Let’s Talk About… Control

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 48 and this week I’m talking about control – I’ll be discussing what control is and why we crave it, the impact that effectively managing your need for control can have on your overall wellbeing, and how to manage the need for control on a day-to-day basis in order to improve your mental health. So, let’s talk about mental health!

This is the second in a series of four episodes about the foundations of good mental health and this week is all about control, so let’s get talking!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Very quickly: A huge thank you to all of your who reached out to me to say ‘happy anniversary’ for the one-year anniversary of Let’s Talk About Mental Health, which was just celebrated on the 7th of October; it’s much appreciated, and I’m looking forward to the next year! 

FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
  • Most of what goes on in life is out of our control, and so the challenge for each of us is to take the time to process what’s going on around us so we can respond thoughtfully and keep ourselves moving forward.
  • We do that by focusing on what is within our control: our words, our actions and our feelings.
  • Often we crave control because feeling like we’re at the mercy of external events or other people can trigger fears like insecurity, anxiety, helplessness and vulnerability.
  • Having a healthy attitude towards control involves is being completely clear about what it is possible to control versus what it is not possible to control.
  • If you try to control things or people that are out of your control then you cause yourself pain and suffering (not to mention what you are inflicting on other people).

Introduction

In Janet Jackson’s song from 1986, ‘Control’, she sang; “When it has to do with my life, I wanna be the one in control…”

Now, completely ignoring the fact that half of the songs I reference in this podcast are older than more than 70% of you listening according to my listener statistics (!), I’d say that Janet was talking about something that’s pretty common to all of us: the desire to be in control of our own lives.

This year has been a particularly challenging one for feeling in control, and it does feel a little bit as though every time we adapt to a new set of challenges and then the posts are moved and we have to adapt all over again. It’s exhausting and I’ll admit I’ve been feeling really tired this week with everything going on in the world and at home. But that’s the thing about control: most of what goes on in life is out of our control, and so the challenge for each of us is to take the time to process what’s going on around us so we can respond thoughtfully and keep ourselves moving forward by focusing on what is within our control; our words, our actions and our feelings. And so that’s what we’re exploring today — the role of control, and our responses to what is out of our control, in good mental health and wellbeing. Let’s start with some definitions…

What is ‘control’?

Control has many different meanings, depending on internal versus external factors. ‘Internal control’ refers to feeling that you’re able to direct the course of your own destiny as well as your ability to regulate your own emotions and behaviours, whereas ‘external control’ refers to your interactions with others and the broader world around you, such as having the power to direct or influence events or even people’s behaviour (which I have a lot to say about throughout this episode, but more on that later…).

I’ve mentioned quite a few times that in my past I worked in the corporate sector in management, and it’s quite funny because a lot of the definitions of ‘control’ revolve around the business world (such as supervision and directing staff to perform certain actions) and I know first-hand just how difficult it can be to walk the very fine line between being in control and being a control freak — I found it difficult as a manager not to fall into the trap of micromanagement because I do like things the way I like them (my poor partner has to put up with a lot!). The challenge for each of us (especially if you’re prone to a bit of control-freak behaviour every now and then!) is to be conscious of finding the right balance between being in control versus being controlling

Why do we crave control? Because feeling like we’re at the mercy of events or other people can trigger fears like insecurity, anxiety, helplessness and vulnerability. For some of us it can be rooted in things that happened to us as children — for example, it took me many years to learn how to get past the sense of abandonment that I felt after my father left when I was just seven years old (after which I rarely ever saw him and certainly didn’t have any real connection with him); something which caused a lot of damage in my teenage and adult years when I used alcohol to mask my pain for many years and had a lot of deep-seated insecurities that caused me to become very controlling both at work and at home. 

For a lot of us, a lot of that stuff comes back to fear and rejection — for most of us humans we just want to be loved and accepted, and so we can find ourselves dealing with control issues when we’re in triggering situations (or even more frequently, if we’re not fully aware of what we’re doing or if we just decide to prioritise our own needs above anyone else’s — I think I’ve made my feelings quite clear on the damage that can be done to all of us by people with this strong sense of entitlement and self-importance who demand to be in control, but anyway that’s a whole other story…). My point is that for a lot of people, it does come back to that core of fear of rejection. 

Let’s talk about ‘control issues’ for a minute. According to GoodTherapy, there are a number of common indicators of control issues (and I’m going to quote directly here):

“There are myriad ways in which people might attempt to control their environment, themselves, or others. People exert power over others in intimate relationships, workplace settings, families, and other social groups.

