Have you ever been accused of being a control freak? Maybe you pride yourself on your meticulous attention to detail and methodical approach to tasks. It’s a term we use to describe people who like things done a certain way, who prefer planned over impromptu and aren’t very comfortable with chaos. At work, it might come across as micro-managing; on holidays, it’s preferring a detailed itinerary rather than winging it; and at home perhaps it’s insisting on household tasks being done a particular way.
Sometimes those qualities are great assets. There are times in life when consistency is required and you can’t afford to go with the flow. But needing too much control can have its downsides (much like perfectionism also has a dark side). We exert control as a way to create more certainty, in order to reduce the discomfort of uncertainty. Of course, life is inherently uncertain. There are rarely, if ever, guarantees. Oftentimes, it’s when life feels particularly chaotic that taking charge of things you can control soothes the feelings of helplessness created by an uncertain future.
Growing up in a chaotic home or family environment can lead to a higher need for control later in life. Whether it’s rigid food rules, alphabetised pantry shelves or an unwillingness to delegate, there are many ways people attempt to control their environments; but lurking beneath all those control tendencies, there is often anxiety, fear and vulnerability. Control is used as a solution but when it goes too far, it becomes a problem. Often what we need is not more control but an increased capacity for flexibility; that is, to not be wound up quite so tightly. If your peace of mind is contingent on things always going exactly to plan, you will only ever have the most tenuous grasp on happiness.
If you know you’re a control freak and feel like it would benefit you and the people around you to let go of the reins a little, there are a few steps you can take that might help you with letting go:
1. Shift your focus
Being a control freak is attempting to manage your outer world to soothe your inner world. That’s called primary control. Secondary control is more focused on managing your internal response to your outer world – so basically managing your own thoughts and feelings about the uncertainty around you. Not only is it a more realistic goal since it is actually within your control, but it’s been proven to increase wellbeing. Taking deep breaths, choosing to let go of the small stuff and increasing your capacity to tolerate discomfort are all ways you can manage your need for control.
2. Consider the consequences
While you are focusing on making yourself feel better by micro-managing the world around you, often you’re creating stress for other people who can’t relax until everything is perfect for you. If you continually re-do other people’s work or refuse to delegate, you send a message to people that you don’t think they’re competent and that you don’t trust them. If you’re doing it with your kids, this is probably not the message you want them to absorb. Not to mention the personal consequences to you because the more you try to control things, the more things there are to control. Contrary to what you may think, control doesn’t reduce anxiety but reinforces it.
3. Delegate… whether you like it or not
If your partner doesn’t fold the towels the way you’d like, resist the urge to complain or re-fold them and watch how no-one dies. Start taking opportunities to delegate tasks either at work or at home even if things aren’t done exactly how you’d like. Remind yourself that your relationship with other people and your own wellbeing will benefit from you learning to relax your standards and let go.
P.S. One of the best ways I know to learn to manage your inner world is through learning and practicing mindfulness. I know I bang on and on about it but that’s because I have seen first hand the difference it makes in people’s lives, not to mention all the research that now demonstrates its effectiveness in reducing symptoms of anxiety, stress and even depression. To find out more about my online mindfulness course, Mindfulness for Busy People, click HERE.