NEED TO BE IN CONTROL? You may be making yourself more anxious
by Neil Fiore, PhD author of The Now Habit www.neilfiore.com
Executive and Personal Coaching
Our fear of mistakes, embarrassment, loss, or criticism can lead to futile attempts at controlling life, others, and the outcome of events. This only leads to greater anxiety.
Having faced several life-threatening experiences by the age of 32, including a “terminal cancer” diagnosis, I know the power of coming to term with death and loss. I’m a big fan of facing fears immediately, saying to myself, “Yes, I could die in that situation; I could suffer loss with that person. I will choose what to do. I may not win, but I will play full out.”
Fear has its purposes and survival value. It warns us to be careful; to avoid being too impulsive or acting without enough knowledge, or to even procrastinate at times. Fear, like worry, asks us to do a Risk-Benefit Analysis from our higher, human brain (prefrontal cortex) and to make plans for survival.
I also know how denying our human vulnerability and trying to avoid what you fear can lead to destructive procrastination, attempts at control, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Fear builds when you try to control what happens in life or how others feel about you. The more important the goal, the more you try to get control which only makes you feel frustrated and out of control, often leading to panic. Control is like potato chips, you will always want more. It’s a dangerous drug and an illusion. On the one hand we have limited control over life and, on the other we can be very powerful in creating a comfortable living environment, friends, a delicious meal, plans, products and services, and a meaningful life. The trick is knowing the edges of what we control and when we must let go of trying to control.
To say make this point more succinctly, take a look at my version of the very elegant Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot control; courage to work on what I can control [mostly my attitude and how I treat myself], and wisdom to know the difference.
Instead of trying to control or trying to avoid what you fear might happen it is more empowering to face the worst that could happen—even death, loss, embarrassment, rejection, or loneliness. Facing fear reduces the fear; breaks the habit of fear and avoidance, and sets you free. Perhaps, just as “the truth will set you free,” so facing the truth of your human vulnerability also sets you free.
For procrastinators this means learning to face your fear of mistakes, criticism, self-doubt, and the awful self-threat that you would make yourself miserable if you fail.
For those who suffer from anxiety, chronic worry, or OCD, the fear of not being in control can lead to extreme anxiety and a full-blown panic attack. Yet lessening or curing OCD [and overcoming procrastination] requires that you repeatedly face your fears in small, manageable bites. This really means that you fully accept yourself as human and, therefore, as vulnerable to mistakes, hurts, loss, and joy. Perhaps it is this full acceptance of yourself that lessens fear and the need to control. Instead of trying to be like a god, an angel, or a Peter Pan who flies above human difficulties, you join with the rest of us in the humus, the humility, the humanity of being earthbound. Release the struggle of trying to control, let your muscles and mind relax and then discover that the chair, the floor, the earth, and the bed will hold you. Discover that you don’t have to try so hard alone; you’re connected and supported. For coaching and webinars see www.neilfiore.com