The other day, I saw a scene from a TV show in which a therapist told her client: “You are in control of your life. Go out and claim it!"
While well-intentioned, this line summarizes a common misconception about the life design work that I do with my clients: that the point is to be in control of your life.
Sure, we should all feel empowered that we can make change in our lives. But there is a rigidity and fear that comes with control that often keeps us from the very outcome we are trying to achieve.
Let me explain by introducing you to three of my clients, Anna, Emily, and Lana. Each of them loves to be in control, and is thwarted by control in their own unique way.
Anna, the Overwhelmed Controller
Anna was a program manager, and was fantastic at her job because she loved being in control of the process. Her dream, however, was to be an entrepreneur. And that is where she was getting stuck. She just couldn’t seem to motivate herself to work on her start-up project.
Despite her “best intentions,” she would find any excuse to avoid her project: go grocery shopping, celebrate a friends-neighbor’s-cousin’s birthday, etc. It didn’t make rational sense. After all, Anna was amazing at completing projects at work. Why couldn’t she do the same thing for her personal project?
But here is the key difference between her job and her start-up project: she didn’t feel in control of her start-up project. She thrived at work because she knew exactly what she could expect, and could control each situation to get her desired outcome, every time.
But she had never been an entrepreneur before, and had no idea what to expect. Will my idea work? Where will my clients come from? Will the industry embrace my concept? She wasn’t sure. The inability to control those outcomes overwhelmed her and paralyzed her with fear and uncertainty.
Which is why she chose to do anything other than work on her project. Can you relate?
In order to get Anna in motion, we worked on her embracing the unknown, letting go of control, and surrendering to the crazy adventure that is starting a company. This changed everything for Anna, and she threw herself into her project … it was even fun. I am happy to report that Anna released her first product at the beginning of this month, and is happier than I have ever seen her.
Emily, the Regretful Controller
Another client, Emily, came to me because she was at a career crossroads. She felt that her career thus far had been a series of bad decisions, in reaction to “random” opportunities that came her way, without any sort of conscious design or foresight. She would spend hours regretting past decisions: that she didn’t go to grad school, that she didn’t accept a job at the other firm, that she didn’t negotiate a better starting salary, etc.
Emily practically had self-inflicted PTSD from all mental beatings that she gave herself! It was no wonder, then, that she felt paralyzed about which career move to make next. If she made “the wrong choice” again, it would just mean more beatings.
We solved Emily’s paralysis by getting her to see that her regret was actually a form of control… of the past! It truly bothered her that she hadn’t controlled things “properly” in the past, and so she tried the next best thing: to control how things “could have gone” in hindsight. This truly is control-gone-bad.
Emily let go of control of the past by accepting that she had made the best decisions that she could at the time, and that the outcomes were not necessarily entirely in her control. This removed the pressure she had been putting on her next career decision, and allowed her to get playful with her options. She was able to truly ask herself what she wanted to do next, not what would be the least-regrettable decision.
Lana, the Critical Controller
Lana came to me because she was unsure if she should stay with her boyfriend. She unfurled a list of dozens upon dozens of things that she didn’t like about him, and wasn’t sure if she could live with for the rest of her life. He didn’t talk enough. His friends were geeky. His parents were “bumpkins." He didn’t have an adventuresome palate. And on and on.
Lana had an exact image of how she wanted her boyfriend to be, and her criticisms were a sideways attempt to force him into aligning with that image. Subconsciously, she thought that by nit-picking him, she could control him to make him the man she wanted. Or at least give it her best attempt.
The problem with Lana’s strategy was that, in trying to control her boyfriend, she was robbing herself of the chance to truly know him... for who he was. She was more concerned with how well he aligned with her image of a “perfect boyfriend” than with building a relationship with the actual man.
The solution was to stop trying to control the poor man, and build a relationship with him, exactly as he was. In so doing, she could then determine if it was the right relationship for her.
In the cases of Anna, Emily, and Lana, their desire for control kept them stuck from being able to move forward. The solution was to let go of the need to control and instead appreciate and enjoy the adventure of exploring the unknown.
This does not mean that they abandoned the vision of what they wanted in their careers and relationships. On the contrary, they each were inspired by the future that they wanted to build for themselves, and were committed to creating it. Letting go of control simply meant that they were more free to take the inspired actions that would get them there… and appreciate the journey along the way.
Where is your sense of control holding you back? Write a note and share!
Photo Courtesy of Christine Curtin