Is Your Need for Control Out of Control?

get elephant's newsletter

Zen teachings on letting go.

What is your control pattern? Do you strive for perfection with every project you take on? Do you find that you often tell others the “better” way to do something? Or do you try to win the affections of others by constantly trying to please them? We all have our own mix of strategies to get control and hold onto it, and we often apply those strategies without even realizing what we are doing.

Control patterns are common manifestations of our personal shadows. In the depths of our minds, the lingering imprints of difficult past experiences swarm together with present-day fears, triggering unconscious behaviors, often in the form of control patterns.

There was a time when I washed every dish twice and my hands about 30 times a day. Why? I had survived a life-threatening episode of inflammatory bowel disease and I was scared of anything that could possibly make me ill again. My behavior wasn’t rational or even conscious, it just was a pattern my mind came up with to try to keep me safe.

I talked with a therapist regularly and she helped me understand the connection between the traumas I had experienced and my behaviors. But it was my practice of Zen Buddhism that helped me most to bring awareness to my unconscious control pattern and to choose different behaviors. I no longer wash things compulsively.

I realized that my fear was always of something that had not even happened. When I faced difficult circumstances, such as having major abdominal surgery, I actually coped quite well.

Our fear-based images of what could happen and the accompanying mental chatter (“what if I lose…?”) are usually much worse than the reality of our life situations, even when these situations are difficult. Control is just a misguided strategy to squelch our fears and achieve a sense of security.

Darlene Cohen, a Zen teacher and author, gave the following suggestion in her book “Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain:”

A big part of what you must learn if you’re to be less worried about controlling everything is how to let go of your compulsive need to feel in control. You would be better off making the effort it takes to learn when to stop making effort, when to allow things to just happen, to simply let your impulses come forth. This is the art of cultivating faith in your intuition, learning to trust your inherent wisdom.

Cohen stated that training ourselves to hold not-knowing mind is a key support in dealing with a mind that is set on being in control. As Cohen wrote:

We always seem to need to be prepared because we are so fearful of what’s ahead. But knowing is comparatively static; not knowing is the creative space. Not knowing allows an opening, a new event, some notion rising from our own unconscious, some original face. This is learning to respect and enjoy the inherent wisdom we’ve cultivated in our disciplined spiritual practice or we’ve noticed has developed during our examined life. I believe that developing the capacity to tolerate not-knowing mind allows what we call “intuition” to evolve.

Cohen also differentiated unconscious efforts to control life circumstances from mastery, which she defined as a belief that “we can act and produce results by acting.” Her description of mastery corresponds with the psychological concept of self-efficacy, which is something that helps people adaptively cope with chronic pain, illness and other challenging circumstances. She wisely distinguished between unconscious responses to fear and conscious efforts to empower ourselves to be stewards of our health and well-being.

In “Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life’s Burning Questions,” the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

To “let go” means to let go of something. That something may be an object of our mind, something we’ve created, like an idea, feeling, desire or belief. Getting stuck on that idea could bring a lot of unhappiness and anxiety. We’d like to let it go, but how? It’s not enough just to want to let it go; we have to recognize it first as being something real. We have to look deeply into its nature and where it has come from, because ideas are born from feelings, emotions, and past experiences, from things we’ve seen and heard. With the energy of mindfulness and concentration we can look deeply and discover the roots of the idea, the feeling, the emotion, the desire.

Thich Nhat Hanh also stated that “fear is an element that prevents us from letting go.” But how do we work with fear? Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher and author of “The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once and For All,” suggested that we engage with our fears consciously. She asks us to:

Do something you fear, NOT to conquer the fear, NOT to accomplish a task, but to familiarize yourself with the processes with which fear protects itself, to demystify it.

By consciously doing something that triggers our fears, we can watch ourselves in action and see when our control pattern begins and the forms it takes.

Another Zen teacher and author, Ezra Bayda, wrote about how he worked with fear in the book: “Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life.” At first, he began to become aware of all the ways that his fears surfaced, even in kindness, ambition, depression and anger. Then he tried to confront his fears and transform them.

