Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.

– Kahlil Gibran

As I looked at quotes about the word “control”, I was struck by the variety of themes that emerged. My intention with this article was to talk about the effect of trying too hard to have control. But many people struggle with the need to take control. Where is the happy line between taking control of your life, and letting control overwhelm your life?

I’ve been told many times over the years, by various people, that I have “control issues”. This is not a revelation to me. I am well aware of it, and have been since I was a child. I was that kid who did the entire group project in class so I could make sure it was done right. Not a healthy way to think, but it did make me popular when the group assignments were handed out. I still struggle with this. I have been practicing law in a mid-sized firm for years, with plenty of associates, clerks and students willing and anxious to help, but I rarely go to them. I tell myself I am still trying to master the art of delegation. What I am really trying to master is the art of letting go. The stress of letting someone else do it can be worse than the stress of trying to get it done myself.

This need to control extends into my personal and family life as well. Every parent wants their children to happy, but my need to have everything go the way they want it to tends to keep me up at night, while they are sleeping soundly.

On the other side of the coin are people who struggle every day trying to talk themselves into stepping up and taking more control over their lives. When looking at the various quotes about control, they would have chosen something along the lines of: “Only you can control your future.” (Dr. Seuss). The stress that goes along with this is no less than mine; just different.

Where is the balance? As an undergrad studying psychology, the Personal Power Grid struck a chord with me. With apologies to the learned author who created it, and whose name escapes me, I will try to describe it. There are things in life that you CAN CONTROL and things in life that you CAN’T CONTROL. In the CAN CONTROL column, you either take action or you don’t. When you do, you are in the “Mastery” box. You have thoughts such as “I can do this!” and feelings of pride, happiness and contentment. When you don’t take action you are Giving Up. You think “There’s no point in trying.” and you have feelings of shame, guilt and anger.

In the CAN’T CONTROL column you also have a Take Action side and a Don’t Take Action side. Only here, the thoughts and feelings are reversed. When you take action, you can be Ceaselessly Striving. You are thinking “Why won’t they…?” “How can I…?” and your resultant feelings are of anger, anxiety and exhaustion. When you don’t take action, you are in the Acceptance, or Letting Go, box. You think “It is what it is”, “It’s in the past” and “I’m not going there anymore.”. Your feelings are peace, happiness, joy, and sometimes grief.

The unhealthiest place to be is firmly in the Ceaselessly Striving box, or firmly in the Giving Up box, yet it is between these two boxes that most of us live our lives. In fact, Ceaselessly Striving is particularly dangerous. You simply can’t control the world, and when you fail, you will fall hard into Giving Up. Instead, we should be seeking to live between the Mastery and Acceptance boxes.

So how do we escape Ceaselessly Striving/Giving Up and reach Mastery/Acceptance? We focus on the behaviours that go with them. Aggression and pointing fingers are the hallmarks of a person who is Ceaselessly Striving whereas Mastery involves assertiveness and accountability. Giving Up often goes hand in hand with avoidance, addictions and high risk behaviours. Acceptance comes with mindfulness, and often a good, cleansing cry.

Which of these behaviours and feelings sounds most like your own? Personally, I find myself too often in the Ceaselessly Striving area, and teetering on Giving Up. The feeling that stands out most to me is exhaustion. Trying to control the world around you is truly exhausting, and it gets worse as you get older. I’m going to try to remind myself to take a step across the diagram to Mastery, and a step down to Acceptance. Surely, I can control that much in my life, can’t I?

— Cheryl A. Canning
Partner, Burchells LLP
Halifax, Nova Scotia

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