11 Steps To Let Go Of The Need For Control, From A Psychologist
There's a unique type of stress—and exhaustion—that comes with needing to be in control of everything. Maybe you feel pressured by the never-ending drive for "perfection" or you worry that any deviation from your plans or standard approach will create havoc.
It's natural to want some control over life, yet we have to take care not to form a negative, obsessive relationship with control. Our mental, emotional, and physical health suffer when we use our precious energy to over-manage issues that are ultimately meaningless or essentially out of our control.
If you struggle to "let go" even just a little bit, here's how to understand the root cause behind these forces in your life and how to teach yourself to let go of the need for control.
The psychology of the need for control.
Coming from substantial personal and professional experience, I've found that a deep-seated need for control generally stems from a place of deep inner fear of the unknown. I've studied fear closely in my work and explore it thoroughly in my book Joy From Fear, and as far as fears go—no matter how strong, smart, or talented you are—the need to always be in control is a destructive fear that can take hold of your inner world. Whereas constructive fears alert us to an actual threat (such as an intruder or unfriendly dog) and actually keep us safe as we navigate life, destructive fears (such as those that warn us that "everything will not be OK if we aren't perfectly in control of X, Y, and Z") do nothing but erode our overall well-being.
Despite the truth that even the most tightly controlled life can be filled with anthills and hurricanes, our minds work overtime to convince us that the key to a safe, happy life lies in having certainty. Those who subscribe to this belief often over-regulate their internal and external worlds in the quest for safety. Sadly, a toxic cycle occurs when we believe we can—or should—be able to control all of the constantly moving targets that life presents. The more we strive for control, the greater our stress and anxiety grow; then, we respond by trying to control the uncontrollable, and the unproductive cycle continues.
Even when we dot every "i" and cross every "t," we too often wake up thinking, "If only I could control my diet, my work, my kids, my dog, my body, my age, my thoughts, my feelings, my living space, my relationship, my life, grocery prices, gas prices, climate change, politics, and natural disasters, life would be easy… I'd feel so much better."
We often don't have the courage to admit the truth: We have much less control over our lives than we want to believe; we simply can't control the thousands of variables that are part of being human. We are powerless over everything except our own feelings, thoughts, and actions.
But what if acceptance of this powerlessness is the key to healthy balance and empowerment? What if the secret to outwitting the drive for control is to mindfully let go of the illusion of control so that you can breathe?
How to let go of the need for control.
By embracing the 11 steps outlined below, you'll find yourself letting go of the I-need-to-be-in-control-of-everything mindset that has been ruling your world:
Check your roots.
Pause to consider where your drive for control is rooted:
If you discover that issues like these are at the root of your need for control, your awareness will help you make progress. Deep-rooted, unresolved issues often make life's vicissitudes more worrisome—and this can lead to an unconscious drive to generate more control over the present and the future.
Pause to notice your feelings and thoughts.
When you're feeling the urge to over-control some aspect of your life (or another person's life), pause to notice the feelings that are at work. Are you feeling anxious, worried, or fearful? Is anger or sadness at work?
As you learn to nonjudgmentally attend to the feelings that often trigger an urge for control, you won't be at the mercy of your emotional world. For example, if you feel the urge to over-control a trip with friends, notice if you are motivated by anxiety that things might go awry or perhaps a fear of not pleasing everyone. Notice what you are thinking, such as, "If I don't make sure this trip is perfect, my friends won't think I'm on top of everything."
Release your feelings and thoughts.
Once you recognize whatever feeling or feelings are at work, pause to consciously let go of the emotional burden. Take a deep breath, visualize releasing the fear, and replace the fear with a positive image such as a field of lavender, a calm sea, or a precious pet. Also release any negative thoughts; visualize them floating away in a balloon. Replace the negative thought with a positive mantra such as, "I'm going to release my need to try to make things perfect; I'd rather prepare in a balanced way and then go with the flow."
Talk to yourself with humor and TLC.
