At the age of 18, my father was diagnosed with stage four cancer. It was in his lymph nodes and had spread throughout his body. The prognosis was not good. As the oldest of 8 brothers, I was overwhelmed not only by the reality that I may lose my father, but also that my brothers would be watching me and depending on me. As my father underwent his treatment for the next several months, hospitalized three hours away, I was overwhelmed and confronted with how painful and scary life could be. I felt out of control, vulnerable, and scared. My father would eventually survive cancer, but the fear of being out of control took its toll on me.
It started simple enough. I controlled my contact with my family so that I would not feel overwhelmed by my sadness and fear of loss. Then I started to control my relationship with my girlfriend so that I would feel secure and important. Then I started controlling the level of intimacy with all my friends so that I would not get attached enough to feel this fear and pain again. I just wanted to feel secure, to feel safe, and to avoid that intolerable fear. That is when the inevitable started to happen. All of these relationships began to strain under the weight of my control. One-by-one they cracked and I was left alone, hurting, and even more out of control. As desperately as I tried, I found that I could not control anything. It was killing me emotionally and spiritually.
We all strive to feel safe and secure in our relationships and the world around us. When we feel vulnerable, helpless, hurt, or insignificant our anxiety kicks in. Oftentimes, this anxiety prompts us to take action, to control some aspect of our situation in order to feel that sense of safety. Only, the problem is no longer the relationship, the past hurt, or upcoming challenge. The problem is now these underlying feelings of fear and anxiety, and our desperate attempts to get them to go away. We begin thinking of any possible way that we can control our environment, our situation, or the perception of others. If we can control these things, then we believe that we can manage our world and lessen our pain.
The problem is that this control is just an illusion.
Our attempts to control inevitably lead to greater feelings of helplessness and compulsive behaviors. When a loved one gets sick despite our healthy lifestyle, when our kids use drugs despite our monitoring of their friends and social media, when our spouse drinks again despite our attempts to relieve their stress or set firm rules about alcohol-we are sent reeling by our lack of control. We may resolve to redouble our control because we failed to protect ourselves appropriately, or we may fall into depression and anxiety finally succumbing to the feeling of helplessness and fear that we have been so desperate to avoid.
The irony is that our solution to our lack of control is often to devise new ways to control the situation “better”. It is an endless loop that reinforces our anxiety and leaves us in a constant state of striving and hypervigilance- we become exhausted, depressed, and trapped.
If you are feeling the need to overly control your relationships or environment, then it is likely that you are struggling with anxiety. This is an important transition to make in our thoughts.
The relationship or situation your are facing may be stressful, but it is the anxiety and the vulnerable feelings which underlie it that are the root of the problem. If we want to find freedom from our anxiety, then we need to deal with the roots that led us to control.
Freedom from control begins by identifying the roots of fear, anxiety and vulnerability that led you to control in the first place. Enlist the support of resources, close friends, or a therapist to help you identify these roots and begin talking about these vulnerable places. Once these pieces are in place, you are ready to begin the journey of finding new tools and taking risks.
Nathanael Read, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, practicing in Redding, CA. He currently specializes in marriage therapy and couples counseling, working with couples in conflict or distress, and individual counseling for those affected by depression, anxiety, and trauma. His passion is to help clients DISCOVER HOPE in their lives. Contact Nathanael with questions or to set up your FREE 15 minute Consultation to learn how you may benefit from therapy today.