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38. How Much Control Do You Need?

In a recent tip by Michael Neill ( he tells the story of a trainer pilot who, on a training flight, loses control of the plane. He radios the control centre, panic-stricken. 'I'm out of control, please help, please help!' The controller says, 'Take your hands and feet off the controls immediately.' To the trainer pilot, who has been desperately trying to get the plane back on track, this sounds like lunacy. 'No, please, please, tell me what to do, the plane is going down!'. The controller repeats the instruction. 'Take your hands and feet off the controls now!' What the controller might have told the pilot is that the trainer planes were designed to right themselves automatically if all the controls are released. This week's tip is about control, what you try to control, why and how you do it, and whether you have too much or too little of it in your life. Why do we need control? Some people are very obvious in their need for control. We sometimes call them control freaks. They tend to like things done in their way on their time scale, and they tend to think they are right. I have been accused of being one myself, mostly by my daughters. This usually happens around the time I am having one of my tidying up blitzes. I want the house tidied up, now, and I am as sure as I can be that I am right about the need for it to be done. Other people are more subtle, often using passive resistance to get what they want, but are often no less controlling. These people may be on the receiving end of the control freak. They nod nicely, and then quietly ignore whatever it is they've been asked to do. The more I observe people the more I am beginning to see that we are all control freaks, in our own special way. We just vary as to what it is we want to control, and how we do it. People try and control things on the outside mostly because they want to control the way they feel on the inside. My tidying splurges coincide with a bad feeling about the mess the house is in. What I want to do is get rid of that feeling as soon as possible, and I want everyone else to join in. Sometimes we're motivated less by fixing bad feelings than by avoiding them in the first place. Someone who likes a firm control on their finances, for example, might be avoiding the fear of being in debt or unable to pay their bills. The boss who can never delegate anything wants to avoid the fear that the job will be done badly, and the consequences if it is. The person who likes to schedule their tasks wants to avoid feeling overwhelmed. If one was to pick one thing that most of us are keen to avoid it is fear, and a lack of control is a swift route to fear. In the famous Whitehall study of civil servants, heart attacks were not more common among the alpha male top executives, as had been expected, but in the lowly clerks. Heart attacks correlated with stress, and what seemed to precipitate stress was not responsibility but lack of control. The further down the pecking order a person was, the less control they had. Junior staff were more likely to have to clock in, fill in leave forms, be supervised, and do what they were told every minute of the day. Top executives had high octane responsibility, but they could plan their days, decide what they needed to do, and were trusted to put in the time. Too much or too little? There is nothing wrong with control, we all need it. Like most things, though, you can want too much of it, and you can settle for too little of it. While the right balance varies from person to person, we're not always conscious of what that balance is for us, erring instead to one side or the other. Signs that we may be erring on the side of needing too much control include regular conflict, stress, an overwhelming drive to get things done now, anger/panic/upset if things don't go our way, complaints of being too controlling from other people. Signs that we are erring on the side of not having or exerting enough control in our lives include doing or accepting things with a bad grace, anxiety, resentment and anger towards people who control you, lethargy and a loss of motivation, a sense of giving up. Resignation v acceptance Ruth is a senior editor working for a large publishing firm. She's used to taking a lot of responsibility, both for herself and her team, but a new chief executive has arrived and she likes to know everything that Ruth is doing. She insists on weekly meetings, checks up on what she's done, asks for all her decisions to be 'put by her' before executing them. Before long Ruth is feeling anxious in the knowledge that she is always being checked on, has difficulty planning her work because her CE keeps telling her to do things differently, and is losing confidence. She talks to the CE about it but the CE responds by increasing the level of monitoring as she's nervous that Ruth is 'not on top of the job.' At last Ruth gives up. She does everything the CE wants, and stops trying to plan her work. She loses enthusiasm for her work, her performance drops and, after a year, Ruth is depressed and anxious and goes on sick leave. This is resignation, and is not to be confused with acceptance and letting go. Resignation is when you've tried everything to gain some control and you finally realise that nothing is going to work and you're going to have to put up with whatever it is. Lots and lots of resignation leads to depression. It is a losing of energy in the face of hopelessness. Letting go is when you suddenly realise that your life would be a whole lot better if you did. It's deciding that your child is motivated enough to do their homework without you setting a timetable for them. It's realising that it doesn't really matter it the job you've asked your junior to do is not done perfectly so you don't have to keep monitoring them. It's accepting that you can let somebody do something their way without your world falling apart. It's like breathing again when you've been holding your breath for a long time. The overwhelming feeling is relief and a sense of freedom. Try this: 1. What people or things in your life do you like to control? It may be your home environment, the behaviours of people in your home or your workplace, where to go on holiday, what you (and others) are going to do, and when, your appearance, other people's appearance, what you (and others) eat, and so on. 2. Take an example, perhaps one that regularly causes you problems. What are you trying to achieve or avoid by controlling this thing? It will help to consider what might happen, or not happen, if you fail to control it. 3. How have you attempted to gain that control, and how effective have you been? What else could you try? 4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of trying to control this thing? 5. Is there anything you would like to let go of? What would that be like? 6. Is there anything in your life you would like to control more? How could you do that, and what would it be like? Have a great week!

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