When you find yourself stuck in a cycle of control, pause to talk to yourself in a kind, reassuring way. Remember, the drive for control often stems from a fear of the unknown and the desire to create certainty, so you'll want to give yourself a dose of TLC rather than shame or blame.
For example, if you find yourself trying to control your partner, simply pause and breathe. Then give yourself a kind comment such as, "Oh, these old habits are hard to shake, but I'm making progress. My partner's just doing things their own way… It's not harmful to me, so I'll just smile and let it be."
Name your inner dictator.
You can add a touch of whimsy to your journey by naming your inner dictator. Whether you dub your inner control freak Maleficent, Golem, Scoundrel, or another meaningful moniker, you'll feel more objective—and more aware—when you notice that your inner dictator has taken hold inside your mind. When your inner dictator is pressuring you to take control in ways that are ultimately destructive to your well-being, simply say, "Hey, X, I see that you're here. You're not helping in this situation, so please exit the stage."
The more you realize that your inner dictator is a small part of you—and a piece that you can control—the more you'll be able to create a healthy balance between constructive and destructive control.
Notice when actual control is possible and when it is constructive.
To be sure, there are times when having control is actually positive and productive. Pause to notice and applaud yourself when your desire for control is actually helpful to the situation. For example, if you're stuck in a work situation where no one is taking charge and you need to step in, congratulate yourself for noticing that you have the skills and ability to manage the situation.
Notice and let go when the pursuit of control is destructive.
As you become practiced at differentiating between constructive and destructive control, allow yourself to mindfully let go of the craving to control. For example, if you find that you're in a battle with your partner to "win" an argument so that you can control the situation, pause to let go. You can even say to your partner, "I'm sorry I was being controlling; I'd rather us find a win-win solution so that we're both satisfied with the outcome."
Release the idea of "perfection."
In our perfectionist world, the drive to control is often deeply rooted in a deep-seated desire for perfection. Learn the art of differentiating between "good enough" and impossible perfection. When perfectionism is the force behind the quest for control, give yourself the gift of pulling back just a notch or two. Your mental and physical health—and your relationships —often benefit when you tone things down. Strive to show yourself true grace by noticing that "good enough" is often truly, fabulously great.
Journal freely and frequently.
As you become accustomed to learning that you have power over your feelings, thoughts, and actions, you'll become more aware of what motivates you to strive for constant control in the external world. Pause to journal about what you notice and the changes you are making over time. The more you reflect on the positive results you are noticing, the more your positive changes will take hold.
Take care to journal in a free, noncritical way that allows you to practice not being in control. To remind yourself to let go of control, make plenty of space for random thoughts, spelling errors, and wild imaginings.
Use your control energy in positive ways.
If you find yourself upset by things you can't control—such as your partner's family or the Supreme Court—strive to not channel your anxiety into unconsciously controlling yourself or others in heavy-handed ways. Instead, channel your energy into positive activities, such as cleaning up litter in your local park, volunteering, or spearheading an upbeat and impactful political activity.
Practice gratitude and acceptance.
As you create a more balanced relationship with your urges for control, you'll find yourself feeling freer and more empowered. You can foster your progress by mindfully practicing gratitude for what you do have control over—your thoughts, feelings, and actions. And by practicing acceptance of what you can't control—such as the actions of others or the rate of inflation—you'll feel more positive and balanced.
When you let go of the myth that you'll be safe when you lead a tightly woven life and work the steps noted above, you'll slowly release your negative relationship with control. Over time, you'll find a sweet balance where you have a healthy relationship with control rather than control having power over you.
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California. With a holistic, body-mind-spirit approach, Manly specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a master's in counseling from Sonoma State University. Manly is also the author of several books, including Joy From Fear, Aging Joyfully, and her latest book Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships & Love Fearlessly.
Blending traditional psychotherapy with alternative mindfulness practices, Manly knows the importance of creating healthy balance, awareness, and positivity in life. Recognizing the need for greater somatic awareness in society, Dr. Manly has integrated components of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga into her private psychotherapy practice and public course offerings. Her psychotherapeutic model offers a highly personalized approach that focuses on discovering and understanding each individual’s unique needs and life-path goals.