How to Lose Your Control Issues

Losing your issues with control is different than “losing control” — although in the beginning it may easily feel that way. The fact is learning to lose your control issues can be done in a gradual and more or less controlled way, by making your fears of its loss more conscious and therefore more amenable to reflection, understanding, and constructive action.

How would you do this?

If you have control issues, what you also likely have are emotional reactions or over-reactions. These reactions are an effort to get things back in control as quickly as possible. I react with anger in order to restore the sense of safety and stability my control brings. I hold a grudge in order to avoid the unknown risks of trusting you again. I turn my back on you in order to regain the relationship the way it was or to end the relationship while protecting my version of events. I console myself by reminding myself how smart or right I am. Reactions are a way of holding onto what was, even if that always was a fantasy or an illusion — about our relationship, my power, my stature, my brand, my dream of who I want myself to be.

In the workplace, and especially with leaders, the common sentiment is to deplore individuals with control issues while continuing to promote them for their temperament. Corporations, since legally they are people, want to be in control, too. My point is that shifting away from being a leader with control issues is a matter of both individual change and corporate culture change — and we generally have a hard time with both.

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A first step to keep in mind is that the opposite of “control” is “sharing” and how these two things are different. Control is a form of psychological stiffness, rightness, and fundamentalism. Sharing, by comparison implies vulnerability, openness, trust, listening, curiosity, mutual exploration, ownership and decision-making.

A second step is noticing the patterns of emotional reaction that arise in you when your sense of control is violated — frustration, anger, disappointment, betrayal, embarrassment, humiliation, being dominated, etc. Noticing and naming these emotions is vital, even if they are playing themselves out subtly. When you notice them, you have a chance to ask yourself if they are really appropriate to the situation or whether you’ve added something into it that doesn’t need to be there. You have a chance to interrupt your sense of threat and let it dissipate naturally.

A third step is learning to do one thing extremely well: apologize. Why? Because learning to lose your control issues means learning through the “mistakes” you are making with others you are attempting to control.

Now, apologies are not the only thing to do, but they are a perfectly wonderful leverage point. They are, if sincere, little points of risk, little entry points to vulnerability. When you find yourself over-reacting, you can learn to apologize.

If you find yourself holding a grudge, you can apologize and drop the grudge. If you don’t listen to another’s ideas, you can apologize and ask again what those ideas are. If you take work away from someone, you can apologize and give it back with your blessing.

I guarantee, if you do these apologies consciously, slowly, and consistently, over time you’ll still feel the bump of your anxiety but you’ll learn to surrender more to what is real rather than trying to maintain the taxing illusion of control you are holding onto.

Some questions usually arise when I’m working with someone with control issues.

How do you know when you’ve made one of these “mistakes?” You don’t even have to call them mistakes — just notice the emotions and what you did next. You don’t have to apologize for the feeling (although you can). The important thing is to apologize for what you did to regain control that was driven by the reaction or over-reaction. Then, correct the situation, in the direction of sharing.

What if the problem has gone on for a very long time? Go slowly, taking the risk to notice all the emotional reactions and the beliefs that go with them. A belief might be, “He’s incompetent” or “She doesn’t share the same values” or “He’s dishonest” or “She doesn’t respect me.” Notice all of these stories you are prone to tell yourself. Some of these can sound quite convincing (“Yes, but what if it’s true?”) but usually the beliefs are extreme positions and not the complete truth. Then take the risk to approach the other person. Own and apologize for your stories about him or her.

Don’t do it because you are looking for some kind of special response in return. Instead, do it to affirm your true Self, the bigger, better person that you are. Do it because you are sick and tired of the isolating illusions you’ve held onto too long and lived with in order to stay in control.

Here’s the kicker. If you do this well as an organizational leader, focusing on your own development, you’ll soon likely see patterns in how the corporation wants to stay in control, too; how top leadership, for example, can hold a grudge against the employees and vice versa, how people don’t listen to each other in order to be right in their own worlds, how individuals don’t share in the real, emotional work of the corporation in order to make sure practices don’t change. You’ll see how this is part of the heritage and culture of the place as much as any failing of human nature. You’ll wake up to find yourself in a system of control, and you’ll see exactly how self-defeating and mission-defeating that really is.

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15 Comments

  • Wow! I never thought of it this way before – I feel like I’m seeing things a whole new way (light bulb has turned on). Looking forward to sharing this post with others I care about.

  • Thank you, Nicole. Glad you found it helpful!

  • What keen insights as usual, Dan, and I am especially intrigued by the notion of control in hand of both individuals and groups — as you have laid it out so uniquely here.

    It’s really about the barriers that block people from presenting as human, as you illustrated so well. And it sadly frames the culture – that drowns out humanity at the very creative edges many crave.

    It’s also linked to the brain’s basal ganglia in interesting ways — so that control (or safety) becomes our default.

