Meet Your Inner Control Freak

Can You Overcome the Inner Control Freak Freak-Out to Go With The Flow?

Do you know a Control Freak? It’s usually easy to spot one. A Control Freak is a person who gets caught up in every last (often irrelevant) detail, who can’t make a decision without over-analysing or agonising, who can’t delegate or stop micro-managing, who wants others to comply with their demands or view of the world, who can’t let something from the past go and move on, and who obsesses and worries about the future and disaster scenarios that haven’t even happened yet. Perhaps you work alongside or for one, perhaps you’re related to one, perhaps you live with one, perhaps you’re married to one! 

Control Freaks can be extremely irritating so it’s easy to complain about them and criticise the way in which they just can’t ‘let it go’ or ‘go with the flow.’ We often see the Control Freak’s behaviour as the bane of our working, home, or social life, it’s their need to control us and everything around them that is causing us stress or frustration - “Argh!! My boss is such a Control Freak! If she’d just let me do my job I wouldn’t be so stressed.”

The funny thing is, if you feel irritated by a Control Freak there is a good chance that you’re not going with the flow yourself. It’s actually quite logical – if you were ‘going with the flow’ and ‘letting things go’ then the Control Freak’s behaviour would be washing over you - “My boss wants me to change the format of every single bullet point in that 50 page report…no problem! I can roll with that.”

Going with the flow means easily and effortlessly adapting to the external environment and the people within it. If you’re frustrated by a Control Freak’s need for control, then it is highly likely that you are struggling to adapt to it. Why? Because it is triggering your own need for control. It’s time to meet your Inner Control Freak – the one who is really responsible forruining your peace.

Your Inner Control Freak is a real Flow-Stopper. Want to just relax and see what happens? The Inner Control Freak will want to know what is going to happen and plan for every possible scenario. Want to just let a backhanded compliment or criticism bounce off you? The Inner Control Freak will want to replay the comment over and over again, imagining all sorts of clever and defensive comebacks. It will also fill you with nagging regret that you didn’t think of that clever comeback ‘at the time.’ Want to ‘not care’ how other people react to your choices? The Inner Control Freak will constantly monitor the reactions of others, anxiously awaiting their approval before you can feel good about your choice. Want to just ‘do your best’? Your Inner Control Freak will want to rate your performance, measure yourself against others and convince you that you failed to get the best result or outcome possible. 

At every turn your conscious mind and its well-meaning intentions to be relaxed, easy-going and adaptable will be undermined by the Inner Control Freak and its need for certainty, assurance and security and quite often you won’t even know it! Some people are happy to admit to being a ‘Control Freak’ but there are also quite a lot of people who consider themselves ‘easy-going’ yet suffer anxiety, nervousness or worry.

It is very easy for your Inner Control Freak to ‘fly under the radar’ because it doesn’t always manifest externally in outrageously demanding or inflexible behaviour. The inability to go with the flow can show up as a slight feeling of uneasiness, a moment of indecision or a mild sense of apprehension. In simple terms, you are not going with the flow when you are unable to allow whatever is happening to or around you to unfold naturally without resistance, without the need to prepare for it, protect ordefend from it or fix or change it.

Essentially, going with the flow is meeting life without any resistance. It is accepting things as they are and responding with flexibility, calmness, certainty and confidence. How often this is the case? Resistance can start as soon as you wake up and bemoan how little sleep you got overnight. It is triggered at the first red traffic light or the delayed train. It appears as soon as you open an email to find a request to do something you don’t want to do with a deadline you don’t think you can make. These are the little things – imagine how much resistance is involved in going to a job you don’t enjoy, spending time with people you don’t like, doing tasks you don’t want to do…

So what purpose does the Inner Control Freak serve except to stop your flow and stress you out? Well, it really doesn’t mean to be such a ‘Flow-Stopper’! The need to control is actually an unconscious need to avoid change and maintain the status quo. It results from a programmed impulse to keep you safe, calm and content. When things stay the same, you know what you’re getting, there are no surprises and you feel confident that you can do whatever is needed to keep things ‘under control’.

