Relax, Nothing is Under Control

Catches your attention, this headline, doesn’t it?

The first time I saw this quote, “Relax, nothing is under control,” I was partly intrigued, partly horrified, and most importantly, greatly relieved.

It surprised me, this idea that nothing is under control could be relief, but it is. Let’s examine this concept of control and why letting go of it can be so helpful.

We all need some degree of control over all world. When we have problems—say, our car breaks down at the side of the road—we need to know we can fix that problem, in this case by calling a roadside service, calling a loved one for help, or changing the tire ourself. It’s great to have efficacy, and the idea of not having it is, for all of us, scary. Most of us love predictability and hate change. When things stay the same, we’re good! But when change comes our way, we become afraid and try to feel less anxious and afraid by trying to control things more and more.

It’s understandable this would happen. In American culture in particular, we’re told we can do anything and have it all if we just work hard enough, figure it all out, and overcome that adversity. There’s enormous pressure to appear to others that we’re on top of things and don’t struggle…anything less means we’re somehow not measuring up. Whenever we have a problem or are struggling, we figure we are the problem. We have very little patience for having a hard time and want to make that anxiety go away…So we try harder, work harder, problem solve, and attempt to figure things out until we’re exhausted by all the effort.

It’s just, does that really work? Do our efforts to control really pay off? The answer is an emphatic….sometimes. For example, we can decide that we want to be kind, and be kind. We can realize we feel sluggish and choose to exercise. It’s great that we do have control over some things, and that thing is usually us. But other times, we attempt to control things that are out of control, such as other people and events in our lives.

Regarding our control of people—and I know this is hard to hear— lot of our upset feelings stem from our own anxieties about them…not always their behavior. We’re anxious and afraid, and we try to control that for ourselves through control. We might check their location on our cell phone a hundred times a day or becoming overly involved in their lives…and then we have a relationship problem. We also have an anxiety problem, as anxiety tends to increase the more we focus on the issue, either through our behavior or merely worrying about it a lot.

We can also try to control events, for example, by over planning a dinner party or presentation. The problem is that when the event is over, we have to go through the exact same exhaustive effort as before…and never really resolve our anxiety. We might check the door locks repetitively in an attempt to feel better about possible break-ins, but then we become more preoccupied with them, and our anxiety increases. In these cases, we become trapped in a really unpleasant loop of anxiety > control > wash, rinse, repeat. It’s really hard.

We really escalate our control efforts when things aren’t going our way, such as when we’re facing difficulty in our relationship, a job loss, or illness. Famed author Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that it can feel easier to try to control things—by getting angry at an injustice, exhaustively researching the issue, insisting on change—than it is to recognize that many things are out of our hands. Letting go of the illusion of control can be so scary that we are unwilling to even look at that possibility.

Strangely, we exert control not only through our behaviors but also in the way that we think. Have you ever had a problem that you just kept thinking about, worrying about, and analyzing….and all that happened was, your anxiety just kept going up and you couldn’t find the solution you were looking for? We often think, “If I just think about this some more, I will find a solution and then I’ll feel better!” Sometimes that may work, but many times what we think is problem solving is actually worry and an attempt to control our own anxiety.

Our highly evolved, thinking brains aren’t helping us these days. We can literally spend all of our time in our heads trying to control our thoughts, “problem solve,” “figure it out,” thinking we’ll then feel better, but meanwhile we’re missing what’s going on outside our heads, in our actual life.

It’s worth asking ourselves, What impact are these control efforts having on me? Some likely answers are:

  • Increased fear and never-ending anxiety
  • Overfixation on the problem, not enjoying life
  • Never-ending loops of exhausting effort
  • Anger and upset feelings when things don’t go our way
  • Impaired relationships
  • No serenity due to lack of acceptance that problems are a part of life

Do you recognize, perhaps, that the more you’ve tried to control things—either in your head or through your behavior—the more you’ve lost your peace of mind, and that you haven’t solved the problem?

Let’s reexamine our quote, then, Relax, Nothing is under control. To me, it’s a relief to realize that I can stop with the exhaustive effort, recognize that just because I’m struggling it doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong…and let go of control.

It reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Often, I find that I’m trying to change things I can’t, before it’s time, or before I’m ready…either through my actions I take or overthinking things.

Wouldn’t it be better to be at peace in the face of a problem—to be accepting of it—rather than always rallying against it, likely in futile ways. We may not be able to find answers in the timeline we had in our head, and that’s okay. We can exercise our “letting go” muscles and wait for the answers to appear.

In short, It’s a relief to learn to

Relax, nothing is under control.

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