Are you tired of arguing with the people who are closest to you? You probably know this, but most arguments come from a desire to control things that are out of our control. So the most effective way to work through relational problems is to learn how to stop being controlling.
I know, I know – you’re not a controlling person. But we all like control because it makes us feel secure. And if you’re experiencing conflict in relationships, chances are either you or those closest to you are struggling with a lack of control.
Control can be defined as the ability to have power over something or someone. Control is addictive because it represents stability to us, and stability equals safety. Therefore, the lack of perceived control can lead to fear and anger, which leads to conflict.
But the truth is, there are LOTS of things in life we have no power over. For that reason, the best thing we can do for our emotional health is to learn the difficult art of releasing control.
Why am I so controlling?
You and I have bought into a lie. We’ve bought into the idea that certainty exists and it’s only as far away from us as our ability to control things.
Once we’ve believed this, our minds will do anything necessary to regain a sense of control so we can attempt to eliminate all uncertainty. Of course, this never happens, and we eventually end up angry, impatient, resentful, anxious, or depressed.
We go through our lives convinced that the circumstances and variables around us each day are under our control. We either think that we are in control of them or that other people have them under control.
When we drive our vehicles, we believe that the car manufacturer is in control of the continuity of our vehicle. We trust them because we believe that they had things under control when they made our vehicle. So we cruise down the road without a second thought most of the time.
This mindset has gotten even worse with modern technology. With one glance at a device in my pocket, I can instantly know (or at least I think I know) what the weather is going to be like today, tomorrow, and for the next couple of weeks. I can know what the weather is currently like and is going to be like on the other side of the world. That’s a level of control that no other generation has experienced.
If I want to see what the Eiffel tower looks like, all I have to do is pull out the device in my pocket and I can get a virtual tour within minutes. I can be anywhere in the world virtually and speak with someone anywhere in the world instantly.
Because of this connectivity, we feel as if we can influence people and outcomes all across the world instantly, giving us a level of perceived control that never existed before this generation.
Why Modern Society Has Made Letting Go of Control Feel Impossible
Every other generation had to become comfortable with uncertainty. Before the industrial revolution, families depended on weather cycles to bring them crops in one way or another. Whether they were buying them from a local farmer or growing them themselves, food – and survival itself – depended on elements that were out of their control.
They ate what was available, did what was available, wore what was available, worked at jobs that were available, used the products and services that were available, and learned to deal with circumstances as they came.
But now we have options. Jobs are abundant, therefore we have control over what we do for a living. In a world where the only available job was farming, that wasn’t a concern. You farm. End of story. But in our society, it’s become a point of frustration and anxiety – and it’s all because we can now control our career path more than ever before.
We have options when it comes to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the people we interact with, and everything in between. We choose the products we use, the places we visit, the car we drive, and everything else.
It seems as if nothing is a given these days. The other day I went to the store to pick up some hair gel. Don’t judge me. As I was walking down the hair products isle scanning through hundreds of products to find the men’s hair gel, I found the product I use. But I also found two or three other variations of the same product right next to it.
One said it was a light hold, another was medium h0ld, and a third said it was a high hold. I can’t imagine that men have been going through their day complaining about how their gel “hold“ is too high or low. But somewhere there was a conference room full of people who decided that their customers didn’t have enough choices – they didn’t have enough control. So they created three variations of the same product.
This is a seemingly small example, but I think it serves as a metaphor for the rest of our culture. In a capitalistic society, when someone offers every product or service that we can reasonably use, the only other option for the economy to grow is for the individual markets to expand.
Once one person has offered one hair gel to men, the market has been satisfied. But the economy has not been satisfied, and the economy needs to grow. In order for the economy to grow, there must be competition, and where there’s competition, there will be variation. And where there are options, we get more control.
Because we live in such a society, our options will only expand. That means we’ll continue to be inundated with options. And one of the side effects of this culture is the misconception that we’re in control.
