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Seeking Control in an Uncontrollable World

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog contains a depiction of a panic attack, which may be triggering to those who suffer from panic disorder or are prone to panic attacks.

“G-d grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference“

-Serenity Prayer

Sometimes, something as simple as a tried-and-true Serenity prayer, borrowed from the 12-step texts, has a way of releasing us from the shackles we place around our own. damn. selves. But for the other 99.9% percent of the time, we want immediate satisfaction, and instant RELIEF, by getting the sense that we hold control--whether that be over a person, situation, or our very own bodies. We seek to experience life on our terms, rather than accept life on life’s terms. On some level, most of us know it isn’t exactly realistic to strive for total control, though we continue to idealize a world where all of our dreams are realized. It can be rather crushing when we paint a picture of our future, only to be blindsided by a swift upheaval in our plans. At times, we are left to grieve the loss of the fantasy and the sobering reality of our new normal. It can be hard to cope when life deals us a hand that we didn't pick. Next, can come a natural stream of negative feelings and emotions, ranging from angst, anger, and sheer helplessness. In the moment, you may feel permanently entrenched. Engulfed. Paralyzed.

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.This will miraculously transform your whole life.” - Ekhart Tolle

Heres, the thing about power and control. The more we strive for control and flee from situations that may present to us an unknown risk or hazard, the more we are actually perpetuating that very feeling we seek to evade. We sulk in this because after all, we want more control, less surprises, to have a handle on it all, to feel we have all our bearings, all our ducks in a row. But, unfortunately, that is not realistic and most of us know we don’t get out of this life unscarred from at least one major tragedy. Some of us experience crisis on a daily basis, like when a panic attack refuses to subside; the sufferer of a panic attack hopes to regain control of their breathing and heart rhythm. But the physical body has a different agenda entirely, and the fear of being out of control can even worsen the panic attack while its happening. The experience of our very own body betraying us can be disempowering, after all, its akin to turning the gun on yourself and pulling the trigger, but it wasn’t really you and wasn’t really what you wanted.

In actuality, distressful situations or experiences are often unavoidable; this notion in and of itself can sometimes harbor anxiety for those who have a propensity for worrying about the “what ifs” and worst case scenarios. On some level it is adaptive to conjure up a back-up plan, but if worried thoughts take up the better part of your day, this may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. It is also a common reason why individuals might seek out therapy. A popular, evidence-based practice--known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)--is well suited to treat anxiety by challenging such thought-patterns. It is based on the notion that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions drive our behaviors that perpetuate a circuitous state of distress, that can culminate in an anxiety/depressive disorder, eating disorders, and/or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) (Beck, 2011).

Below are examples of how striving for control can manifest in daily life, through a variety of potentially harmful behaviors:

Examples of executing control upon oneself:

  • Restrictive or disordered eating

  • Over-exercising

  • Self-injurious behaviors (cutting, burning)

  • Substance abuse

  • Compulsive behaviors (excessive tidying, checking, counting, hand washing)

Examples of executing control upon ones social environment:

  • Gaslighting

  • Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, financial)

  • Manipulation

  • Micromanagement or hovering

  • Contingency and reward systems

  • Acts of violence or use of threats

What does all this mean?

You might’ve heard countless times, “You can’t control anyone but yourself,” stated in different words, and in slightly different contexts. In actuality the aforementioned examples of acts of control actually act as a defense mechanism against pain. Pain from perceived rejection, vulnerability, weakness, or what have you. Through therapy, individuals can come to realize what it is they are actually attempting to defend against with their unique displays of control. It is this realization that can ironically unshackle the control-seeker and set them free. Suddenly, you are relieved of your pain, because whatever fears or traumas you were running from by clutching onto your controlling behaviors, had actually kept you entrenched in a much deeper form of suffering. For some, this means seeking help for their substance abuse, eating disorder, or abusive relationship. For others, it is only the first step towards a long and empowering road to recovery. In any case, the therapeutic relationship can be a sounding board for you to identify specific areas where you seek control the most often in your life and areas where this most negatively impacts your mood, self-esteem, and/or relationships. This acts as the roadmap to inform the course of treatment, so that you may begin to let go of your grip, or just loosen it, as a first step.

The irony of this quandary is that through the release of control, we stumble upon freedom, and that feels far more liberating than the disillusionment of power.

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