Questionable Advice #8: Why do I need to control everything?

Questionable Advice: need for control

Questionable Advice #8: Why do I need to control everything in my life, even if it’s destroying me?

The only advice column that gives you more questions than answers.

Hello Kara, 

 

  • What brought you to this email?
    • My lack of self awareness 
  • What questions do you struggle with the most?
    • This question is one of them. I’m lacking self awareness, which inhibits me from knowing what questions I struggle with the most. 
  • If I was magic, what would you want from me?
    • Free me from from feeling trapped within myself. 
  • What’s happening in your life now?
    • Too much it feels like. Mainly struggling with myself. I turned 31, which is a beautiful age to be at. I wish I could enjoy it more. I should be enjoying it more, but I’m harboring so much past pain, that this baggage is starting to be too heavy for me to carry. I’d rather just leave this baggage at the terminal and buy myself a new hand purse, where I can’t store useless crap in because it would be too hard to find my keys. 
  • What questions can I personally give YOU to help you sort out some of your thoughts?
    • Why are you allowing yourself to drown in the fear of something, the fear of anything? 

I feel ashamed of myself. My behavior. For getting so upset over small things that I end up having a panic attack. Unfortunately, my boyfriend sees this, and tries to help me see it. It took a huge argument with my boyfriend for him to finally give me the “last straw” conversation. That he couldn’t live with me like this anymore, and that’s when the nerve in me snapped to lead to this conclusion. I try to control everything around me because I am scared of the future, and what the future might bring me. I would rather know than not know. Although there were times where I didn’t know something and it ended up fascinating me to learn something I had never known. Those are the times I am most thankful in life because I didn’t get in my own way. When I see that, I see my potential, only to digress to a person that I don’t want to be around, or be with, a person I want to shed. Me. 

After this email is written, I am taking the first step and diving into that free book you kindly put out there into the world for people like myself, to find purpose. Your honesty was refreshing to hear. I needed that. 

Thank you. 

Sincerely, 

Mindy C.

Hi Mindy,

Yesterday morning I woke up refreshed and excited. A morning person by nature, I relished the quiet hour before my first meeting to knock some things off my to-do list. The feeling of enthusiasm only increased after I crushed out a freelance writing piece that I was proud of. (Some might even say I entered flow state.)

And once I enter the flow state, Mindy, look out–the ideas just keep, well, flowing. I fired off some texts to people I wanted to connect with, filled my notebook with brainstorming ideas, and even took a thoughtful moment to celebrate what I had accomplished. It’s almost like I enter a state of euphoria as my brain keeps racing excitedly with possibility.

And then, six hours later, I found myself on the couch, filled with stress and curled in a blanket. Definitely not flowing.

Nothing major prompted the change. Instead, I imagine a series of little moments triggered the transformation. An interruption to my work, or an anxiety about never actually finishing all the things I brainstormed.

Even as I reflect now, I can’t quite pinpoint when I switched from fascination to frustration and eventually to exhaustion. But while I don’t have all the answers, my reflection gave me a powerful reminder. A brain filled with racing, excited, happy thoughts isn’t too far off from racing, anxious, and shameful thoughts. 

The distinction between openness and uncertainty is a very thin line, indeed.

In reading your letter, I imagine this might sound familiar. The delicate balance between, “The possibility of this excites me!” and “The uncertainty of this terrifies me!” How quickly we can shift from feely deeply appreciative of growth outside of our comfort zone, and panic that we won’t survive it.

I like to imagine it like jumping off a mountain on a hang glider. If you trust that you can fly, there’s nothing more exciting. If you doubt yourself, all you can picture is falling to your death. The trick is that most of us only see these two options – when in fact, the third option involves a reliable parachute to make sure we land safely on the ground.

healthy risk-taking

You write that you see your potential, your growth, and the beauty of your life. In these words, you’re smiling up at that hang glider. You might even crack some jokes about it (because humor is a crucial tool, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). Life feels exciting and overflowing with possibilities. 

But then, all too quickly, you look at how far the ground is beneath you, and the panic sets in. 