Do you see where this can get problematic?
How to Stop Being Controlling
Here’s a simple exercise to go through when you experience conflict and you feel the need to control things:
- Breath – Most situations escalate because emotions are too high. So start by taking consistent, deep breaths to slow your heart, center your mind, and ground your emotions.
- Identify the expectation – Conflict comes from unmet expectations, so figure out what exactly the expectations are on both sides of the conversation.
- Locate the misalignment – Once you identify the expectations, now figure out where and how the expectations aren’t being met.
- Release your ideal – Anger comes from fear, and fear comes from a perceived lack of control. So decide to deal with whatever it is you’re afraid will happen by your expectations not being met. Then release the ideal expectation you have in your mind, and decide to commit to what’s best for all involved.
- Meet at a new expectation – Once you’ve assessed what’s good for all involved, then land on a new expectation – one that’s a mutually agreed-upon expectation rather a mutually exclusive one.
There’s freedom in letting go. There’s a freedom in not having to control things. This is where God is leading us. He takes us there very gently and compassionately, but He’s taking us there nevertheless.
How can we have a life-giving relationship with God if we’re only willing to walk with him to the extent that he abides by our expectations?
How can we allow him to take us to unimaginable places if we’re only comfortable going where we can see and control?
What It Looks Like to Stop Being Controlling
I’m walking down a long, open road with my kids in Orlando, Florida. We’re holding hands, and we’re heading to Disney World. Only my kids don’t know that because it’s a surprise.
They keep asking where we’re going, but I can’t possibly explain all of the wonder of Disney World, and I know it will be much better if it’s a surprise.
If you have kids, you know that sometimes when you tell them where you’re going, it can backfire on you. They’re likely to say they don’t want to go away for the weekend because they want to stay home and play. Rather than trying to explain something they’re not likely to understand, it’s easier to ask them to trust you and get in the car. From there, they’ll have to see it for themselves.
So imagine my kids and I keep walking down this road towards Disney World, holding hands. Then suddenly, they see a playground.
This playground is great. It has a playhouse with a rope bridge and a long swirly slide. It’s the greatest place my children can imagine playing, and it’s right in front of them. But it’s nothing compared to where we’re headed.
If they’ll just keep walking with me, we’ll get to some place much better than the playground. But in that moment, they’re not listening.
They start tugging at my arm trying to get me to go to the playground. Sure, as a father I would love for them to play and have fun, but I know what’s ahead. I know it’s worth skipping the playground.
Then, as we look up, we see dark clouds approaching quickly. A rain storm is coming. And we have to keep moving if we’re going to make it to Disney. At this point, going to the playground is not only keeping us from what’s ahead, but it’s also dangerous.
The playground in-and-of itself isn’t bad, but with the circumstances that I’m aware of that my kids aren’t aware of, the playground is not a good choice.
Do you see where this is going?
My kids, in their shortsightedness and desire to control the journey, are willing to stop walking with me and start trying to tug me in the direction they want to go despite the fact that it’s not good for them.
Why Letting Go of Control Is the Key to Healthy Relationships
This is a picture of what we look like walking with God much of the time. We walk for a while, and then when things start feeling out of our control, we start pulling. This pulling can be counterproductive and bad for our wellbeing, and God does the sometimes painful thing of pulling us back to the better path.
The same is true for our relationships with other people. Sometimes we want one thing out of a relationship but the other person wants another. What we’ve forgotten is that walking with anyone – be it God or anyone else – requires tension. There’s a conflict of wills happening at all times.
It’s only in our willingness to give up control and submit our will to someone else that we’re able to have thriving relationships.
So next time you’re experiencing tension in your relationship with God or in your relationship with another person, look for where control has lied to you. Look for where you’ve tried to maintain control when the only way to grow the relationship is to humble yourself for another.
When humility becomes the lens through which you view relationships, you’ll find that it becomes so much easier to diagnose issues, overcome tension, and grow in a healthy way.