    Much food for thought — and thanks for the new angles you led here, for that to happen Dan. Best, Ellen

  • Ellen, I really like your phrase about “the barriers that block people from presenting as human.” That seems to capture the essence well, especially the pain of losing that creative edge. Much appreciation to you for your kind words and helpful elaboration!

  • Juanita Trusell wrote:

    At 32 I have come to realize that I have controlling issues. Reading this article made me aware of the actions I make when I lose a sense of control. I plan on using these steps to better myself. Thank you for sharing – Very insightful!!

  • Dear Juanita~

    Thank you for your kind words and I’m so glad the article was helpful to you.

    All the best
    Dan

  • Great to know, it’s all about money when it comes down to everything, except Control issues….

    Great news I just went to my first meeting with a therapist over my anger problems, I now know that I have control issues, this article hit home, everything you said really was, and is exactly what I’ve been doing, with everything in my life.

    It’s just a matter of letting go of those false illusions, false stories that I seem to make out in my mind so vividly that it seems to be manifesting into reality. Everything we believe can become real!! My thoughts will remain positive about everything. I feel so much panic when I think about, if my wife will leave me. It’s a very low feeling, maybe even next to grief!! She is done reasuring me and making me feel high and mighty!!

    I’m going to stop controlling everyone in order to control myself, because at the end of the day I’m only in control of my own thoughts!!

    Everyone today wants to be in control, especially if you held a high position of control!! Even when I was in a high position of control I myself was being controlled. Everything about everything is controlling something else. Just don’t worry about it let someone else do the worrying, I’m still going to catch myself if I’m trying to control an outcome with everything.

    Thanks for the insight

  • Paul~

    Thank you for writing. It sounds like it is a very challenging time for you. As anybody confronts themselves on tough patterns, control issues being one of the toughest, it is pretty natural that things look dark. The grief is real and you don’t know what to do exactly! But if you stick with it, keep working with your therapist, do the inner work needed, I promise you the sky will lighten. This is almost a kind of alchemy — or maybe mining. If you want the gold, you must first endure the darkness of the mineshaft. It takes a committed person to hang in there and keep learning, one step at a time, and little by little. I suspect that one day you’ll look back and see this time, difficult as it was, as when you became wiser, gentler — and a lot stronger, too. Good for you! You are on the path!

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • Swati Garg wrote:

    I have just come to realize i have control issues and was brousing to find a way that is more transformative than something put on from the outside. Because unless something is transformative inside out it does not last. Very much connect with your article. Thankyou. Where can i get to learn more of it? Let me know. Thanks.

  • Hello Swati

    Thank you for writing. All of what you read here comes from my own philosophy and practice as a consultant and coach. To learn more about the specific ideas contained in this article would mean setting up a coaching relationship. If you are interested, please email me. Again, thanks very much for your interest in this article. I’m happy it resonated with you.

    All the best
    Dan

  • This article is so true about me. It was like you’re standing in front of me talking to me. I’ve been in control of my sisters since I was 7. Now at the age of 51. I realize I’m a control freak. My husband has been pointing it out to me for the last two years.
    So I looked it up on the internet and found your article. Then I come to realize that for years I blocked out some of my childhood.
    I am remembering now, when I was 7, that is the first time I started controlling my sisters. Since then it has taken over my life. Now with the help of this article and my husbands help,patience,and understanding. I can start to happy again. I’m going to take these 3 steps.
    Thanks again
    Joy

  • Joy–

    Thank you so much for writing. I am so glad the article was helpful to you! You’ve made a terrific advance — congratulations. It is often a slow process, so be sure to get support frequently from others — including your husband — who you feel you can talk to about what you are working on. Self-care is a profound part of the process. All the best to you!

    — Dan

  • Very thoughtful,
    I am involved in indigenous community engagement and this is helpful, as well as with personal friendships. Can you please add me to your newsletter.

    Thank you

    Mary Tasi
    http://www.skyspiritstudio.com

  • Thanks for the article that sees these issues with compassion and balance. I struggle every day to become more sharing and cooperative in my management style. Recently I faced a new situation of rigidity and control from someone a couple of rungs junior to me. It was very surprising to me because they read my sharing and open approach as a threat to their boundaries. They even defended their position by telling me I lacked correct training. They subsequently got into a control cycle with me which has induced all my old control issues feelings of shame and anxiety as well. It’s a long journey!!

  • Dear Nathalie`

    As time goes by it is not at all unusual for the old challenges to rear their heads wearing new masks. So smart of you to recognize the triggers and take a more neutral stance, understanding how long the journey truly is.

    Indeed, how adept we can be with our self-deceptions!

    Yet we can also take pride in spotting the temptations to revert as they emerge and we can forgive ourselves for falling off the wagon.

    So much of this stuff seems to be all about self-protection!

    Thank you so much for writing!

    Best to you!
    Dan

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