I used to be a raging control freak. And the worst part was that I was good at it.
That’s the most dangerous kind of control freak to be – a successful one – because when I managed to get everything under control, life was great! But the moment I lost control, it created anxiety and frustration.
I couldn’t be happy until I got my way, and it was always a losing battle.
In order to free myself of the emotional roller coaster, I had to stop being a control freak and perfectionist.
I had to realize that life and the people in it are always changing, and attempting to control something that’s ever-changing never works.
Here’s how I got to that realization and freed myself from the soul-sucking control freak trap.
On Controlling Others
For me, my need for control always showed up the worst when I attempted to control other people. Controlling myself was easy. Controlling others tore me apart.
This manifested as chronic people pleasing – something I’m sure many of you can relate to – where I obsessed over cultivating good thoughts about myself in the minds of others.
(In this light, people-pleasing sounds narcissistic, doesn’t it?)
This would lead to endless frustration on my end, because it’s impossible to control the opinions of others 100% of the time. And that’s what people-pleasing is: the attempt to control the thoughts of others.
People-pleasers will try very hard to achieve 100% approval rates from others; and it’s a very hard-won battle. Some never win, and some get really close. But the few who don’t approve of you will immediately drown out the rest.
Why do we give away our power like this?
People are dynamic in nature, and attempting to create consistency in a dynamic landscape is self-defeating.
The day I realized this was the day everything changed.
Forget Efficiency & Perfection
I realized that being a control freak is a manifestation of the need for maximum efficiency (i.e. perfection), and that all control freaks are perfectionists. (Although many of us live in denial of this fact.)
Control freaks want to optimize everything to create the best good with the least effort.
We want to be the one driving so that we can take the shortest/fastest route. We want to be the one planning the event because we make the best/most-informed decisions.
We’re the ones thinking ahead, so we feel entitled to control things.
But in our pursuit of perfection, we miss out on a huge opportunity – the opportunity to embrace imperfection.
The Fear of Imperfection
Imperfection is, arguably, the spice of life.
But sometimes it’s scary. It means that we lose our efficiency and, as a consequence, lose something else along the way, like time, money, or whatever.
But is the stress about perfection worth it?
- Who cares if we don’t get from Point A to Point B fastest?
- Who cares if we don’t research every single one of our options before making a decision?
- Who cares if we don’t do all the best things?
Control freaks and perfectionists do. But we’re also the only ones getting upset over it, so we’re the only ones suffering.
And that’s just silly.
In our obsession over efficiency, we lose the ability to sit comfortably in the passenger seat and watch where life takes us.
We get too caught up in optimization and making everything perfect – and it makes us miss this moment.
And we were never meant to miss this moment.
This moment is always exactly what we need.
We need everything each moment has to offer – especially the imperfections. They have the most to teach us.
And the opportunity to appreciate imperfection is everywhere.
- When the driver takes the longer route, you get to enjoy the scenery
- When your friend chooses a sub-par restaurant, you get to enjoy the contrast
- When the trip doesn’t go as planned, you get enjoy what happens instead
There are so many other things you get the opportunity to enjoy when you aren’t busy trying to control everything.
Letting go of control releases us from the exhausting burden of maximum efficiency.
Taking the passenger seat releases us from the never-ending task of making everything perfect – and it’s such a relief!
I learned this the hard way.
Control Ruined My Best Friendship
Before I got into personal development, being a control freak was one of my biggest problems (unknown to me at the time).
And I think it ruined one of my best friendships.
She lives in Hawaii now, and I went to visit her for an 8-day vacation days a few years ago. It was an amazing trip! But I think my control over our agenda put massive strain on our relationship.
I was so caught up in trying to do all the best things on the island in those 8 days that I didn’t take proper consideration of what she wanted to do.
And, what’s worse, is that I resented what she wanted to do during the moments that she let me know, which was to do nothing. I resented the moments we had just laying around the apartment doing nothing.
In hindsight, those moments should have been treasured. What a luxury to sit around doing nothing! And it was a waste on me.
I was too concerned about all the opportunities missed outside to cherish the one we were having inside.
I missed the opportunity to be happy; and as a consequence, I made us both unhappy.
Spontaneity Helped My Relationship
Luckily, I learned from that mistake.
On another vacation, I went on a 10-day road trip up the west coast with my boyfriend at the time, and I was terrified at first.
What if I couldn’t handle that much time with him? What if we fought? And – worst of all – what if I tried to control things again?
Once I felt that fear within myself, I decided to make a change. I decided to relinquish control and dedicate myself to spontaneity as best as I could.
And the trip was amazing.
We did a bunch of things that we wouldn’t have discovered if planning was involved.
We ate at weird small-town diners, picked blackberries off the side of the road, and took naps in the middle of the day.
Those naps would have otherwise driven me crazy. The old-me would have screamed, “Oh no! We aren’t making the most of our day! Quick – drink some coffee! Stay awake! We cannot waste this day!”
And if I had allowed myself to give into those tendencies, I would have have fallen back into old controlling behavior and put strain on our relationship.
Fortunately, I didn’t.
And it made us both happy.
How to Relinquish Control and Be Happy
Letting go of some control has lead to much greater happiness and fulfillment in my life, and I’ve found that it requires these 3 things:
- Willingness to take the passenger seat
- Spontaneity (a partially unplanned agenda)
- Presence (total acceptance of what’s happening)
Taking the passenger seat can be frustrating to a control freak at first, but it gets easy with the other two ingredients: spontaneity and presence.
Spontaneity doesn’t mean that you have to go in completely blind. It just means leaving necessary wiggle room for something unplanned to occur.
It means letting go.
Once we let go of the tight grasp that we have on everything, we can finally relax. We can finally go with the flow and just be happy.
On your next trip, maybe you skip the agenda. Perhaps you just plan your location and one thing to do each day and leave the rest up in the air.
It’s scary, I know. But what’s the worst that could happen? You don’t get the most bang for your buck? I’d argue that spontaneity is worth more than a buck.
You get to live your life without worrying about controlling all the variables. You get to let someone else lead for once, and you develop humility along the way.
Life is not about your way or the highway. It’s about the memories you make with the people you love while driving on that highway – in the passenger seat.
And when you take that seat, you have to be open to a little inconvenience, trouble, and unknown mystery every once in a while.
And in exchange, everyone is happier.