Everyone Has a Control Freak Inside of Them

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

We, humans, are a pretty special species, if you ask me. Our brains are capable of the most amazing things: calculus, reading and writing, learning from our past and planning the future. Those brains serve us day in and day out in amazing ways, and sometimes, they go a bit overboard.

The past few weeks have showered me and my family with one unpredictable event after another. From the gallstone attacks to my cat needing to see the vet, to my upcoming operation and someone passing away in our family, life took its turns, as it will do from time to time.

When our life starts to become a series of unpredictable events, our brains are thrown for a loop. See, our brains pride themselves on being able to predict the future and, in general, they do a pretty good job. We can predict when that car will drive past or when we might get hungry again. We can predict how someone we know will respond in a certain situation and what will make us feel better. This ability to predict what will happen gives us a sense of security and safety.

So, when all of a sudden things happen that we can’t predict, we need to readjust. We can do that pretty well (again, great brains and all) but if we have to do it for a long time, it becomes unnerving. We start feeling insecure, tense, frustrated and even fearful. So our brains try to rectify this situation by trying to regain control over our environment.

I’ve noticed a particular tendency in the last weeks or so to look at organizing videos again (see this post). A dear friend who also has ADHD recommended the ClutterBug channel on youtube and I’ve been binging those videos while cooking, cleaning or taking a bath. Why? I can venture a guess: I’m trying to find a way to gain control over my life again when I’m getting the feeling that I’m losing it.

There are less benign ways of being controlling as well, when we try it with people, for example. In my case, my two victims are my children. When they are rowdy (in a joyful or aggressive way, doesn’t really matter), it pushes my buttons and I feel like I’m losing control of the situation (even if that’s not necessarily the case). It, invariably, results in a lot of yelling. My partner knows my moods and knows not to take things personally, but he doesn’t get a partner who’s relaxed and easy-going during these times either.

Whether it is through tightening our finances, cleaning, work, changing our eating habits (I eat less when stressed, others eat more), the way we talk to people, obsessive traits, self-medicating or locking ourselves in, each of us has a brain with a specific script for trying to regain control in an inherently unpredictable world. Our brains learned these strategies very early on, and, chances are, this happened completely subconsciously.

So how does it help to know all this? Well, there are a few ways in which this knowledge can help us. First of all, when we meet someone who seems very controlling, we now know that this is someone who is inherently afraid of losing control and afraid of what will happen when they do. What has made them so afraid is often unknown, and that’s important to keep in mind. We don’t know what experiences someone has been through, so we are in no place to judge. Does this mean we should let someone control us? No, not at all, but it can take the anger out of our response. “I see you would really like to have a clear space to feel calm and would like my help, but I have some work to attend to now” sounds very different from “stop telling me to clean up! It’s not even that messy so I don’t know why you’re freaking out!” Compassion and kindness are key (when are they ever not?)

Secondly, when you see yourself on the train heading toward Control Freak Station, it can be useful to take a look out the window and see what’s going on outside. Are you in between jobs? Pregnant with a new baby? Did you lose someone close to you or did your car break down? Are you unsure about one, two, or ten things in your life that you didn’t worry about a few weeks ago? All of the events above have the power to show us, very clearly, that life is inherently uncontrollable. And that is f*cking scary.

Is there something we can do about our controlling tendencies? One step we can take is to practice resting in the unknown. You can meditate on this (e.g. sit down for 5 minutes and stay with the idea of ‘unpredictability’ and whatever feelings this brings up for you). You can also divert your attention to things that are actually within your control: your breath, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the music you decide to put on, the mantra you play in your head. When you deliberately choose these little actions, it can help you find some stability to deal with the random stuff life throws at you.

Another helpful step for me is to reach out to the people around me and just tell them all the things that are going on, and that I’m having a hard time. We are biologically built for connection because as a species, our ability to cooperate is our strength. When life gets rough, we are much more likely to get through unscathed when we work together. “I have to do this alone” is probably the international control freak slogan, but if you counter it with “these people are willing to help me” it can do wonders for our hyped-up nervous systems.

In short: unpredictable life events throw our brains for a loop and make us want to control our environment, in whatever way our brain has learned and finds most convenient. Knowing that, we can be aware of what is going on in our lives and the effect it has on us. We can also look at how exactly we try to control our environment. We can then use small things in our lives that are within our control to help us feel grounded again, and connect to people around us to help soothe our nervous systems.

When we were young, our brains were excellent at protecting us and installing systems that worked at that age. But now that we’ve levelled up (aka grown up), we can decide to update our systems, one step at a time, to get rid of whatever no longer works for us. The way to do it is with kindness and gratitude for the part of ourselves that protected us when we were young and keeps wanting to protect us even now.

Thank you, dear brain, for protecting me as a child. Thank you for wanting to protect me even now. But when it comes to this thing, I’m good now. I’ve got this!

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