How I’m Navigating My Need To Control

The need for control: while we don’t like to admit it, we all have it to one extent or another. It can have such a negative connotation. After all, who wants to be seen as controlling? I doubt any of you raised your hands for that one.

We tend to associate the need to control with a lust for power and maybe even with greed or selfishness, and while some people may actually be trying to control and manipulate things around them for greedy or selfish reasons, most of us don’t consciously have those motivations. It’s also possible that our need to control manifests itself in such subtle ways that we may not even realize we have it, let alone realize how severe it is.

I never thought of myself as a controlling person. In fact, I consider myself to be fairly agreeable. I don’t ask for much from other people and I’m pretty independent, making most everyday decisions on my own and not needing others to constantly accompany me to get things done or give me advice.

However, sometimes I get stressed or overwhelmed with different situations in my life, and I start to panic. When I panic, I need to have everything figured out. My life is scheduled down to every last minute, I need to know what I’m going to eat and what money I’m going to spend in advance, and I’m constantly trying to figure out answers to questions I just don’t know. I always thought this was normal. I like having things planned out because it makes me less anxious about the unknown and it helps me meet deadlines and avoid further stress. 

After reading some books and having some long chats with my therapist about my relationships and other aspects of my life, turns out I have been feeling an intense need to control. All of my efforts to keep myself strict and productive are actually defense mechanisms and different ways to gain control over aspects of my life. Reading this you may be thinking “no shit, Sherlock” but it’s hard to see it when you’re the one displaying these behaviors.

Basically, I found that I need to control my routine, personal space, money, and even (gasp!) other people.

This information shocked me, especially the part about controlling other people. Even when I was little, I was a people-pleaser. I hate disappointing people and I always strive to reach compromises to make everyone happy and make sure everyone has what they want. Little did I know that even these tendencies were subtle ways to control how people felt about me. 

After looking back and examining my behavior more closely, I had even been controlling in my latest romantic relationship without being conscious of it. When things started to go bad, every text message I wrote was carefully worded hoping to either avoid a certain reaction or evoke a certain response. I gave advice and opinions without being asked for them because I thought I knew better. I got upset over certain things and would give my partner basically step-by-step how-to’s of how to avoid having the same fight again. 

I told him exactly what I needed him to say and do. To be fair, he often asked me to tell him these things because he was incapable at arriving at them himself. But guess what? It didn’t work. Telling your partner exactly what to say and do takes the meaning out of it when they actually say and do those things. It’s like having a relationship with yourself, and that’s no fun.

But why? Why did I start trying to control everything, including my boyfriend? It wasn’t because I wanted to feel powerful and I never consciously thought, “I need to control this.” Well, I went into control mode because I felt unsafe. I became anxious and stressed and insecure when my relationship started to go downhill. So, I tried to make myself feel safe again by taking control. If I know what I need and I believe I know how to get it, I’m in control and therefore I’m safe. I am protecting myself. At least, that’s what my subconscious mind thinks.

Even now that the relationship is over, I found that I’m still trying to find ways to get control. I overthink my social media posts, I analyze conversations whether they involve me or not, I write stories in my head that may or may not be true and I guess people’s motivations. I make myself so anxious with all of this guessing and trying to figure things out. This whole time I thought I just wanted knowledge and updates. 

Why did I want that? Because, again, I felt unsafe. And I wanted to disprove every scary story I had written in my head with hard evidence. If I could figure things out enough to prove that I had nothing to worry about, then I would be safe and I could relax. I needed to feel like I had control over something in order to calm my fears.

Clearly, I, like so many of us out there, try to make myself safe emotionally by subtly controlling and manipulating the environment around me, including the people I interact with. Here’s the catch: we don’t actually have control over anything (or anyone) besides ourselves. We can do as much people-pleasing and figuring out as we want, but that won’t change anything. The way people feel about us depends on them, not us. 

This is a hard truth to accept, and some people choose never to accept it. Some people will keep trying to control and manipulate for their entire lives, but they will never truly get what they want or need this way. People do whatever they want regardless of us, unexpected things happen, plans get messed up and life gets crazy. 

People that try to control and manipulate all these factors will only be met with dissatisfaction and pain. And the more they encounter this pain, the more unsafe they feel. The more unsafe they feel, the more control they need. The more control they try to get, the more they fail. And it starts over again. It can turn into a vicious cycle.

It’s a vicious cycle for me that I have decided to break. Up until recently, I didn’t even realize that I had this problem. I wondered why I was so anxious all the time and why I felt so down until I realized that I was constantly trying and failing to control things and people that are out of my control. And so my therapist was able to give me some advice. She gave me a mantra to repeat when I find myself spiraling into the “needing-to-know-things control mode.” She had me write it in my notes on my phone and I am to look at it and repeat it in my head whenever I feel those thoughts coming on. My mantra is “I am powerless over other people.” 

This mantra has worked wonders for me so far. First of all, when I catch those thoughts and I switch into the mantra right away, it interrupts those thoughts so I literally cannot keep concentrating on trying to use my control mechanisms. It makes me much less anxious in the end, because I’m not writing stories and trying to prove myself wrong while I’m repeating this mantra. Second, it mercilessly beats the message I desperately need to learn into my head and will eventually make this lesson into a habit. 

Don’t get me wrong –– it’s difficult to resist the temptation to ditch the mantra for a second and go back to my old ways, but knowing that it will eventually be worth it helps a lot. There are still days when I use the mantra and then directly after I wonder if I missed a crucial piece of information or evidence that could have helped me figure things out. That is okay. This is a learning process and it will be hard for a while. 

Learning that I am powerless over other people will lift a lot of stress off my shoulders. I won’t have to worry about how what I’m doing might affect their actions towards me and I won’t feel responsible for their emotions (which ultimately will mean less guilt for me). It will also impact the quality of my relationships.

If I stop trying to control other people and just allow them to be themselves, I lift the weight of my expectations and judgments off of them, so they walk away a little bit lighter, too.

So really, everyone benefits and everyone will be happier if I can make this change in myself. 

Not sure if you have this problem? A good place to start would be a bit of self-reflection. Ask yourself some serious questions and answer honestly.

  • What are my common behavior patterns?
  • How do I respond when I’m stressed or overwhelmed?
  • What might be the underlying motivations behind my actions?
  • How do I want people to see me and how do I try to achieve that through my actions?
  • Do I feel unsafe? 

It can be scary to realize these things if this is a problem you’re having, but most of us are like this to some degree or another. We’re not alone in this and we can support each other while we try to break our controlling habits, whatever they may be, and if we can achieve it, our relationships with ourselves and with other people will improve astronomically.

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