Another concept that frequently drives anxiety is the need for control. That is, this belief that…
If I don’t control it (whatever “it” is for you), everything will fall apart into chaos, and I won’t be able to handle it…
We could even go deeper with this…
If I don’t control it (whatever “it” is for you), I am unworthy and undeserving as a human being…
When we put these thoughts out on the table in this way, we might think, “Wow! That sounds extreme and absurd!” but, nonetheless, these are very common underlying and insidious thinking processes that fuel the need for control and, therefore, anxiety.
The need for control may attach to different things for different people. Some people attach this need to restricting their diet (e.g., limiting their food intake, giving themselves stringent food preferences). Some people create rigid rules for themselves, such as “My way is the only way,” “I must take this route and never that route,” “If it’s not done perfectly, then I failed.” Some people attempt to control by planning out every second of every day or arranging/ordering their environment in a specific way. Some people attempt to control their relationships by making others feel inferior or, on the other end of the spectrum, by making others feel comfortable at their own expense. Some people attempt to control their emotions by avoiding, suppressing, overeating, using substances, etc…
There are endless different forms of control. Pick your poison! We all attempt to control in one way or another to some extent…
I’m not saying that control is all bad. In fact, exercising moderate and reasonable levels of control is good and adaptive! It is not helpful to exercise complete helplessness, as if you have no agency or free will over your actions and life choices. Exercising some control can be confidence-building, motivating, problem-solving, and productive!
Control becomes a problem when it becomes a need and a must. Control becomes a problem when you put inflexible limits and rules on yourself and your life. Control becomes a problem when you try to control what cannot be controlled. And finally, control becomes a problem when you pin your self-worth to its success.
Just as it states in the serenity prayer…
“God, grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change, the COURAGE to change the things I can, and the WISDOM to know the difference.”
Regardless of your religious/spiritual affiliation, this adage provides a powerful and helpful guide. Practicing this wisdom, serenity, and courage is very tricky, and it is a constant, lifelong, balancing act. Have grace with yourself here because none of us will ever get this perfectly. It’s like a pendulum that’s constantly swinging back and forth and never precisely hitting the middle mark for long.
Other tips for managing the need for control:
When you are struggling with control, ask yourself what it means to you if you are unable to control this thing or outcome. Chances are that you are being unreasonable with yourself- Just like the thoughts I cited at the beginning of this post. Give yourself an expectation that is reasonably within your control and give yourself grace for what is beyond your control limits.
Delegate, ask for help, and accept help when offered. This can be challenging when you are telling yourself the false narrative that you are the only one that can do the task right. Remember that this is the need for control talking. There is always something another person can help you with. And guess what- you are not a burden for doing so because the people who care about you will want to help you.
Embrace chaos and uncertainty when your control has reached its limits. The more you fight chaos and uncertainty (via control!), the more you will suffer and the weaker you will feel. You are stronger than you think, and you will come to know this when you embrace it.
Until next time,
Have courage and kind wishes!
Tannah E. Chase, Ph.D.
The Anxiety Counseling Clinic, P.L.L.C.