Does panic set in when a friend asks to meet you at a different restaurant for lunch? Do you suffer a mini-meltdown when the coffee shop runs out of your favorite hybrid pastry? Does your life flash before your eyes when faced with a group project? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may want to ask yourself if you have trouble letting go of control.
Throughout my life, I’ve spent a lot of time planning and re-planning events big and small. I meticulously scripted the clothes people would wear, the conversations I would have, and the day’s events down to the most trivial details. Of course, I knew that I had no control over what other people wore, ate, or said, but that knowledge didn’t stop my brain from trying to control them in my mind.
Control is not always a bad thing. In fact, controlling our actions, reactions, and impulses are good, and even necessary, abilities to have. But feeling like you must control everything and everyone can lead to conflict and unhealthy patterns of behavior. For example, an old roommate and I went to lunch one spring afternoon. I shared some thoughts with her about a guy I was interested in; when she offered a different point of view, I got really upset. Instead of understanding where she was coming from, I got angry and defensive. We fought and eventually, as a result, our friendship ended. That incident caused me to reexamine my expectations of others, try to ditch the unrealistic ones, and give grace to those who didn’t always behave how I believed they should.
To combat the compulsive need for control, it’s important to first acknowledge that everything is not in your control. In fact, most things aren’t. And that’s okay. Adopting this new way of looking at the world won’t happen overnight. But there are some steps you can take to help get you to a more balanced place.
Look at the things you are trying to control.
Ask yourself: “Is this a life or death situation, something with really severe consequences?” A more serious example could be getting control of your friend’s car keys when they’ve been drinking and shouldn’t drive home. Maybe it’s calling for the school district to implement changes if children are being bullied. Or maybe, like in my case, you decide to exercise self-control by choosing healthier foods in order to combat hereditary health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
On the other hand, the matter could be more of an inconvenience. Like that pastry you missed out on at the coffee shop? This would be an instance where you might say, “That’s too bad. I like their cronuts, but I’ll survive without one,” rather than yell at the barista, demanding a pastry with your soy double caramel flat macchiato. It was in those small, seemingly simple moments when I practiced self-control that I saw tremendous change in my overall health and my quality of life.
Understand that you cannot control other people.
Situations like the one I had with my former roommate are common. Many disagreements between loved ones often occur because one person just won’t do what the other wants them to do. People don’t always do what we think is right or good for them. It may be painful to watch others make decisions we don’t agree with, but it’s also painful to experience stress and strain in our relationships, especially when so many of our battles are over things that don’t matter in the big picture.
If you take a moment to reflect on some of the conflicts you’ve had in your life, you’ll probably realize, as I did, that yelling, screaming, and arguing rarely changes the other person’s mind or behavior. We make very little progress, but we waste a lot of time and spend a lot of emotional and mental energy trying to force someone to think and act the way we want them to. But channeling all of that time and energy into learning how to accept what you cannot change and make the best of the things you can can go a long way in maintaining the peace and success of your relationships.
Learning to go with the flow was not easy at first. I would even call it a little bit scary. But as I became more comfortable with allowing parts of life to happen without trying to control the uncontrollable, I discovered a lot of unexpected benefits, whether it’s the fun of an impromptu date night, an encouraging chat with a friendly stranger, or even a job opportunity. But you’ll never know until you stop trying to control life and start to enjoy it.
Originally published on January 29, 2019.