by Rachel Waxman, Ph.D.
You’ve got to feel sorry for two-year-olds: They want to be in charge so much that their answer to everything is, “No!” So when they get their own way, they might miss out on things (like new foods) that they really would like. And on the many occasions that something in the world does not meet their demands, they collapse into kicking and screaming fits.
At least after the toddlers grow up, the kicking and screaming tends to go down a notch. But actually, many of us never seem to lose that urgent desire to be in charge. This need for control can manifest in a lot of different ways. Some people refuse to do anything that was suggested by someone else (“Did she say, ‘You’ve got to feel sorry for two-year-olds? Well, I certainly don’t!”). Others take an interminable amount of time to make a decision, because a non-ideal outcome means that things just won’t be right. Still other people primarily have difficulty with delegating responsibility, or with making compromises in interpersonal relationships. People with these diverse habits are all unified by their perceived need to control the world around them, to mold it in accordance with their own ideas of how it should be. And all of these people continue to miss out on things that they would really enjoy.
For everybody described in the previous paragraph, there is good news: You can’t control everything. No matter what you do, it is mathematically impossible for you to exert that level of control. So there’s really no need to volunteer for all those headaches. Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe not. You may still be crying inside, “But I have to! If I don’t make things run smoothly, life will be intolerable. Or if I don’t at least try to control everything, people will walk all over me and I will accomplish nothing in life.” Fortunately, there is more good news. If you let go of the demand for control, you can use that energy to take actual command of your life. Instead of being pre-occupied with all the ways in which your control is imperfect, you can gracefully accept that all control is imperfect, and that your life is all the richer for it. You are not limited to the experiences and attitudes that you originally wished for or prescribed for yourself. Instead, you can live through a million things that you might never have imagined on your own, and discover strengths you never knew you had. Even more exciting, these myriad experiences come with a power much greater than that of control: the power of adaptation. This is the power to fully encounter your environment, not as something that needs to be controlled, but as something that you can learn from as well as affect. In order to adapt, you need to tune into reality and accept it for what it is. By doing so, you earn the capacity to mold your future as much as you can, without undue resentment of the parts that you cannot shape. There is a reason that adaptation, and not control, is a cornerstone of the Theory of Evolution. It is a more meaningful power – one that allows people to move into the unknown future stronger, more versatile, and less afraid. And since we’ve all managed to survive until this point, I think it’s a power that we can all harness somehow. May it serve you well.