Examples of exerting control over others:

  • Micromanagement
  • Keeping a person from seeing or talking to loved ones or friends
  • Gaslighting
  • Dishonesty
  • Over-protective or helicopter parenting
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, bullying, or taunting

Examples of controlling self or environment:

  • Disordered eating
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive arranging, tidying, or cleaning

Someone who struggles with a need for control may experience shame, anxiety, stress, depression, and a host of other mental health concerns.”

Source: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/control-issues 

In terms of mental health, being a ‘control-freak’ isn’t specifically a personality disorder however many disorders are characterised by controlling tendencies (such as borderline personality disorder, narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoid personality disorder etc). Sometimes a desire for control can manifest when you’re in a particularly difficult state; I remember when I was dealing with the height of my own anxiety and depression, my therapist actually pointed out to me that I was doing things where I would be [for example] using the squeegee on the glass in the shower to clean straight after a shower but it was a set number of times so I was counting those things, and as the therapist pointed out to me that’s a manifestation of feeling out-of-control and trying to find some control… so there’s lots of different ways that it can manifest itself.

Next, let’s talk about…

Why is a healthy attitude towards ‘control’ important for good mental health?

You’ll notice I used the term ‘healthy attitude’ and I did so because feeling like you’re in control is a good thing (and it’s certainly far better than feeling out-of-control!), but what that involves is being completely clear about what it is possible to control versus what it is not possible to control. 

You can control yourself — your words, your actions and your feelings — but that’s about it; you cannot directly control another person (no matter how hard you may try) and you cannot directly control what happens in the wider world around you — you can only respond to it. You can certainly influence people and events, which is ‘indirect control’ (in other words, what actually happens is still out of your control but you can potentially nudge it or them towards a particular path or outcome, but the final result is never in your control). 

Think about your parents [or guardian(s)] for example: they provide you with a set of guidelines and expectations, but the final responsibility for every action you’ve ever taken lies with you and no amount of your parents trying to control what you do or say (or don’t do or don’t say) would ever have worked (which is often why most parents of teenagers end up with a strong desire to tear their hair out from frustration). 

Continuing on from that example, the same is true in reverse: you can try to influence what your parents [or guardian(s)] do or say, but the final choices are made by them because they are the only ones who can control their own words, actions and feelings. Make sense? 

We often have a sense of being out of control for two reasons: (1) things are happening to us or around us that we’re not in full control of, or (2) we’re trying to control something or someone we have no direct control over (and sometimes it’s both 1 and 2 at the same time!). Think about your relationships with the closest people in your life: your partner, your family and your closest friends. When things are going well and everyone is in harmony, it’s great! But when there’s a disconnect or issues with one another, it can be torture (especially when you’re trying to get them to see your point of view and they just will not budge!). These sorts of things can trigger feelings of anger, frustration, fear, stress, hurt, anxiety, loneliness and even grief, and so if we let issues fester or if we persist with trying to be in control of something we cannot ever hope to be in control of then we end up creating bigger issues around us and also within ourselves. The challenge is to be clear about what is within our control and manage that effectively, while also learning how to accept the things that are outside of our control and let go. How do you do that? Well, I’m glad you asked…!

How to manage our need for (and our attitude towards) control 

Like most things that I talk about in this podcast, this stuff begins with your mindset; considering that last month was Mindset Month here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health, I’m spending a lot of time talking about ‘mindset’ again this month! But you know what, it really is such a fundamental part of good mental health and it’s something I cover over and over again because I think we all know that just because we hear these things once or twice, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we then turn that into something we apply to our lives day-in and day-out. 

So first start by reflecting on your mindset in relation to control. What is your relationship to the idea of control? Are you a controlling person? Do you allow yourself to be controlled by others? (In which case you might find Episode 45: Let’s Talk About… Assertiveness to be particularly helpful…) Do you struggle when it comes to letting go of things outside of your control, or do you have the ability to focus on what you can control while being pragmatic about the stuff that is outside of your direct control? Any journey begins with being clear about where you are today, so it’s important to be really honest with yourself so you can have a clear picture of your current reality and start working out where you want to head towards in the future.

