Is the need for control always a bad thing? (Hint: no. It’s not.)


“Why? Why do I care? Why do I need to make my bed upon rising? More importantly, how can I just roll with it?”

I was texting with my friend on the subject of control. Like most regular adult humans, she’s had a lifelong love/hate affair with control – wanting more of it in times of stress and transition (Moving? OK – here’s 85 lists detailing 20 contingency plans just in case something goes awry somewhere); using it to decrease feelings of anxiety and panic (My heart’s been pounding all day but at least the pantry is sorted, labeled, and in alphabetical order); wishing she needed less of it per cultural value systems (I just want to be a go-with-the-flow, flexible type, you know?).

Control can be a sticky area to navigate. While many people cite a goal to “get over” their control “issues,” control can in some cases be a very useful tool. In fact, despite it’s bad reputation, sometimes seeking or having control can be incredibly beneficial to decreasing stress and managing anxious parts of yourself. Here’s some de-stigmatizing ideas about control to help us reconsider the need to always “roll with it.”

It’s perfectly ok to be prepared. 

I have fairly limiting food allergies and don’t often have the luxury of being able to eat whatever is placed on the plate in front of me. Because travel involves venturing far from the comfort of my own refrigerator, it used to be a major source of stress to figure out how to eat when on the road. I didn’t want to refuse food if I was staying with people, I didn’t know if there would be places where I could find something I could eat, I didn’t know if restaurants would be accommodating, and so on.

Then, a few years ago, I started traveling with a big cooler (if flying, I leave the cooler at home and instead make a run to the nearest grocery store upon arriving). I make sure I have everything I need at the start of the trip, and I eat before going to potentially unaccommodating restaurants. I prepare beforehand so I can relax. A little weird? Maybe. Controlling? Sure. But also totally freeing and 100 percent worth the ability to enjoy traveling without wondering if/when/how I’m going to eat my next meal. And bonus! – it allows me to focus on my friends or family, which is why I traveled in the first place.

It’s not weird to want to be in a clean and organized space. 

We are impacted by the environment around us. If we are in a calm, clean, decluttered and organized space, it will contribute to internal calmness. On the flip side, if we are in a cramped, cluttered, dirty space, we may feel more anxious or depressed. This is why we drop $200 to sit in a spa, and why The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a pop culture phenomenon. Our environment matters.

So, spending time and energy decluttering, cleaning, and organizing are not irrational activities; they are simply methods with which we aim to preserve our physical and mental health. Can this get out of hand? Of course. But the notion that we “should” be able to feel awesome whether in an immaculate space or a filthy one is a fallacy, and I don’t think it’s useful to bully ourselves if we don’t ever attain that level of Zen.

Small measures of control allow anxious people to challenge themselves. 

This point feels most crucial. As a therapist, I work with so many individuals struggling with control and anxiety that don’t feel they’ve “beaten” it until they are as flexible as a human Gumby. Listen – control is not a black and white thing. You do not have to relinquish all control in order to work with, manage, and decrease your anxiety. Small gains count for a lot, and sometimes holding on to control in little ways allows for larger gains to occur.

I once worked with a client who felt uncomfortable leaving home for more than a few hours at a time. She wanted to socialize, but she also wanted to be home by 10pm. She struggled with the idea of carpooling to get-togethers with friends because she then felt obligated to stay as long as everybody else. When we initially came up with the solution to have her drive herself to the get-togethers so she could leave when she was ready, she feared others would think she was “too controlling” because she needed to drive herself everywhere. Ultimately, we determined that her friends would rather see her for short periods of time than not at all, that driving herself gave her the small amount of control she needed at that time to meet the challenge of socializing more frequently, and that if anybody thought she was weird or “too controlling,” that was their problem. And guess what? She started going out every weekend.

It’s true that the need for control can be a problem. But sometimes, small amounts of control can help individuals cultivate the calm they need to do the things that they want to do. Control is not always the bad guy, and we don’t always need to “roll with it.”


Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych


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