The issue of control is a topic that comes up frequently in therapy sessions. It can be a complicated and confusing topic for people while they are struggling. When a person senses they are losing control they often begin to feel anxious. The other side of the coin is that when people feel anxious they tend to respond by trying to find more control. No matter how we enter into this pattern it will more often than not become a loop of thought that ends up controlling us.
Understanding Control Issues
Sense of a Loss of Control
Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived more and more people have found themselves stuck in this loop. There is an overwhelming sense of a loss of control and in response we feel more and more anxious.
Because we cannot control a virus we cannot see, we focus on controlling other areas of our life. We might find ourselves needing to clean all the time, organize areas of our home, closets, garage, basement, etc, sometimes over and over and over again. We might focus on trying to control our children or our spouse only to get frustrated and more anxious. We might try to avoid the sense of a loss of control by using substances, drinking too much or eating too much to trying to feel relief which only leaves us worse off. Sometimes we end up obsessing about other things we cannot control such as our partner cheating on us, having a terminal illness, or that we are going to get arrested even though we can’t remember doing anything wrong. The anxiety we feel from a perceived loss of control can manifest in countless ways.
Control is an Illusion
The reason we experience responses like these is because ultimately, control is an illusion. That simple fact is hard for us to hear and we often want to argue against it. But if you really think it over you will see it is true. We don’t actually have control over anything. For instance a meteor could drop out of the sky while I’m writing this and you would never get to read it. Random things happen in our daily lives that we could never predict or plan for. We like to think we have control because that helps us feel safe but the truth is we can never completely control our lives or our futures.
Overcoming Control Issues
Rely on Our Ability to Adapt
As hard as it is to grasp this idea it does not have to leave us feeling hopeless. Not being able to rely upon control to ensure a sense of safety is OK. That’s because there is actually something else we can rely upon. We can rely upon our ability to adapt. As human beings we have the ability to take situations as they come and adjust to them to ensure the best possible outcome. Our ability to adapt is, in fact, something we can rely upon. But how can we be sure? All you have to do is tell yourself that no matter what should come along you will handle it. But how can you be sure? Simply think back through life and remind yourself that you have handled everything that has come your way thus far. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here.
Simply put, relying upon control to feel safe will leave us anxious while relying upon our ability to adapt will leave us feeling safe because we feel personally powerful. We don’t need to control the future, we need to know we will handle the future.
I have a visual that I offer patients when we are having this discussion. Picture you are standing on a sidewalk and you start to feel a breeze. Quickly that breeze becomes a wind. Next you notice that wind getting stronger until it almost knocks you over. In response to almost getting knocked over you grab onto the light pole you are standing next to. That is control. The wind almost knocks you over so you grab the pole to prevent getting hurt by the wind. As you stand there, holding the pole for control in the wind, you start to get hit with debris. First it’s papers, then cardboard, then eventually even metal trash cans start hitting you and there’s nothing you can do about it except hope it stops. That’s what happens when we rely upon control. Adaptability is letting go of the pole and turning to face the wind. Once you do that you are free to jump, dodge, move to the left or move to the right, to avoid the objects as they come at you. Do you see? Adaptability is accepting a situation for what it is then figuring out how to best deal with what comes at you.
Control or Adaptability
COVID-19 has presented us with an unusual situation to say the very least. It’s a strange, strong, wind for sure. The debris hitting us has included quarantine, shortages, social isolation, mixed messages in our media leaving us not knowing what to believe, financial pressures, and so much more. This has been a great example of the stark difference between whether we rely upon control or adaptability to get through difficult times. People and organizations relying upon control are focused on getting things back to the way they used to be. People and organizations relying upon adaptability are accepting the situation for what it is and looking for the best way to handle it and often finding new ways of approaching life they would not have found otherwise.
It doesn’t have to be COVID-19, any difficult situation will offer us this choice. If we choose to rely upon control we will eventually find ourselves limited. If we rely upon adaptability we will not only handle the situation but maneuver through it to find unique solutions we wouldn’t have found had it not happened. Relying upon adaptability will offer us growth. Relying upon control will leave us stuck.