5 Ways to Release Control and Get Out of Your Own Way
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
I am a control freak. Not in the way we usually think about “control freaks.” I don’t care whether you roll up the tube of toothpaste or squeeze it, my silverware has never gone back in the same area of the drawer twice, and although I definitely prefer that you take your shoes off when entering my apartment, it doesn’t really bother me if you choose to keep them on. But when it comes to trying to control every part of my life so that nothing falls apart, I am a full-blown control freak. I am constantly throwing all my energy in one direction, then suddenly I panic and hurdle all of my energy in another direction. Instead of focusing on one task, I am consumed by thoughts on how to prevent all the possible (and usually terrible) scenarios I have made up in my mind. Pretty soon my energy has no idea which direction to go, so it’s just on edge waiting for my next panicked move. Everything in my life is stalled because I am trying to move and control all the immovable and uncontrollable parts - I am getting in my way.
I’ve had to work hard to learn to release control. Let’s be honest, I am still working hard to release control. And I know that I am not alone. So let’s work on this together:
Start by recognizing how you’re feeling
When I’m trying to control everything, I feel like I’m shooting espresso while standing on one of those 1950’s vibrating exercise belt machines. My energy is buzzing. Instead of focusing on one thing at a time, I am sending pieces of my energy in countless different directions until I feel fragmented and drained. Maybe you feel exhausted or anxious or irritable when you’re in control-everything-mode. Take a moment to recognize the signs that you’re trying to control a situation.
Ask yourself, 'Why do I want control?'
Don’t answer this question. I’ll answer it for you. The answer is fear. You’re afraid. You’re afraid of getting hurt, or rejected, or losing something or someone you love. You’re afraid of being perceived in a way that wasn’t your intention. You’re afraid of hurting someone. You’re afraid of missing out, or of doing too much. You’re afraid of going bankrupt and having to sleep in your cubicle at work. There are countless more specific reasons why you want to control things but all of those reasons fall under the umbrella of fear. So just own it. “I am trying to control everything because I am afraid.” Done. Now, we can move on.
Now ask yourself, "What am I trying to control?"
I bet the answer is: a whole lot of stuff you can’t control. Maybe you’re trying to control how someone else feels about you. Maybe you’re trying to control how quickly someone gets back to you about the house you just bid on. Maybe you’re trying to control whether or not you get the job you applied for. You’re trying to control a lot of people and circumstances that you don’t have any ability to control. Stop doing that and move on to the next step.
Make a list of the things you can and can’t control
Write them down. “Here are the things that are completely out of my control…”
Tip: Pretty much anything that involves other people’s actions or emotions is out of your control, so add it to the list.
Now make another list, “Here is what I can do right now…” This list is going to be a lot shorter and that’s okay. We’re not limiting your ability to better yourself, we’re simply focusing on the most effective ways to do so.
Release control and take action
Say this out loud, “I cannot control [insert what you can’t control here].” When I first thought about saying this out loud, I thought that I was going to be consumed by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I mean, how could I possibly feel good about not being able to make a situation better for myself? But the opposite was true. I felt incredibly relieved. By releasing control, I'm not giving up, I am simply giving myself permission to stop wasting energy on circumstances I can't control. This allows me to more effectively put energy towards the things that I can do to better my situation. Try it for yourself: “I cannot control this...but I can do this [insert what you can do here].”
This is going to take practice. A few days ago, I followed all of the steps listed above and minutes later I still found myself wasting energy by imagining and trying to control future conversations with someone I had no control over, about something I had no control over. So, occasionally, you may fall back into your control habit. That’s okay. Fear spent years building this habit, so you’re going to have to take some time to learn a new way. Be gentle with yourself, and seek support when you need it.