As a child we sought to get control in the wrong way, by a) “losing it,” erupting like a volcano, or by b) suppressing it. There is an irony here, that the very things we are trying to prevent (loss of control), turn out to be our fate in the end (we meet our destiny on the road we took to avoid it).
To some, control means “preventing bad things from happening.” This definition breeds endless stress because:
• It requires us to know what is going to happen before it happens.
• It requires us to solve problems before they arise.
• It requires that we prevent the disaster perfectly. Nothing less will do.
• It sets us up to feel inadequate to cope with life because we cannot possibly fulfill the absurd requirements of this imaginary ideal.
• It sets us up for more disaster, not less, because while we are trying to take control over the future, we are neglecting our responsibilities and avoiding accountably in the present.
• When the “disaster” happens, we blame ourselves for “failing” to prevent it: “I should have seen it coming.”
• We blame ourselves for “failing” to know what the other person was thinking and planning to do to us: “I should have known.”
When we try to live in the future, when we try to “head it off at the pass,” we cannot be in real control. We live in fear of impending disaster in the future. This is one of the main sources of anxiety in our lives. It is very stressful.
Suppressing our anger is another example. This is not “control,” either. We are merely “stuffing” it for fear of the consequences of letting it out. We learned as a child that expressing anger was followed by severe consequences. “Stuffing it” now is an example of preventing “disaster” (punishment, victimization, rejection, displeasing, abandonment) in the future. We have never forgotten that lesson. It became our blueprint for “coping” with out of control situations in later life. These lessons once learned, can be unlearned if we know how.
A better definition of control is “the feeling that one is making things happen on one’s own terms in the present.” The antidote to feeling out of control is the feeling that one is in control, not of others, or of life, but of oneself in the present.
If we want to experience positive control, we must make it happen. The next time we are angry, for example, we can relieve our frustration by reminding ourselves that we have a choice now that we did not have as children – to control it the wrong way, by a) “losing it,” erupting like a volcano, or by b) suppressing it. Or, we can express it the right way.
As adults, we can now choose to express our anger in the middle ground between the two extremes: We can tell the truth about it. We can choose to say, “You know, it really makes me angry when you do that!” We have just made that happen, on our terms, at a time and place of our choosing. That is control.