We need to talk about control and mess

Have you ever seen a river complain that it’s falling apart? Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash
We are obsessed, most of us, about keeping control of life.  Whether it’s our diet, our relationships, our work… all the metaphors we use are about ‘holding it together’, or ‘keeping on top of things’ – as though life were a cross between an unglued Airfix kit and a wrestling match.  And when we feel like we’re losing control, we use language such as ‘I’m falling apart’, and ‘life’s getting on top of me’.

If life really was a wrestling match, or something we have to try to hold together, then the universe is playing a cruel joke.  Relationships are messy by their very nature.  Our bodies are literally falling apart every moment.  And, seeing as we live on such a small planet, most of the matter in known space is ‘on top of us’.  We have lost before we start.


I would like to suggest that we review the words we use to describe our lives, and our moods.  Without going into it in depth, it’s worth referring to the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow. Have you ever tried ‘holding together’ the water coming out of a tap, or a river, with your bare hands?  It’s not really the point, is it?  You can play with it, and maybe contain it a while… but it has its own life.  It might be better to work with it and not against it.

By using such prejudiced metaphors as ‘falling apart’ (so prevalent in love songs!), we are glorifying a polarisation between being in control on the one side, and being completely powerless on the other.  It’s a false distinction, and perhaps our language needs to reflect a better relationship between control and mess, one that gives lack of full control a chance to receive a better press.


Here are some alternatives to saying ‘my life is a mess’:

  • I’m going through a transition
  • Today’s full of change
  • Life decided to set sail today
  • My power structures are having a rest
  • I’m being visited by a flow I don’t understand yet
  • I’m swimming in new water
  • All my usual ideas are having a rest
You may not like all these, and something else may occur to you.  My main point is, I think we talk ourselves down at times where we feel we lack control; and ironically, if we embrace that lack of control, we may receive something even better than control.

So next time you’re unsure, maybe don’t say ‘I’m indecisive,’ or ‘I’m faffing!’  Maybe say ‘I’m withholding judgement’, or ‘I’m conserving my energy’.  It’s more optimistic, and it gives credit to experience by offering value to times of change, when we aren’t in charge.

What’s so good about being in charge anyway?  True self-mastery, I suspect, is kinder to the ‘messy’ self, and values flow.  It doesn’t mean that we are undisciplined – just that we acknowledge and accept that ‘breaking up’ is as much a part of growth as ‘holding it together’.