Next, dig a bit deeper into your mindset around control. Consider each of these statements and answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’:

  1. I am in direct control of my own words, actions and feelings
  2. I have direct control over what I do in my life
  3. I accept that I cannot directly control other people
  4. I accept that I cannot directly control the things that go on in the world
  5. I am able to influence other people and events, however the final outcome is still out of my hands

If you answered ‘yes’ to all five of these, then you’ve got a pretty solid handle on this control business. If you answered ‘no’ to any or all of them (or if you struggled to fully answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’) then you have an opportunity to do some work on how you approach the idea of control; focus on the specific question or questions you answered ‘no’ to and take some time to understand why you feel that way — for example, if you answered ‘no’ to the statement ‘I accept that I cannot directly control other people’, then what led you to answer that way? Deep down you have to know that it’s not possible to control other people, no matter how hard you try, without resorting to emotionally abusive behaviours like dishonesty or manipulating people to question their own sanity (known as ‘gaslighting’)… and if you don’t believe me, just think back to how well previous attempts by other people to control you have worked out. No judgements here; this is just about being honest with yourself about where you are today. Sometimes we might have these beliefs but we’ve never actually stopped to think about why we have those beliefs, so this is a really good opportunity to go back and think about it. It could also be that your ego is refusing to let go of the idea of you being in full control, and if that’s the case… okay! Again, no judgement — it’s just about knowing where you are today.

Once you’ve worked through that part, challenge the need for control in all things. This bit will apply for some of you and not others, so I’m not suggesting everyone feels this way, but I know that for myself I can often want things done a particular way or I want to feel like I’m in full control of everything especially if I’m having difficulties with my anxiety, but when you pursue control in all things you tend to piss people off which creates more issues. I mentioned earlier that I had a bit of a tendency towards micromanagement sometimes in my previous career and that was particularly bad just before my breakdown in late 2011, because I was trying to create some sense of order in all the chaos that was going on around me and within me… but as you can imagine, that really alienated people and made things worse. My desire for control rarely ever made things better, and so the only thing left to do was reconsider my need for control. There’s a middle ground to be found in nearly everything and sometimes we need to reach a compromise or accept that things may not look and feel exactly the way we want them to, and that’s totally okay. 

Remember that relationships are about balance rather than control. In a healthy relationship, both of you are in control… but at the same time, neither of you are. This applies to all types of healthy relationships — partner, family, friends — and it even extends to work relationships. A healthy relationship involves give and take. Let me read a quote from Strategic Psychology which I think explains this point perfectly: 

“You shouldn’t feel powerless in your relationship, but you are also not… in command. Arguments and disagreements will happen. It is natural. Successful and happy relationships are defined by how you navigate your way through conflict.”  

Source: Strategic Psychology https://strategicpsychology.com.au/letting-go-of-control-in-relationships/

Next, build and maintain trust. A lot of control issues are more about trust than they are about control. As a manager, most people I found myself micromanaging were the ones I didn’t trust completely to do the job required or to do it to the required standard, and so in that sort of case it’s important to dig in to the trust bit and focus on building trust (which is proactive) rather than becoming controlling (which is reactive). Things will not change for the better if you don’t take the time to nurture them, and trust is something that is built over time and it’s fundamental… and it takes work (FYI I’ll be covering ‘trust’ next month in more detail).

Next, be open to different opinions and perspectives. We are all individuals and we each have our own unique way of looking at the world, and so when we focus too much on why people see things differently to the way we do we can end up becoming controlling to the point of alienating people. Don’t force your perspectives on others and remember that if it isn’t harming anyone then be kind and just let other people get on with their lives — while we’re on the subject, what people do in the privacy of their own homes and with their own lives is up to them, not you, so mind your own business. And on a related note, remember that nobody is ever going to agree with you 100% of the time. Speaking of… (my next point is)

Be flexible. Not only will people not agree with you 100% of the time, they will not do what you want them to 100% of the time either. This isn’t my opinion; this is just a fact of life. If you expect the entire world to bow to your needs and wants then you’re in for a series of very rude shocks when you start pissing people off left, right and centre. You see it when you’re out at the shop and someone is kicking up a stink because they have to wait in line for a few minutes, or when you’re at a restaurant and someone demands to speak to the manager because the dish they want isn’t available. You cannot have things your way all the time and if you want to get along with people then you need to be flexible and be willing to compromise, and be willing to let go of a little bit of control every now and then.

