip of control?
Expand your definition of “control.”
We can’t control whether we live or die, but we can control exactly what we eat, which series to binge next on Netflix, or what outfit we want to wear for the day. This kind of control is called “primary control,” which is defined as “the attempt to win mastery by striving for goals and asserting one’s will upon circumstances.” This is what most people mean when they think of being in control. But there’s also something called “secondary control,” which is adapting to the things that can’t be controlled. Think of it as acceptance, reframing, making sense of things, or “making lemonade out of lemons.” In short, primary control is changing the world to fit yourself, while secondary control is changing yourself to fit the world. Now, focusing on secondary control doesn’t mean you have to morph into a go-with-the-flow hippie. It just means that you have the wisdom and flexibility to know which type of control fits your situation.
Learn to put up with imperfection.
Did you know that “perfectionist” is a synonym of “control freak”? When things aren’t done perfectly, it’s stressful, so you are constantly intervening to make sure things keep going the way you want. You may keep things in line, but done over and over, keeping things perfect is exhausting. But more importantly, intervening keeps you from learning that you can wait out your stress. So next time you get the urge to rearrange the dishes or correct your partner’s grammar, wait ten minutes. The first couple minutes will be uncomfortable, but then it will get easier. As the minutes tick by, intervening will seem less urgent. This is called “distress tolerance,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s enduring distress with the knowledge that what goes up, must eventually come down.
Delegate and learn to trust others.
This is a hard one! At first, letting someone else be in charge will feel weird and wrong, and things may not get done the way you prefer. But guess what? They will get done, and it won’t be a disaster. You probably won’t like it, but it won’t be as bad as you think. With your newfound distress tolerance, you’ll know the urge to intervene is temporary.
Consider how it comes across.
Re-packing your partner’s suitcase, over-helping with your kid’s homework, or other controlling behaviors show two things. First, it shows you don’t trust them. Second, it shows you think they’re not capable. If you’re the only one who can do things right, that means everyone else does things wrong, which doesn’t exactly come across as supportive to family or welcoming to guests. Similar to the point above, others may not do things the way you prefer, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t able to get the task done.
To wrap it all up, control is a natural human need; indeed, not being able to control anything in your life would be a one-way ticket to depression. But it can go too far. So next time you have the urge to say, “I can show you the right way to do that,” remind yourself that everyone has their own best way of doing things. Allow another way, and not only will your brain learn it isn’t a disaster and that others can be capable, you may learn a new way to handle a situation.
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