If you were thinking this was going to be an ode to 80’s Janet Jackson music, you’re about to be very disappointed. That post will be titled, “Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” This one is about the need for control, a need I didn’t even realize was such a force in my life until recently.
From elementary school all the way through graduate school, I was the person who volunteered to take the pieces of group projects and put them together into the final product; not because I was a selfless person with nothing better to do, but because I wanted control over what would ultimately be our grade. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted the control in that type of situation, but only recently have I come to realize that a need for control has impacted other areas of my life, as well, often in a much deeper and more impactful way.
I think the reason my need for control never dawned on me before is that I’d been thinking about it in terms of controlling other people; which is not the case. While there may be some benefits to people doing and saying whatever I wanted them to all the time, I don’t need that (and, frankly, it sounds exhausting to have to figure out what other people even should be doing or saying all the time; I have a hard enough time figuring out my own shit). Ultimately, I just want a sense of control over the trajectory of my own life.
I’ve been aware for a while that I have a very tough time with feeling stuck or trapped, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. What I didn’t always realize is that the feeling of being stuck, is ultimately a feeling of being out of control. Physically, if you’re stuck, you have no control over the movement of your body. Nothing sounds more panic-attack-inducing to me than being completely physically restrained. Being psychologically stuck isn’t much better, although we often have more control over that than we give ourselves credit for. For example, having to go to a job every day that I don’t like, don’t find fulfilling, etc. will eventually make me feel stuck. Do I have control over that situation? Realistically, sure. I have options. I could just quit and potentially not have the money to pay my mortgage, car payment, etc. Or, a better but more difficult idea…I could change my perspective and look for things about the job to be grateful for. Still, it feels like I have no options because I can’t afford to exist without a paycheck, and learning to enjoy a job I feel like I hate just goes against my nature. Again, I understand that I technically have options, but I feel stuck, which equals a feeling of being out of control.
Another example… I am a planner. Me and spontaneity just don’t get along. I need to know what’s about to happen. If I haven’t planned for it, I’ll have major anxiety about having to do it, especially if it involves social interaction. In a way, being able to plan provides a sense of control. If I know what to expect, I can control my response to it even before it happens. The unknowns leave too many question marks, too many ways for the situation to have the upper hand. I suppose that’s at least partially why I have such a debilitating fear of death, the ultimate unknown. While some people may claim to know what happens when we die, I don’t have a confident belief in any theory about the afterlife (or lack thereof), and there’s no way to plan for something that can’t be anticipated.
I don’t think I’ve always felt such a strong need to be in control; my need for control has grown as I’ve gotten older. When I was in college, I could get blackout drunk and be fine with it. Now, if I wake up the day after having a few drinks and I don’t feel like I was completely present and in control, I get an uneasy feeling and I regret it. My anxiety has also grown as I’ve gotten older, and I’m sure the correlation is no coincidence.
In my journey through personal growth and self-reflection, I’ve read a lot of quotes about control, most of them emphasizing the fact that trying to control everything will drive you into a state of misery and frustration…
“The more you try to control something, the more it controls you. Free yourself and let things take their own natural course. “
“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”
And, alternately, quotes about controlling the one thing we can always control…
“You cannot always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.” Wayne Dyer
“The control center of your life is your attitude.” Unknown
“When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where your power is.” Unknown
I fully, whole-heartedly endorse the sentiment behind these quotes. Anxiety and the need for controlling outside situations, people, and circumstances are dangerously intertwined and are the ingredients in a recipe for a nervous breakdown. But no one, no situation, can control your thoughts. Our thoughts hold immeasurable strength and they can lead us down the darkest rabbit hole, or into the brightest opportunities for hope, love, and joy. The problem is that, although it sounds contradictory, the rabbit hole often feels safer. It’s certainly easier. Changing your mindset, relinquishing control over external nonsense, and learning to adapt your thoughts to match desired outcomes…well, that takes hard, intentional work. I feel like I am eternally in that work, still hoping I will one day get consistent enough that it becomes habit. I’ve got a toolbox of things like meditation and gratitude intended to help me exercise control in the one area where I should be, my thoughts, and create new patterns of thought that serve me rather than torment me. Cognitively, I know all the things. Practically, I’m just not working hard enough at it and I’m failing. But I’m learning. And I haven’t given up and don’t intend to. If it’s a work in progress for the rest of my life, that’s what it will be, because mental health and wellness is that important, that worth it, and NO ONE has it 100% figured out. Remember that the next time you start beating yourself up over feeling what you feel or thinking what you think. Control or no control, we’re all in this together.