Put things into context. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I’m going to say it anyway: ask yourself if whatever it is will really matter in five years. Because most of it just won’t. When I think about things from five years ago, it’s the big events and the people I care about that I remember and not the little details of who won what argument or how something was done or what happened at the shop that one time. We get so hung up on the little details and often it can all feel incredibly important and dramatic in the moment, but when the heat of emotion has simmered down and once time has passed often we can’t even remember what it was that we were so fired up about in the first place, so put things into perspective in terms of the bigger picture of what really matters. Which brings me to my next point… 

Prioritise. This is where the ‘commonsense approach to control’ bit comes in that I mentioned at the start of the episode. When it comes to wanting to be in control, you need to work out what’s more important to you: being in control/being right, or continuing with the relationship/situation. Let me explain. I’ve been with my partner for a very long time and even though I’d love to always get my way with things, that’s a recipe for separation. Instead I have to ask myself what’s more important: getting my own way or maintaining my relationship, and so because my relationship is more important to me I’m then able to prioritise and focus on compromising rather than being inflexible. Everything we do, say and feel is a choice and it’s no different when it comes to the desire to be in control; just remember, you can be in control and be flexible, it’s not an either/or proposition; you’re not losing if you’re flexible! Which leads to…

Practice self-awareness. Sometimes we do and say things without thinking, and when we do that we can wind up creating outcomes that are less-than-ideal (which is a polite way of saying ‘crap’). It’s important to be yourself and be completely authentic, but you can do that in a way that is thoughtful and also respectful of others. Monitor your words, actions and feelings and if you’re faced with control issues then take some time to consider what the appropriate next course of action might be in terms of doing no harm, being kind, and giving more than you take. If you know that particular people or situations trigger you, do something about it: change the nature of the relationship or your involvement with the situation/person. For example, if I feel triggered by another person’s actions then I will address it with them (several times if it continues) in order to influence it if possible, and then if there’s no sustained change then it’s up to me to change the situation by distancing myself or letting go — I used to give people 50,000 chances but eventually I realised that my peace of mind was just more important than putting up with shit, so distancing myself has become quite an effective means of self-care. Speaking of…

Remember to practice self-care. If you’re craving control or just feeling out of control, or even feeling as if you have no control at all, pause and take a few deep breaths then make some time for self-care, whether that’s a cup of coffee or tea, taking a walk or whatever healthy option works for you. And don’t just do this when you’re faced with challenges; self-care is important all the time because as I often say ‘prevention is better than cure’. You’ll find specific advice for self-care in Episode 6 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health, so check that out.

And finally, if you’re struggling with control issues or feeling out of control, get support from a counsellor or therapist. I know I say it every episode but there’s a good reason for that which is that you don’t have to deal with this stuff on your own and nor should you; the advantage of working through things with a trained professional is that they can provide you with a more objective viewpoint and they can help you to see things you might not have thought of (while also helping you to find solutions that work for you). It can take time to find someone you feel comfortable talking with and once you do then it will also take more time to work through things (it doesn’t just happen in one or two sessions), but you’ll find that professional support helps you to look at things from different angles and to identify new ways of addressing challenges as well as building on your strengths — all of which then helps you to be more comfortable with accepting what is within your control and letting go of things that are outside of your control.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to control and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: all that you have direct control over is yourself; your words, your actions and your feelings. You can choose the words that come out of your mouth, you can choose what you do, and you can choose what you feel… but for everything else you can only hope to influence it if you’re lucky (and for most things, it’s out of your control). If you try to control things or people that are out of your control then you cause yourself pain and suffering (not to mention what you are inflicting on other people), and life is too valuable to spend it feeling shitty. Your words, your actions and your feelings are the most valuable things in your life because it is through them that you can shape your destiny — and since that’s the stuff that is within your control, why waste your time on the other stuff when you’ve already got everything you need to create the world you want? Once you learn how to harness your words, actions and feelings while letting go of the stuff you cannot control, you can begin to take real control of your life and shape it into anything you want it to be… because your life is yours to control, so make it one that you can feel proud of.

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Wayne Dyer, and it is:

“You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.” — Wayne Dyer

Wayne Dyer

Next week I’ll be talking about balance. Continuing October’s theme of foundations of good mental health here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health, next week I’ll be exploring how the idea of balance fits in with wellbeing (since I talk about it a lot!). I’ll be talking about what balance is and what it isn’t, why it matters for good mental health, and how to incorporate more balance into your life for better mental health and wellbeing.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Middle East; and Sunday afternoon in the US, Canada and the rest of the Americas. 

You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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