I’m a control freak.
How does that phrase land with you? If you’re like me, you probably immediately reject this and think about someone in your life that is waaaay more controlling than you are. But stay with yourself for a minute.
Do you ever wish away the weather when you wake up? “Damn, I wish it wasn’t raining.” “Why can’t it be warmer.” This is a small example of a much larger issue: we all tend to control situations beyond our sphere of influence.
I’m learning that my unwillingness to get honest about my relationship with control strips me of precious energy and negatively impacts my mental and relational health. This reflection will explore a robust framework for noticing when that natural urge to control shows up. And when/if control is “healthy.” First, a brief story:
Control in Relationships
During the pandemic’s peak, my four brothers and I all lived together in the same house for the first time in eleven years. Some days it was chaos; others, a laugh track of old memories and mindless humor.
Spending intimate time with people who knew me so well exposed things I didn’t know existed. The patient, chill Henry, I saw myself as was suddenly replaced with new triggers and a struggle to stay grounded.
With quarantine extended for another month, my brothers and I needed to get out of the house. We walked to a nearby park and lay together, laughing and contemplating life for hours. For whatever reason, I felt a strong internal compass inviting me to remain silent for the entirety of our experience together. This silence invited me to reflect deeply on how I see (or don’t see) each of them. Here’s what I noticed:
In each moment, there exists a temptation to exert control. A deceptive allure to make my needs and desires superior over all else.
This temptation leads me to force my voice into a conversation and give my opinion without prompting. It tells me to judge a person walking down the street. This control sounds like complaining that it’s not a sunny day, manipulating a situation to my benefit, or making someone feel inadequate or undervalued. So how can we catch ourselves before we fall down the rabbit hole of “unhealthy” control?
Laying on that bed of clovers surrounded by my brothers, I experienced what it felt like to release a sense of control that I didn’t even realize I was exerting. Tears swelled in my eyes as I encountered these people I knew so well in a radically new light.
My unconscious need to exert control at any given moment blinded me from seeing and fully loving my favorite people. I kept my gaze soft and observed each of them wandering to themselves. I held silent, avoiding the urge to belt out an apology.
At that moment, a prayer struck me, and it may be one that you’re familiar with.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”Serenity Prayer
This prayerful call suddenly struck me in a new way. I never saw myself as controlling, so I blatantly missed the point. Control is a basic human instinct. It grows out of our need to survive, feel significant, and experience love.
Control is a force that I’m constantly battling, just not always aware of where it shows up. The distinction between “healthy” control vs “unhealthy” control isn’t always clear. But I’m finding that it hinges on an awareness of our influence.
Let me say it like this. The same controlling instinct that led me to put deodorant on this morning can also lead into a my way or the highway mentality. The practice is in understanding how to harness control in ways that are in service or our higher call.
Covey’s Circle Of Influence:
Covey’s Circle Of Influence is a helpful model for considering the things we can control and the things we can’t. These three circles form the whole and provide a critical perspective into “healthy control.” The first circle is the things we have direct control over. For instance, I just got into a spit about finances with my partner. I didn’t feel good about how the conversation went down. We’ll use this example to work through the framework:
Things I can control:
I’m in control over how I communicate with my partner moving forward, apologizing for how I reacted to her question and improving in those conversations in the future. I can also be more intentional and careful with spending decisions.
Things I can influence:
I can take direct action toward generating more financial freedom and saving for the future. I can also gently ask my partner to consider her approach, which may influence how she handles these conversations moving forward.
Things I can’t control or influence:
I have no control over whether or not my actions lead to actual cash flow. I have no control over what unexpected expenses may arise in the next few months. I can’t control if my landlord raises rent or if I break my leg walking to the coffee shop tomorrow.
I believe our energy is sacred, and it can be challenging to restock. When we exert ourselves on things outside circle (things out of our control), we will burn out and fall into the deception of control that can spiral us into anxiety and depression. When we focus our energy on the first circle (things I can control), we sustain our energy. We can walk with lightness and greater freedom.
When we flex control outside of our sphere of influence, we spend precious resources on things that we have no real influence over. For me, it took admitting that I have a tendency to control situations to see how damaging this urge really was. Since my experience in the park, my relationships with my brothers have gradually strengthened. I’m now more likely to catch myself when tempted by unhealthy control. I’m in the practice of seeing the people I love, accepting them where they’re at – without the urge to change or control. I wish it was simple, but that urge is strong and forceful.
Think back to the weather if you want a simple way to practice this awareness. When you notice yourself wishing for a different day (no rain, warmer, too bright outside, etc.), try and catch yourself. Shift towards a moment of acceptance and gratitude for what is. This practice will help you see this temptation in other areas. Life’s too short to waste time giving our energy to something we have no control over. What good is the sunshine without a bit of rain? Be good out there.
In gratitude and love,