I’m discussing the idea of control. For example, controlling ourselves, our social scene, romantic life, work issues and money.

There are several common variations of what we call Control. They differ sharply in meaning though each is intended for the same use. When we use the word Control about our lives it resembles one of these descriptions:

Dynamic or Responsive Control: The healthiest and happiest, also the least like the conventional meaning of control. This is a person who responds to life’s problems like a good tennis player responds to the match: Her moves are alert, timely, and proportional. She handles each problem as well as she can and doesn’t get distracted by grief over missing one or waste energy chasing a ball she could never catch.  This person has confidence in themselves and knows that spontaneously handling everything as it comes to you is the only way to win. This style accepts incoming serves without protest as the core of the game, in other words as a basic truth about life.

The negative alternative is Anxious Control: There are several substyles to the spectrum of Anxious Control:

  1. Tense-Jumpy-Irritable Anxious Control – This style is stressed out just under the surface at all times. Problems scare them into hypervigilance and this generates “false positive” problems. Sadly this means they experience way more problems than people who aren’t on such high alert.  Their moves are nervously alert, premature, and disproportionate on the “too big” side. They lack confidence in themselves and each problem costs them deeper emotional stress than necessary. Their response to incoming serves is bitter/resentful. “I knew it!” Oddly, they don’t put much focus on improving life in ways would generate fewer problems.
  2. Big Picture Prudence Anxious Control – The main difference between this one and the previous is time and space. BPP takes the long and global view of potential trouble. It embraces systems of avoiding and minimizing problems.  None of that is pathological in itself, it shows good sense if it is in balance. The negative imbalance appears when fear and dread are the motivators and try to control EVERYTHING. Their moves are suspiciously alert, their timing is preemptive, and they are disproportionately risk-averse. There is a fundamentally negative world view with a dislike/distrust of anything that they cannot control. At the extreme end, this style avoids love, growth, and change. Their response to incoming serves is to manage them remotely or avoid them entirely.
  3. Helpless, Fatalistic Anxious Control – Utterly lacking confidence in themselves this style expects failure and allows it to happen through passivity and by telling themselves it doesn’t matter anyway. They grieve over their weakness but can’t find any way to address it. They avoid many problems by not trying or risking. They don’t bet on themselves. This approach can be global or limited/specialized to areas like love or work. Some, for example, might be highly accomplished in their career and helpless/fatalistic toward ever being loved. Their approach to incoming serves is wistful and sad as they passively let them go by. More rarely they take a feeble swing fully expecting failure.

The reason we use the same word for such different things is that our definition of Control arises from our relationship to the idea of control. It is subjective in a way that is much harder to see in ourselves than our subjective preferences in art, music or clothing. Our notion of control has roots in our life before memory. It comes from deep body and mind levels of anxiety, of trust; of confidence or helplessness. Many of these factors come with our family physiology, attitudes, and traumas. These elements are inheritable and of course, reinforced by growing up surrounded by similar people. Life experience certainly shapes it but not as much as things we were born with. Our experience of these things is literally incomparable because we have never lived a moment without them. Internally they are in the same camp as gravity, blue sky, and green grass. It is so hard to change because we struggle to even imagine a different way, let alone find the personal agency to choose it and follow it.

This is the reason that a shock or disaster is so often the starting point for personal growth. At these moments when your “camera” falls over, changing the focus, maybe even cracking the lens, we briefly see things differently. In these times our sense of self is rattled and our own behavior can be seen as a choice we have always made rather than fate. If we fear change more than we want it, we turn away from choice and wait for reality to return us to our old familiar story. It may be shitty, but it feels like home.

I’m not diminishing the challenge here and timing plays a big part. We have to be truly fed up and done, often for a long time before we escape through the door opened by tragedy rather than shrink from it. Finally, our relationship to control affects this timing. The more controlling we are, the harder we have to shatter before embracing a release from ourselves.

When we grasp that window for change we usually hit our control style head-on because the tragedy that shocked us awake was the collapse of a fragile tower built entirely out of our control style. Perhaps we perpetually scrambled to control other people only to realize at the collapse of our tower that we simply cannot. It is impossible. This realization eventually comes to point back at ourselves, the one person we theoretically control and we feel naked, defeated and humiliated. This is the moment of choice. Deny change or go with it? Think of what it would say about your life that if the whole thing was revealed as an embarrassing failure your instinct would be to cover that up and rebuild it just as it was. The most critical thing for us to recognize about this failure is that we are not being asked to relinquish control of our lives! Our job is to relinquish the illusion of control. Hard as it is to accept failure, if we do, the incredible gift of this moment still shines: We have a chance at a new start.

We enter that new start unsteady as toddlers, unaccustomed to this weird (as it feels) way of moving through the world. The naked defeated and humiliated feeling was experienced by the version of you that was defending your mistakes to the very last, asserting your dignity in the ragged clothes of failure. As we release all that, the feeling changes to Honesty, Optimism, and Humbleness.

Exhilarating freedom fills us as we set off on our new path.