As an overachieving kid, I was lauded for my top grades, my responsible and well-behaved nature. I succeeded in a rigorous private school, then went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from a reputable college. I showed all the markings of someone who would work hard, stay focused, and no doubt make something of herself.
I also spent a lot of my childhood with inexplicable stomachaches, generalized anxiety that peaked in a series of panic attacks in my 20s, and varying degrees of self loathing. It’s really, really hard for me to delegate. I don’t like unassigned seating or amusement park rides. And I have a difficult time being in a car and not driving.
That’s because there’s a dark side to being an achiever: I’m a control freak. I like to know what will or won’t happen. I try to contain, predict, analyze, and understand things more than I possibly can. And I know it’s a losing game. None of us controls how life unfolds. You think you know it, but if you did, you wouldn’t have the expectation, and disappointment, when you’re reminded again and again that you don’t.
Of course, we’re reliable, ambitious. We don’t lose tickets or keys. We adhere to deadlines and get stuff done. But we get tied up in knots when we can’t get it done the way we think it should be. And there’s the rub.
The truth is that control freaks are their own greatest enemies. We manufacture our own stress thanks to a high-strung stress response. Because we want—nay, NEED—the one thing we can’t have: complete knowledge and control over everything. So yeah, we’re stressed. We’re moths burning up in the flame of our own fruitless efforts.
If you ask the folks at Inc. magazine, they’ll say that control freaks are horrible to be around or work with (here are their 8 signs you may be a control freak). I don’t think it makes you a tyrant or a dictator. But it can make life harder than it has to be. When you can become aware of your own tendencies, and honest about them, it can go a long way toward easing your white-knuckled grip on life.
4 ways to curb your inner control freak:
Challenge the thought. At meQ, we call them “thinking traps”—those thoughts that keep you stuck in a miserable shame spiral. Miss a deadline? You’ll lose your job. Someone else gets a promotion? You must be horrible and barely worth the air you breathe. This is called “maximizing,” meaning that everything that goes differently than you planned will cause a catastrophe. Which of course it won’t. (More on why thinking traps have you stuck.)
The next time a thought like that pops up in your head, don’t let it slip by so quickly. Grab it by the collar and demand: How do you know this is true? Is there any proof? Nope, not likely. And he’ll slump away. Don’t let runaway thoughts pull one over on you. Scrutinize it, and see it as the comic interpretation of your fear that it is, not a reflection of reality.
Expose the belief. Iceberg Beliefs are ideas about the world, yourself, and other people which were formed in your childhood and persist to this day. You may not see it, because only the tip of the iceberg shows. For control freaks, the governing belief is that “I am in charge of everything.” When you say it out loud it seems ridiculous. But until you address where these beliefs are rooted, it’s hard to unroot them. (More on how Iceberg Beliefs cause hair-trigger emotions.)
Where in your life did you come to believe that you alone could make the world stay on course? What happened in your youth that made you fear not being in control, and what did it involve? Understanding what’s fueling you will help you make that cognitive shift.
Put someone else in charge. Yup. Do the thing you can’t imagine: Hand over responsibility—for a project, a trip, a party—and instead of masterminding everything, go along for the ride. When you feel that inner itch to reach over and snatch it back, resist. (This is also known as trusting, and yes, it has a value aside from making you crazy with doubt and fear.) The world started without you and it will run along without you. Recognizing that there are other capable forces keeping it in rotation will remind you that you’re not actually running everything, nor do you have to.
Embrace the chaos. Practice giving up control as a game in a playful context so it’s not so threatening. Try a new sport or activity. Wander through town on a weekend without having a set destination or any expectation of what the day will bring. If you’re single, going on a date with a stranger presents an ongoing opportunity to face the unpredictable. The only rule is to do this without judgment—of yourself or anyone else. Because being judgy will up the stress factor big time.
I enrolled in improvisational acting classes last year and am still doing it, even if it terrifies me. While I’m a confident public speaker, and have done tons of media, I’m always prepared. So the very idea that I was supposed to walk out onto a stage without knowing what will happen, trusting my creativity, instinct, and fellow players (not to mention sense of humor) to get me from one end of a scene to another is terrifying. But I did it. And I’m still doing it. You don’t have to be a performer to give improv a chance. It’s an amazing way to face and befriend your inner control freak. Because sometimes not knowing can also be part of the fun.