But what does being in control really mean? If you translate ‘being in control’ to a knowing, feeling or experience, then it actually means that you feel assured that you are equipped to cope or deal with the current circumstances, in other words you feel safe, confident and capable. You can relax in the knowing that ‘everything is OK’ and you are OK. Quite simply, you trust yourself. 

When there is a change to the status quo, there is a new set of circumstances – you’re dealing with the ‘unknown’ so you no longer have a solid basis on which to assure yourself that you can cope or that you’re OK. This translates to a feeling or inner experience of being unsafe, incapable, powerless or ‘all-at-sea’. The Inner Control Freak freaks out!

This is understandable because the Inner Control Freak is wired to react to the external environment based on its past experience. If you meet something in your environment that you have never experienced before then you effectively have no ‘data’ with which the Inner Control Freak can call upon to help you determine what to do. This is why first-time experiences such as new jobs, new schools, new locations and parenthood can be so scary – they are unknown and unpredictable.

So how can you overcome the Inner Control Freak freak-out? The first step is to develop an awareness and understanding how your Inner Control Freak works. Daniel J. Siegel MD, in his book MindSight: Change Your Brain and Your Life, likens the human body to a complex, self-organising system which has the capability to be stable and adaptable even when exposed to external influences. Self-organising systems have a harmonious and ‘integrated flow,’ they shape their own unfolding, their flow is not governed by a program (belief), a programmer (the Inner Control Freak), nor any outside force. If you’re not governed by a past program or habitual reaction to the external world, you are in the present. When all of your attention is in the ‘now’ you are fully equipped and ready to respond to change. Just consider how much easier it is to be flexible and adapt when you are not bound by your past experiences and your rules or expectations of what should happen or how you should respond.

Siegel says that a self-organising system achieves harmonious flow when it is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energised and Stable and relates this flow to the central channel of a river on which one side is the ‘bank of rigidity’ and the other side is the ‘bank of chaos.’ When we move toward the bank of rigidity we feel stuck and when we move toward the bank of chaos life feels unpredictable and out of control. He further explains:

 …when we are well and atease, we move along this winding path of harmony, the integrated flow of a flexible system. We sense the familiar but we are not trapped by it. We live at the threshold of the unknown and have the courage to move into new and uncharted waters. This is living life as it unfolds, in a flowing journey between rigidity and chaos. (p.70)

Since the Inner Control Freak’s need for control is aimed at avoiding the chaos of the unknown by clinging to the riverbank of rigidity, all you need to do is ask it to let go! You can thank the Inner Control Freak for alerting you to your fears of chaos, reassure it that you will be fine and gently ask it to let go of control. 

While letting go of control is simple, it not always easy and the Inner Control Freak may not be ready to let go of the riverbank. Remember that it believes it is unsafe and incapable in the face of change, so in order to let go of control you need to stop relying on external evidence or your past programming to determine your sense of safety, confidence and capability. You need to let go of the riverbank and trust you’ll float into the middle channel of harmonious flow. This means becoming present, bringing your attention to the now (not what’s happened in the past or what will happen in the future), having courage, calling upon your inner knowing and resources and trusting yourself and your capabilities. Think about when you first learned to walk – you had no previous experience, no evidence to prove that you could do it.  You simply trusted that you had the capability to do it and you did it. Note also that if you fell over it didn’t matter, you just got up and tried again!

What if you could know that you are fully capable of meeting whatever challenge arises? What if you could be confident that you are resilient and resourceful enough to handle anything that comes your way? What if you could feel assured that you are safe and secure even when you don’t know what is about to happen? What if you could just trust yourself? Trust that you are safe, capable, resourceful and resilient. When you draw your attention back to the presentmoment, to this inner knowing that you are safe and capable and away from the Inner Control Freak’s fears and lack of confidence (replaying your past experiences or worrying about the ‘lack’ of evidence), you are ready to let go of the riverbank of rigidity and go with the flow…