Sunday, April 7, 2013

Control...What Is It?

Control...What Is It?
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

"I am out of control!" "He was trying to control me!" "I have no control!" "I lost control!" "I want to feel in control of my life?"
In my 9 years of practice, the one word that I hear the most is "Control". What is it? Why do so many people want it? How do you get it and use it?
During my first session with new clients, I help them to set goals for the course of therapy. Inevitably they say they want to feel "in control". But when I ask them to define control, they find it is very difficult to define. They will usually say what it is by describing how they do NOT want to feel when they don't have it, "I don't want to feel crazed, like the world is running past me and I can't catch up." or "I don't want to feel like I have no choice, like I just have to do what the other person expects of me."
The Webster's dictionary has many definitions for control: "the power to regulate or guide; to hold back, restrain; to exercise authority over; direct; command". But the control that these clients describe is more elusive than that. It is a feeling of having the ability to regulate and guide your own actions. It is a feeling of confidence and competence that you can handle whatever happens in day to day life. It is also a deep core feeling of strength that you can tap into so that you will feel your life is your own.
I want to make an illustration to help you understand control in a way that makes it attainable. Think of this whole newsletter as the whole World. The big circle is your world. And the small dark circle inside the large circle is all that you can control in the whole world. When you control what is yours to control (the small dark circle) and do not attempt to control what is not yours to control (the big circle or more), then you feel "in control". But when you try to control what is outside the dark circle, you are trying to control what is not yours to control, you feel as if you have "no control". If you do not control what is yours to control in the dark circle, you will feel "out of control". And moreover if you allow someone else to take over and control what is yours to control then you feel "controlled" by them. The combination of all of these different ways of not being "in control" makes people feel intense feelings such as anger, resentment, or anxiety which they then call "losing control".
"Jill" had a habit of never putting gas in her car (not controlling something that was hers to control). Several times on her way to our therapy sessions, Jill called me saying she had run out of gas, feeling very anxious (out of control). Jill's mother used to constantly remind Jill to put gas in her car (letting someone else control something that is yours to control), and Jill would complain to me that her mother was always telling her what to do. "She's trying to control me and my life." I pointed out to Jill how her own behavior reinforced and perpetuated the problem with her mother. Jill realized that by taking back control of the situation, by making sure that her gas tank was always full, her mother was able to back down and Jill again felt in control of her own life.
Another problem is when some people seek control the same as they seek perfection. They think that if they are always in control, then they will never say or do the wrong thing, they will never make a mistake and then bad things will never happen to them. Because they have a hard time not being in control of everything, they tend to overwhelm themselves (lose control) by trying to do too many things, perfectly. It is hard for them to allow others to do things for them, because they often feel that "If you want something done right, then you have to do it yourself." They, also, want to control everything that other people think, say and do, and the thought that other people may have negative feelings or thoughts about them is unbearable.
"Kelly" often found herself feeling out of control. She felt her husband was controlling her. Her husband was an outspoken man and often suggested that Kelly do things a certain way. She would do these things even when she didn't feel like it or want to because she said "He made me do it". She also felt that she could not do things she wanted to because, "He won't let me." My reply was that unless someone has a weapon, they cannot "make you" do anything. We discussed what was controlling her, and she realized that she was afraid to disagree with her husband because he might get angry at her. When we pursued this further, she did not think that he would ever hurt her in any way, but just the thought that he might get angry and be displeased made her feel very anxious. So, her own fear of his reaction to her behavior was what was really controlling her. We worked with the "part" of her who feared anger, so that she could decide for herself whether she wanted to do something or not. If she did want to do something, she did it because she wanted to, not because she felt she had to, or that he was making her. And also, if she did not want to do something, she was able to tell him why and deal directly with his reaction. Surprisingly, most of the time when she said no, he did not react in anger and they were able to discuss what they wanted to do instead. When he did get angry, Kelly was able to soothe that young part within which got scared, so that they were able to discuss it without Kelly feeling like she had to give in. The result was that Kelly felt much less overwhelmed and much more in control of her own life.
When I give the circle example to people, I often get two responses. One is relief. "You mean I don't have to control everything! I just have to control what is mine?" The other reaction is disappointment. "No! If I don't control everything then I will be unimportant! I'll be nothing!" But it is by feeling in control of your own life that you recapture a true feeling of inner power, which is very far from being a nothing.
In my office I have a sampler upon which is stitched The Serenity Prayer, with one small 'revision'. It reads:
God, Grant me the Serenity
To Accept the Things
I Cannot Control,
Courage to Control
The Things I can,
And Wisdom to
Know The Difference.
I wish you Serenity, Courage and Wisdom.
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC is the Director and Founder of The Awakening Center. She works with clients individually and in groups to establish balance, cooperation and harmony among their "parts"; and a feeling of calmness, compassion and inner strength from their core "self". She specializes in women's issues especially: eating disorders and body image problems; depression, anxiety, low self-esteem; couples commun-ication and parenting skills; spiritual and personal growth. Sliding fee/Insurance Available.

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