Life offers many uncertainties that can threaten our safety and well-being. Controlling the mayhem makes a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everybody just did what you said? Sadly, not everyone responds positively to being told what to do and how to do it. Even by you. The puzzling thing is, the more you try to control people—even for their own good—the more they push back. Why won’t they follow the route you so carefully Mapquested for them? Why don’t they eat their greens or vote the way you want them to? The more they resist, the more you lean in—and then it’s resentment all around.
My mother once turned to me in the middle of a busy street and told me to stop trying to take her over. Wha? All I was doing was insisting that I carry her heavy bag of books from the library. She’s in her 80s! Helping her is a good thing. Why was my helpfulness making her so testy? As I clung tightly to her bookage, refusing to give anything back to her, I suddenly noticed my dogged determination to do right, come hell or high water. I paused. I hadn’t checked in with whether she even wanted my help—I just assumed I knew best and took control.
My mother told me nicely but firmly to back off. That gave me the opportunity to be curious about my self-righteous presumption that my way was the right way, instead of waiting to hear what she wanted from me.
Catching the Need to Control
Stopping me in the middle of the street is one way to get my attention. My body also signals me when I am battening down my hatches and getting ready to go in for control: Jaw-clenching, stomach-tightening and an audible in-breath just before I launch in to offer my “great” suggestions are often my signature moves when I’m getting ready to take charge. Sometimes, if I really pay attention, I can hear my inner shower-voice belting, “You’ll do it My Way!”
The beauty is that once I catch myself playing the role of master and commander, I can do what I did with my mother. I can pay attention to where my need to control is really taking me.
Here’s the thing about our inner control freak: It is doing a valiant job trying to keep us, and those around us, safe. Sometimes. But other times, if we are acting out of habit, we close ourselves off from seeing and experiencing new things. We don’t necessarily need to banish our inner control freak, but we do need to stay mindful of how it’s motivating us to behave.
More than likely, your desire to control springs from the best of intentions. Please thank yourself. You probably do see a better, faster way, and that’s wonderful. Just remember to pay attention. Notice the body sensations that fire up when your inner controller starts to freak. Ask yourself if you really do need to take over or whether you can let things develop on their own. Learn to love letting go.
Small Steps to Letting Go
We can start this by practicing with small or large acts of letting go. We could allow someone else to load the dishwasher (their way!). We could relinquish control of the TV remote (occasionally!). We could allow for more noise—music, traffic, animals—in our environment than we think we are able to tolerate. When you let go of control, you give yourself permission to stop feeling that you need to do everything! Isn’t that a relief?
Control mechanisms can even show up in our mindfulness practice. We bemoan the times that our minds wandered a lot, or that we were edgy or restless. On those days we can remind ourselves that we don’t need to control anything. Not even our breath.
It is a tasty fantasy to hope that mindfulness will get rid of pesky humanness. At the end of the day, our practice is not there to tighten control or prevent us from thinking, but to help us watch the ever-changing, uncontrollable, remarkable flow of life, coming and going. We cannot control the flow, but we can be there and be present to it all—wanted and unwanted.