Often circumstances in life are beyond our control, and the unknown or unfavorable outcomes can instill discomfort. One human response is to control whatever we can control as compensation for that discomfort. In 1988 I experienced a great lack of control in various areas of my life–e.g., family, school, friends, self-image. My attempt to grasp control expressed itself as an eating disorder. The one thing I could absolutely control was food. I believed I was in control but, in fact, when I tried to stop restricting food and vomiting what I did eat, I discovered that I was powerless. The addiction had taken over control.

Another way in which we attempt to grasp control over circumstances is to anticipate all possible outcomes and thoroughly prepare, particularly for the outcomes we FEAR. We think that if we are ready for the imagined misfortune or catastrophe, somehow we will be able to control it. The truth is that, while some preparatory measures suggest intelligence and reduce the element of surprise, focusing on the outcomes we fear render us no more effective in controlling them than if we focus on the outcomes we desire.

Some people become so radicalized by a FEAR of lack of control that they impose control on others. Have you ever known anyone who has a monopoly on how to fold clothes? fill the dishwasher? re-close the cereal box? Have you ever known anyone who arbitrarily tells you what to do because they have appointed themselves to be in control. My housemate forbade me to use my laptop at the dining table–even when nobody was eating there–because I had a computer table upstairs.

Control presents a tricky dynamic. Societal influences suggest that we are in control of our own destinies; that we create our own lives; and that, when we feel disappointed, despondent, or devastated, we must accept the responsibility for that. Such notions deliver half-truths. We shape our destinies given what circumstances arise. We make choices about action given the access to resources at our disposal. We remain responsible for our actions and attitudes, and how we learn our lessons.

A fundamental tool that helps me to manage control lies in The Serenity Prayer:

  • Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
  • courage to change the things I can,
  • and wisdom to know the difference.

  • When I find myself in circumstances that I cannot control, I habitually invoke The Serenity Prayer. With practice, I have learned to manage my FEAR of unknown or unfavorable outcomes in constructive ways, and have ceased obsessive controlling behaviors and controlling the behavior of others.

    Healthy coping strategies involve surrendering control where we have none and ceasing attempts to control others. If you would like to foster skills that support these strategies, please contact me, Vanessa Landau, Resiliency Trainer, for Co-Creative Transformation, and I will guide you in the development of coping tactics.

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