Why letting go of control feels like dying but can save your life

15 May 2016

Why letting go of control feels like dying but can save your life

Control is a fundamental part of life.

Our body is an exquisite mechanism. Our lungs expand, our heart is beating, the digestive system is feeding our body, all the organs are working in a symphony to create an orchestra of a living being.

But who's in control of all of that?

Are you in control of the heart? Or the breath? And what about your own mind?

Most of the time we go about our day taking the basic things that ensure our very life for granted.

We don't even notice them let alone having a sense of control over them.

We spend an enormous amount of time wrapped up in our stories. Thinking, worrying, making to-do lists, remembering, ruminating, judging, planning.

Then we execute these plans always doing something. Never finished. Always on the go because there is the next thing to learn and to do.

And as the saying goes life is short so speed it up, be faster so you can do more, be more, have more, reach more... and the chase never ends.

The mind is a a good slave but a bad master.

It's easy to identify with everything that the mind is telling us because in all the doing we don't have the time to distinguish between the thinking and the observer of the thought. Most of the time we are just a character in a play that was written in our thinking mind.

And yet there is the space.

Somewhere between you and your thoughts, emotions, urges, pain, and desires is space.

When we miss the space, we are out of complete control over our own Selfs living on an autopilot, and so we do the next most reasonable thing, we exert control over everything and everybody around us in order to feel in control.

Sense of control keeps us alive

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control and some things are not. It is only after you have learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility become possible.
~ Epictetus

From the evolutionary point of view feeling a strong sense of control is a matter of life or death. It is an innate need imperative to our well-being.

But the sense of control is just a thought. A perception. When we think and feel in control, we trust our abilities to adjust any situation we find ourselves in to our favor.

People with a strong sense of control tend to aim higher and achieve more whereas people with a low sense of control are at greater risk of mental health problems.

Even children as young as 15 months have developed a preference to exert control. For example once they master the ability to feed themselves, they are defiant of their parent's attempts to control this ability.

We thrive when we have feelings of safety and certainty. And we do relatively better when we have a sense of control even if we do something harmful to ourselves.

On the contrary, we experience strong aversion when the sense of control is removed, and we try to regain it in any way we find possible even if it involves irrational and harmful behavior.

The sense of control and its effect on mental health

The sense of control and the ways we exert control have an immeasurable impact on our mental health.

When we suddenly lose the sense of control as it often happens in the major events of our lives, we may start to feel hopeless and threatened which can lead to depression and anxiety.

On the other hand, extreme overestimating of perceived control may lead to dangerous risk-taking.

And while it is a natural way of trying to re-establish safety, struggles to regain the sense of control are also believed to be at the core of mood disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse.

When we lose the sense of control, we're constantly on a lookout to find new ways to exert control to regain the sense of safety and certainty. It is a way we cope with our uncomfortable feelings.

When we're stuck in traffic, we may flip the radio stations because that may be the only thing we think we can control in that moment. We may plan obsessively, get lost in thinking, clean the house obsessively, manipulate others. We may get tattoos, drink, count calories, self-harm, or become violent.

The major issue with the ways we exert control or things that help us let go of control like drugs is that they often start to control us. In other words, we may feel a little more in control, but we are actually being controlled.

Even something as tragic as suicide is a last resort to exert control. Feeling as if we don't have control over our mind and feelings is the scariest and most painful experience that we can encounter in our lives.

Why letting go of control feels like dying but can save your life

When we feel out of control and try to control the uncontrollable

We've all experienced controlling behavior.

We tend to control our environment, situations, the way we do things, outcomes or others.

Surely you found yourself at least once in a situation where someone else tried to control you. We all know the 'don't do this' and 'you should do this' and 'do it this way' talks. And let's be honest you may recall the time when you tried to control somebody else. Most likely your spouse or children and even pets.

Unfortunately, for our controlling nature, people also have a strong need for autonomy which means we don't really like to be controlled. And we often get angry and frustrated when others don't behave the way we want them to.

