The Control Crisis
Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of the advice “Just let it go!” or “There’s nothing you can do about it, so why worry?” How difficult is that to hear!? This is especially true if you’re a proactive person who is good at thinking through different scenarios. Shouldn’t you do everything you can to avoid possible problems, or have things go the way you want them to?
So when people tell you to back off, you might start to wonder; “Don’t they understand what I’m going through?” Maybe you even start to think, “There must be something more I can do.” You probably notice worry, anxiety, and stress start to build, as you rattle over your different options, accounting for all the unknown variables.
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Control
I commonly hear folks discuss intense worry and distress because of circumstances we can’t control ranging from that friend who just won’t take your helpful advice to family members who don’t respect your boundaries. We are constantly being confronted with unpleasant situations that we often have little to no control over. This is especially true in relationships. What do we do with the anxiety this produces?
First, you might start to notice the paradox that takes place: we attempt to control circumstances to alleviate anxiety or stress, but in holding onto control (especially when we try to control what we have no power over) it only serves to increase anxiety and stress.THEN to compound the situation, the circumstances we most deeply desire to control are usually the ones we can’t! What a mess! [More on this: Are You Stuck in a Codependent Relationship?]
Well, here’s the good news: First, you’re not alone and secondly, there are some things you can do about it! I want to share with you three quick tips to let go of control (and in letting go of control, you may actually start to feel more in control… I know it sounds crazy).
How to Let Go Of Things You Can’t Control
Tip 1: Identify Situations Where You Have Control… and Where You Don’t
The What: An easy rule of thumb is: you are in control of yourself. It may also be helpful to create the distinction between what you can control and what you may be able to impact.
For example, you can’t control if your coworker is willing to be a team player, but you may be able to impact this behavior by voicing your needs (i.e. you are in control of how you want to respond and how you want to manage the stress your coworker’s behavior causes you). [More about Emotional Intelligence in the workplace].
The How: You might try doing a check-in with yourself when you notice stress is on the rise. Ask yourself what am I in control of right now? I sometimes encourage folks to actually write out an exhaustive list of their concerns and go through each item and identify what they can control. Once you identify the “uncontrollables,” you can start to practice the next tip!
Tip 2: Give Yourself Permission to Let Go
The What: Sometimes we feel worrying is one way we can control for the uncontrollable. (As in, “If I worry about it enough, I’ll be prepared,” or “Worrying is better than doing nothing.”) Instead of churning in worry, try giving yourself permission to let go. Let go of the need to hold on to the unknown. Remind yourself that you will know what to do if a crisis arises. Trust yourself. You’ve got this! Even in moments where that feels impossible.
The How: Try reciting mantras such as:
“It’s okay for me to let this go.”
“I don’t need to hold onto this.”
“I have done everything I can do.”
You can also ask a loved one for support with this. Sometimes we might need reassurance, that we have indeed, done everything we can do, until we’re able to provide this reassurance to ourselves.
Tip 3: Radical Acceptance
The What: When we are unable to reframe or change the experience, we may need to rely on radical acceptance. This concept tells us there may be times we need to accept circumstances that we don’t like. (I know, yuck!).
The key with this is knowing that acceptance does not mean approval or giving up. Simply put, it means we can see the circumstances for what they are. In doing this; we reduce the suffering we experience. (I get that this sounds counterintuitive).
The How: Try slowing down (for example: deep breathing) and creating room for the reality of the situation to exist as well as the idea that accepting that situation is uncomfortable (there’s room for both of these things to exist).
Think of it this way: If you’re stuck in traffic maybe you start to feel angry, and you notice yourself questioning “Why isn’t that car moving!?” Or perhaps you try switching lanes or honking. You might notice your pulse is quickening and the frustration is surging through you.
OR if you embrace Radical Acceptance you could try saying to yourself, “I’m doing everything I can do, I can’t control the car in front of me, and I’m stuck in traffic right now and that stinks.”
Which experience results in less emotional stress? (Pssst…it’s the one where we accept what is, while simultaneously acknowledging it’s not enjoyable).
Managing Anxiety + Releasing Control = Inner Peace
The key with all of these tips is to practice, practice, practice and go slow. It can be incredibly challenging to let go, especially in situations that aren’t comfortable. Take your time, and give yourself credit for what you’re already doing. I hope through using these strategies you may find yourself regaining control by relinquishing it.
Remember- everyone is doing the best they can in the moment (this includes you!).
All the best,
Rachel Harder, M.A., LMFT-C