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We humans like to be in control.
It’s a fact. It makes us feel safe; knowing a situation’s outcome feels more comfortable than not knowing. And yet, our constant need for control can exhaust us and wreck our lives in several ways.
Our need to control every aspect of our lives is a survival instinct—an instinct rooted in fear. When fear locks us into controlling everything, letting go is hard, if not impossible. Letting go doesn’t feel safe. We believe that life’s happening to us rather than for us, and uncertainty is not an option.
We cope by turning to strict diets, obsessive cleaning, rigid workouts, and rule-based living. While this does offer the illusion of feeling we’re in control, it also makes us miserable sometimes.
Where do we learn this fear response? There are a few possibilities.
Some of us can relate to more than one:
1. Needing to control everything as a learned behavior.
Control is often a learned behaviour we’ve picked up from our caregivers. If they monitored everything in our lives from our diets to social circles, it’s only natural for us to learn and repeat. It becomes so ingrained, we don’t even question it. Breaking free from this kind of deep-seated behaviour presents a broad range of challenges. For example, research suggests that children of parents with OCD may be at higher risk of having anxiety, OCD, or OCD-like disorders which can include controlling behavior.
2. Being a survivor of domestic abuse.
Many domestic abuse survivors experience years of walking on eggshells and uncertainty. They may exhibit unhealthy controlling behaviours to regain a perceived loss of control as a coping mechanism. At its core, this behaviour stems from the need to defend oneself from feeling the pain of being at the mercy of others.
3. Suffering loss at a young age.
A young child who has lost a parent or a primary-attachment figure views the world differently. Witnessing a loved one go through a serious illness or accident during critical development can have a similar impact. This kind of trauma can foster hyper-vigilance in adulthood. As adults, these people are looking out for danger and will do almost anything to avoid repeating the pain or loss they experienced as children. As a result, they seek to control themselves, others, and an inordinate portion of their lives.
Living with the fear-based compulsion to control is stressful and harms our mental well-being. What if allowing space to cede a bit of control also meant allowing space for a bit more happiness? It’s not easy. People who feel the need to control find it difficult to let go, surrender, and allow life to flow. Practice and the patience to take baby steps are key.
I believe there is power in surrendering to certain things in life. There’s power in accepting there are things we can’t change or control—even if it’s just for now.
What if we learn to just be in the present? What if we began to trust that what’s meant to be will find its way? What if we had a little more faith? What if everything actually turned out alright? What if it turned out even better?