When we overly control others, we may end up unhappy and unsuccessful simply because making others unhappy makes us unhappy too. And if we surround ourselves only with agreeable people our decision making will become poor due to the lack of diversity of opinions from others.

Trying to control outcomes and environment can be similarly disappointing. We know things can never turn out as perfect as we plan them and yet we try so hard for them to be just so which often causes anxiety, anger and frustrations.

Finding awareness 

Dealing with our controlling nature is a balancing act. Too little sense of control may not be the best, nor too much of it. We need to find the right amount that will serve us but even if we do, the key is to find the best places to exert this control.

The starting point is taking personal responsibility and learning to gain a sense of control over the internal while at the same time letting go of the tight grip over the external.

To do so, we need to challenge our habits and beliefs.

Our beliefs are like a building foundation of the house called Self. Everything is built on top of those beliefs, and the house can only be as strong as the beliefs. If the house gets easily shaken and torn down by the winds the life blows at it, the foundation is not very strong.

Similarly, our habits which have been created through observation of our family when we were just babies and often carried on into our adult life, have an enormous impact on the course of our lives and the amount of suffering we go through.

Every day when we act out of a habit whether we realize it or not, we are strengthening this habit feeding it until it becomes so strong that it seems impossible to stop acting out of it.

But there are tools and techniques that help us bring awareness to our thoughts and habits. When we bring awareness to the ways in which we tend to control, one day we reach a place where we're ready to let go of them.

Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, or any therapy can help us notice them and heighten our tolerance to them.

Through this gentle learning about ourselves, we're also gaining a sense of control over ourselves, but don't get confused here, we can't really control our mind and thoughts or feelings. It's impossible.

Thoughts are just like the clouds in the sky. They come and go. Sometimes they're dark, sometimes they are complex, sometimes they are fluffy and soft. Our job is not to get tangled in them and give them control over ourselves simply by being an observer of the landscape of the sky rather than joining in for the ride.

We can do the same with feelings, with the aches of the body or all of its reactions just by bringing our attention to them and finding the space between the observer and them.

Letting go of control

“Was it hard?" I ask.
Letting go?"
Not as hard as holding on to something that wasn't real.”
~ Lisa Schroeder
Letting go of control really means that we are letting go of the fear that is behind our controlling nature. Once, many of the fears we have today ensured our survival and still do, but when the fears start to interfere with our lives to the point where it actually threatens our lives as well as the life of humanity and all the life on this planet, it's time to move up on the evolutionary ladder.

Letting go of control is one of the most liberating things in life.

But first, we need to learn to withstand the discomfort of feeling the fear, acknowledge it, and really feel it.

And then when we slowly get more and more familiar with the uncomfortable feelings standing in them every day a little longer than the previous until we've practiced enough, we can finally let go of the uncomfortable itself and leap with trust into the abyss of life.


(learn more about experiments here)

Experiment: learning to be okay with not knowing and uncertainty

Our happiness is dependent on the relationship we have with uncertainty, and so we need to learn to withstand the not knowing. Letting go of knowing and embracing uncertainty opens immeasurable amount of possibilities for our growth and our life.

So this month I will challenge myself by trying to push my own boundaries of feeling uncertainty. Every time I get too wrapped up in my mind's stories, I'll try to stop myself and find the space. When I catch myself, I'll stop and say “I don't know”.

If you want to join me, you can choose any phrase or mantra that you prefer.

I chose I don't know because it's my nature to be 'the know it all'. I find safety in knowing. It's a way I exert control, but it often brings disappointment, frustration, and a hard time in communication. Most of the time it's all just assumptions or things that I've learned but haven't had a first time experience with, so I can't really assume they're the truth. I don't know.

After “I don't know.” I am going to examine what I do know from my sensory experiences and let go of all the rest - all the meanings, stories, and theories that my mind comes up with.

You can look forward to a post about how the experiment unravelled.

Is controlling behavior a problem in your life? How do you deal with controlling people? Do you feel in control or struggle with it like me?

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