Not trying to control your world

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A flower doesn’t try to control its world.  That’s why it’s often a symbol of peace. Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash

We all have them.  Ways of keeping our world clean, tidy and controllable.  The list is endless, but among the key ways we try to gain order in our world are:

  • trying to control what we eat
  • trying to control what people say and think about us
  • trying to keep our environment clean
  • trying to control the flow of money to us
  • trying to create ideals, whether it be the ideal home, relationship, job, holiday, etc
These are all reasonable things, in moderation.  But they are also, taken to extremes, the causes of much mental illness.

HOW CONTROL CAN TURN INTO UNHAPPINESS

Here is a series of simple personal profiles:

Anna makes severe attempts to manage what she eats.  Periodically, she launches into an extremely low calorie diet, which deprives her of certain nutrients.  She sets intermediate goals, and imagines an ideal self when she gets to her final goal.  She suffers terribly during the diet.  Once she achieves her goal weight, she stays there for a while, and then starts to relax.  She enjoys life, including takeaways, drinking, and snacks, until she starts to put on weight again.  Once she is heavy again, she makes another severe attempt to diet.

Geoff is triggered by other people’s comments.  In the pub, if someone argues with him, he flies into a rage, and has a confrontation.  This results in serious relationship problems.  Everyone who becomes close to him finds the same thing: he is extremely sensitive to perceived slights to his rightness or reputation, and can’t let things go.  Eventually, many friends drift away, preferring to be in more relaxed company.

Jean obsessively cleans her environment when no one is looking.  She cleans the basins, the floors, the walls – everything. She cleans until her skin is raw.  It has become a comforting habit for her – a routine she cannot do without.

Richard is a deal-maker.  He pushes hard, and is known for it.  Every time someone does a piece of work for him, they get the sense of being used.  He will frequently refuse to pay the full amount due, and then shut the other person out when they complain about it.  He sees himself as the ultimate businessman – to him, the world is a jungle, and you have to fight hard not to be taken advantage of.  Anyone who thinks differently is a mug.

Juliet spends ages getting her hair, makeup and nails done.  She doesn’t feel right unless she is perfectly dressed.  She goes on dates, but never goes beyond the initial dating stage, because she does not want anyone to see her without her makeup.  She goes on singles holidays, and posts perfect photos to social media of her surroundings.  Inside, she wants to relax with a person she trusts.  But she also feels she cannot let her guard down, and that anyone who saw beyond her perfeect exterior wouldn’t like what they saw.

THE SYMPTOMS

Reading the above profiles, you may recognise people you know.  They are common traits.  The reason I highlight them is because they reflect some of the most common ways in which people become unhappy.

I have no problem with anyone doing anything they want.  But if it causes them unhappiness, then that’s a different issue.  That’s often why people come to counselling – because they are unhappy, and suspect something is wrong with the balance of their life.

Here are symptoms which Anna, Geoff, Jean, Richard and Juliet may share, if they take their behaviour to extremes:

  • Anxiety, caused by the conflict between their ideal protected state, and the world’s tendency to disrupt that ideal state
  • Loneliness, caused by the need to withdraw from, or argue with, the world when it does disrupt their ideal state
  • Depression, caused by the starvation of some part of themselves with a little voice, by another part of themselves with a louder voice
Just to clarify that last one… essentially, a little voice in all of us wants to be acceptable and accepted for who we are, in our simple form.  But a bigger voice in all of us acts like a dictator, and insists, very judgementally, that acceptance is conditional on achieving certain things.  If the big voice wins too much, we eventually get exhausted by what it puts us through, and get depressed.

AN EXERCISE

Maybe reflect on what you try to control.  What is it that you keep on doing, in order to make the world more acceptable?  is it exhausting?

What would it be like to stop playing that game?  What would it be like to accept things as they are.  What would it be like to accept the world exactly as it is; to accept others exactly as they are; and to accept ourselves exactly as we are?

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SUMMARY

We all tend to try to control the world.

In moderation, this is reasonable.  In excess, it can cause anxiety, loneliness and depression.

We can reflect on our own controlling tendencies, and teach ourselves to accept the world, others, and ourselves, just as we are.

This can lead to greater happiness.

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