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Have you ever felt the need to take control of a situation, perhaps to the point that you’re micromanaging yourself and others? Our innate drive to control is rooted in a desire to feel safe and happy, but it can ultimately backfire and keep us from attaining true fulfillment. But giving up this control is easier said than done. 

Many people must have control in various parts of their lives—as managers, parents, and decision-makers. If you feel that your desire for control extends beyond those realms, it may be time to shift your outlook and take the path towards greater happiness.

Why We Like Control

Control comes when we’re attached to specific outcomes, whether or not they are the most likely, the best for us, or even the easiest. Needing to have control comes from a place of fear, and conditions like anxiety and depression can exacerbate our fears and thus our need for control. Paraphrasing Buddhist principles, Dr. William Berry explains that “when one wants things to be different than they are, when one attaches themselves to good feelings and attempts to avoid bad feelings, when one attempts to control their life to exclude everything they do not like, suffering occurs.” The way to happiness is to let go of control and learn to accept things as they are rather than as you wish they’d be.

Signs You’re Over-Controlling

If you suspect you might be letting the need for control take charge of your life, look out for these common signs of an over-controlling perspective, and then take steps to adjust your outlook.

  • Being a relentless people-pleaser
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Being critical of others as a primary response
  • Unwillingness to accept anything but the best from others
  • Loneliness
  • Inability to let go of mistakes
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Below are some tips to help you let go of your need to control.

Pinpoint the Fear

Since the need for control is most often tied to fear, pinpointing the specific fear is an essential first step. Instead of knowing that you’ll feel “upset” if plans don’t go accordingly, ask yourself what exactly would happen if things derailed: “If we don’t arrive at 10:30, what will happen? What am I afraid of?” Then you can address the specific fear rather than trying to overcome a vague feeling with broadly applied control.

Identify Whose Business You’re In

Often our need for control extends beyond the things that impact us directly. We want to control other people and their environment as well. When you think you may be over-controlling, ask yourself whose business you’re in—is this something you should be exerting direct influence over? If not, step aside.

Find the Actual Work

Letting go of control doesn’t mean there’s nothing we should contribute to a situation. Finding the actual work that requires our attention is an excellent way to let go of the need for total control. Instead of controlling all of the details for your family vacation, focus on the packing list and flights. Rather than trying to control your coworkers’ response to a new policy, focus on writing up valuable examples to explain the changes. Shifting your view from controlling outcomes to controlling products is a simple way to find the actual work that needs your focus.

Develop a Neutral Relationship with “Negative” Emotions

This step is perhaps the most challenging but also the most critical. Emotions like disappointment, sadness, confusion, and frustration are often seen in a negative light—and why shouldn’t they be? Spending a day feeling these things is uncomfortable and can overshadow the other bright spots in our lives. Because letting go of control can open the door to these emotions, it’s essential to reframe your relationship with them from “bad” to “neutral.” Let yourself notice and name these emotions, then move along. You can sit in these feelings without actively fighting against them or halting your other plans. Once you make peace with the idea that you’re not trying at all costs to avoid these feelings, you’ll have less of a reason to try controlling your life to prevent them.

Replace Control with Mindfulness

Once you’ve identified your need for control and adjusted the way you approach situations and decisions, you’ll be ready to move forward with a life that’s open to more happiness and fulfillment. Replace your old, controlling patterns with mindfulness practices as soon as possible to take advantage of the momentum. Spend time each day sitting quietly, noticing your thoughts, and letting them pass without judgment. Over time, you’ll see that your thoughts shift from those of fear and anxiety towards excitement. You’ll feel free from the restraints of control once you’re able to accept things as they are.