This panic isn’t your fault. I could talk to you for hours about the science behind our brain wiring. We’re biased to focus on negativity, what we lack, and what we’re missing out on. Shame and fear motivate us more than any other emotions. We harbor a deep fear of uncertainty and an even deeper desire for control. You can dive into the research if you want to, but the second most important thing for you to understand is that you’re working against millions of years’ worth of evolutionary brain mumbo-jumbo. (And yes, the research will tell you “mumbo-jumbo” is the scientific term for it). 

The first most important thing for you to understand is that this isn’t your fault.

Nor is the pain you’re carrying around from your past. Your desire to, “Just leave this baggage at the terminal and buy myself a new hand purse, where I can’t store useless crap in it because it would be too hard to find my keys” made me laugh out loud.  

But it misses the mark on three key points, all of which I think you know, but I’m going to say them anyway.

One: It overstates your ability to simply “leave this baggage” behind. You have ownership over your life, but it’s not that easy. Pretending that it is only further amplifies your shame.

Two: It undermines your past as “useless crap.” Don’t get me wrong; it sounds like your past is filled with painful, unpleasant, I-hate-how-this-affected-my-life crap. But it’s not useless. Without that crap, you wouldn’t be here, writing witty emails in search of self-awareness. You can’t throw it away as much as you may wish you could.

Three: No matter how new or empty a hand purse or bag is, those keys will always be a bit elusive. If life didn’t make us search for them, then we wouldn’t get the opportunity to discover the inner worth that they unlock.

self-awareness baggage

Okay, now that I’ve thrown your words out the terminal window, let’s talk about where to go from here.

You’re dealing with two major obstacles: discarding your past baggage and learning how to live in the present (while looking toward the future). If I’ve learned anything, it’s that these two challenges are not mutually exclusive. We cannot do one without the other. 

We can, however, go back and forth between the two in our growth.

My first advice is to empty the bag of the things you can get rid of—shame, to start. Whenever we feel like we should be a certain way, we add a layer of shame on top of the already heavy burdens we carry. There is no should. There is you, right now, doing your best. 

This includes letting go of what you think a 31-year-old’s life should look like. Sure, it is a beautiful age. So was 27. So will 61. That’s the thing about age – as much as it changes, it really doesn’t change much. I know people in their twenties who have direction in life and people in their fifties who are still searching.

Discarding shame isn’t easy. It takes courage, vulnerability, and patience with yourself. But the more you can cut out the second layer of weight, the more you’ll be able to lift the other stuff.

And by “other stuff,” I’m referring to that bag you want to leave behind at the terminal. So many of our beliefs are formed from a young age, often when we don’t realize it. Then, impactful moments and painful challenges color in our thoughts. In a beautiful way, they write our story and make us who we are.

You just need to learn how to reclaim the pen to write your story moving forward.

The future is scary, just like the past is painful. But when we spend too much time thinking about the two, we fail to work on ourselves in the only area we have control over: the present.

I don’t have that magical hand purse to give you, but you already know that. You’re further than most because you understand that self-awareness is the first step in finding who you want to be. You also know what it feels like to have that hang glider above your head, flying with excitement.

Emotions will try to get in your way. Shame will try to weigh you down. Fear will make you think you’re headed straight toward a deadly crash.

But as you begin to develop your self-awareness, you’ll learn how to navigate those obstacles. You will also start to see a crucial bag you didn’t mention in your note: a parachute backpack. As you learn to see and trust this bag, you can work on letting go of some control. Over time, this will ease the feeling of entrapment – not from yourself – but from your emotions.

You might even begin to enjoy flying.

Much love,

Kara

Questions for you:

  • What is something you feel proud of?
  • What areas of your life give you the most joy?
  • If you look at your patterns of panic, what most often triggers them?
  • When do you feel most vulnerable in your life?
  • When have you felt the most growth because of feeling vulnerable?
  • What things can you rely on about yourself?
  • What strategies can you use to calm yourself down when feeling panicked?
  • How can you incorporate more humor and laughter into your life?

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