It wasn’t until Bayda became severely ill that he began to: “stop seeing it as the enemy or obstacle, but to willingly let it in.” Illness is a powerful experience that can force us to let go. Charlotte Joko Beck, Bayda’s Zen teacher, advised him to:

Look at fear as a scientist might, with the curiosity of just wanting to discover what it is. The practice, whenever fear arose, was to ask simply, “What is this?” The answer always lies in the physical experience of the moment.

Bayda watched his fear-based thoughts and went back to his body, allowing himself to experience fear within his stomach, chest, mouth, muscles and elsewhere in his body. He asserted that by relating to fear as an experience rather than as “me,” fear dissipated on its own.

We may be biologically hard-wired to experience fear, but we don’t have to take it so personally!

We have great fear inside ourselves. We are afraid of everything–of our death, of being alone, of change. Fear is born from our concepts regarding life, death, being, and nonbeing. If we are able to get rid of all these concepts by touching the reality within ourselves, then nonfear will be there and the greatest relief will become possible. ~Thich Nhat Hanh

With Zen eyes we can see the concepts that trigger our fears and the fears that trigger our control patterns. With non-judgmental inquisitiveness, we can look deeply into the beliefs and notions that re-trigger our fears and control patterns again and again. And with gentle attention, we can open to the visceral experiences of fear, giving fear the space to transform on its own.

Awareness and insight are powerful antidotes to a fearful mind that is desperate for a sense of security.

is a new feature on Elephant Journal—enabling you to instantly share your mindful ideas, photos, art, YouTube videos/Instagram links & writings with our 5 million readers. Try it Now.

Write Now

About Erica Hamilton

Erica Shane Hamilton is the founder of Mind-Body Wellness, a wellness practice in Uppsala, Sweden. She is also the director of the non-profit website, Patient Corps, which links patients with volunteer opportunities. Erica holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University and she is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Erica's Twitter name is EricaSHamilton and her blog is Determined to Heal.


11 Responses to “Is Your Need for Control Out of Control?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by eshaneh, Red Fox. Red Fox said: Is Your Need for Control Out of Control? […]

  2. Jill Barth says:

    Lovely reminder — a tug into the present and the unknown creative space.

    Thank you!

  3. Aigul says:

    This article is very inspiring reminder to be calm and enjoy the life without too much worrying. Although it’s very challenging to stop worrying. But, I’m trying!

  4. Joe Sparks says:

    A control pattern almost always began as a tense " desperate solution" to an " impossible" situation. As a result, these control patterns tend to feel as if they still have survival value to the person because the person " survived" during the original experience.

    • Yes, the control pattern can almost seem like clothing that protects us from the elements. But maybe it is clothing that is just a bit too tight, which makes it hard for us to breathe. That is my analogy! Wonderful that you have the insight to see into the control pattern, there may be "brilliant sanity" in control patterns too.

  5. Kelly says:

    Inspiring reflections on moving forward ~ If grief should arise in relation to ways that fear has dominated in the past, how might one engage with said grief, using similar methods of "not-knowing-mind"?

    • We all have different methods of working with difficult emotions such as grief and I guess we have to find what works best for us. My approach is to make the time and space to be with grief in my body. Sometimes I practice "touch and go" (see:… ). I try to really be with the energy of grief before cultivating not-knowing mind because I don't want to suppress my grief. For me, not-knowing mind–in relation to grief–is something that I usually focus on later on in my grief process. But I guess it also depends on the situation. I wrote about my process of working with grief after the death of family member, see:… . Thanks for your comment and question!

  6. […] While I was meditating I would begin to feel anxious about something random like the state of my relationship, but as I learned to allow myself to sit with that anxiety, suddenly, it began unraveling before me. What I originally thought was anxiety about my current relationship, was actually anxiety about vulnerability and a loss of control. […]

  7. […] Moment: “Is Your Need for Control Out of Control?” — good things about […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.