I was embarrassed to wear shorts.
The insides of my thighs were covered with tiny half-moon cuts and welts, formed by my own finger nails digging into my tender flesh. It hurt. But strangely enough, I did it in an attempt to not feel pain.
It was my first conscious bid for control. Every month, my hormones would send my insides roiling and the uncontrollable pain made me feel like I was a pawn to my body’s commands.
And so I found a way to create a pain that was under my control. A pain that would distract from the other and that I could alter the intensity at will.
The next act of control was also prompted by the actions of my body. After hand surgery and complications, I faced months of physical therapy and time in homebound school. Again, I felt helpless against the pain and limitations of my body.
And this time my dominant hand was unavailable to cut half-moon slivers from my thighs.
So instead, I cut fat from my diet. Today, I probably would be diagnosed as orthorexic, a pattern of eating extremely “healthy,” where major food groups are eliminated. I ate plenty. But still my hair grew thin and my skin dry because of the lack of fat.
I saw it at the time as an example of great willpower.
In reality, it was great fear.
I continued to play this game. Every time life told me I wasn’t in the driver’s seat, I responded with a, “Yeah, watch this! I’m going to MAKE this happen.”
And then I would.
And I would feel a little better for a time.
A little more in control.
And a little less scared.
But it was always temporary. Because life always had something else in store. Something I couldn’t control.
And it took the big one – facing my biggest fears of losing my then-husband along with all of my financial security – to make me finally realize that the joke was on me.
That by trying to control, I was only adding to the tension. The fear.
Because there I was, everything gone. Nothing certain.
And for the first time in my entire life, I felt no need to try to control anything.
Control What You Can (And Only What You Can)
Even in the most overwhelming and devastating of life’s tsunamis, there will always be something that you have some level of power over.
And it’s amazing how far just a touch of control can go in easing your mind. Identify what you can control within your situation and control the heck out it. Be careful here not to make the mistake I did in my youth. You’re looking for areas you can control that don’t cause you additional harm.
For example, I have a friend in the early (and rife with scary unknowns) stages of cancer treatment. There is so much she has no jurisdiction over. However, when she was sent home with a software-protected disc of images and instructions to wait several days until her doctor could read the results, she had other ideas. She controlled what little she could.
Look At the Big Picture
The more narrow your focus, the more likely you are to get upset or scared by what you see. Because in the details, it’s all overwhelming. So take a step back and try to see the bigger picture. Not only does the current situation represent only a small section of your life, but you may also find that the areas where you can take more control will increase in time.
If you’re having trouble seeing the forest for the trees at your current juncture, talk to, read or watch somebody who has been through similar. This will help to provide perspective and give you ideas of how you can work within your particular parameters.
Build Belief in Yourself
Part of what makes a lack of control so scary is that we can easily become afraid that we won’t be able to make it through. So put effort into building your confidence in yourself (guess what – that’s something you do have some control over!).
Remind yourself of areas where you succeeded despite the odds. Engage in activities where you shine. Surround yourself with people that believe in you and build you up. Set (and achieve) small challenges for yourself.
Understand the Difference Between Control and Choice
You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can always choose your response. Rather than get hung up on what you cannot control, recognize the power inherent in being able to select your reaction.
When my first husband ended the marriage with a text, I was so angry at first that I couldn’t make him talk to me. I felt powerless. Like my voice and and my options were taken from me. Eventually, after months of being angry and frustrated, I realized that I was focusing on what I couldn’t do rather than on what I could. And I soon as I made the decision to shift my attentions to my own choices (as opposed to his), the anger and frustration started to dissipate.
It’s a little crazy, the only control he had over me was the control I gave him. Once I decided that I would be okay regardless of him, I took back that control. That’s really what forgiveness is all about – a shift in the idea of who gets to decide when you’re okay.
Learn Your Fear Languages
It’s not just love that has its own languages; fear has its preferred tongues as well. Do you have a tendency to catastrophize, assuming that everything will end in the worst? Are you prone to all-or-none thinking when it comes to life’s struggles? Do you get overwhelmed by the details and fear that you’ll never find your way out? Do you stop sleeping as your nights fill with thoughts? Or do you worry about the future, endlessly ruminating over possible scenarios?
Learn to recognize when your fear is speaking. That alone is powerful. We often interpret its words as facts, when really they’re just opinions. And biased ones at that.
Know Your Go-To No-Goods
We all have distractions we turn to in an effort to take the edge off of the discomfort of being out of control of our lives. I used to tattoo half-moons into my legs and demonize butter. Maybe you turn to alcohol or Netflix or the space under your covers.
Recognize what you are pulled towards that is not good for you or not good for you in quantity. Just naming them can sometimes help lessen their pull. If you find their siren song is too strong, don’t hesitate to get help. Because at that point, you have relinquished control to your particular habit. And isn’t a desire for control what sent you there in the first place?
Learn to Steer Intro the Skid
One of the first safety lessons new drivers learn is what to do in case of a skid. Because untrained instinct, which tells us to pull the wheel sharply against the skid, will only lead us off the road. Instead, we have to be coached (and often convinced) that the best way out of a skid is to move the wheel along with it until control of the car is regained.
And that same principle holds true when life throws us into a skid. Be patient. Work with it. And take control again once you are able.
Remind Yourself Why It’s Worth It
When you’re feeling out of control, it’s easy to center your attention on what you don’t like about the situation. So try shifting it to what you eventually will like about the results. When I was going through my divorce, I wrote a list of all of the things I was experiencing or would (hopefully) get to experience that wouldn’t have happened if the marriage didn’t end. I also constantly reminded myself that the (totally unwanted and totally sucky) situation was also making me stronger, more aware and more compassionate.
Trust That You’ll Be Okay (Even If You Don’t Know How)
So much of a need to control is a desire to know the future. Which, of course, is impossible. For all of us. It really comes down to faith. Trust that even if you don’t know how or when, you’ll be okay.
Time spent worrying and trying to control takes away your happiness now in a barter with life for happiness later. But life doesn’t always honor those rules. You’re much better off taking life as it comes and accepting that the only thing you can ever control is your own response.
So make it a good one.