Look Mum, No Hands!
If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.
- Woody Allen
We are constantly trying to control every single aspect of our lives: making perfect plans, arriving in time for meetings, creaming those wrinkles flat, sweating those returning kilos away… that when something totally unexpected happens we’re thrown out of balance. In our confusion (and often inability) to accept that shit simply happens (illness, ageing, other people’s actions...), we go crazy trying to put things back in track. As a consequence, a big chunk of our lives is spent gripping the controls so tight our knuckles go white. But, how much control do we really have?
Letting go of the controller doesn’t mean stop caring, or conforming into inaction, it means making space for those things that are, for what is happening now outside of our control, without trying to change it or wanting it to be different.
In the 1970’s the now Harvard Professor Ellen Langer made a study demonstrating how we tend to have an illusory sense of control in things where there is certain familiarity, or a skill involved, even if that won’t have any effect in the results whatsoever. For example, people tend to feel much more confident about winning the lottery if they have a number they like or that they have chosen, the reality is that it makes no difference. Why this whimsical attitude then?
It can be hard for us to accept that we have very limited control over most things in our lives. This is because our brain is hardwired to keep us alive, so from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense to worry, obsess and try to fix things: being in control of our environment maximises our chances of survival. The leap between dodging lions and looking at fluffy kitties on YouTube has been far too fast for our brains to fully adapt. The social demands and concerns that we have now are extremely complex and sophisticated and trying to be in control of them all is impossible. How does the controller in us manifest itself?
We try to control other people by becoming aggressive, trying to impose our ideas or (sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously) provoking certain reactions and behaviours.
We shut down or try to remove ourselves from situations of pain or uncertainty.
We take less risks (another evolutionary feature) and rely upon living in our comfort zone, at the cost of not realising our full potential or pursuing our dreams.
We create obsessive thinking loops that stop us from getting perspective and seeing other possibilities.
How can we stop our controller mind from taking over? Tara Brach suggests taking a pause: “This pause gives the possibility of a new choice. You might ask yourself, What would happen if I just took my hands off the controls a little? What would happen if I simply attended to the present moment, to the experience of being here and now?” Allowing uncertainty to be present means we may feel anxiety and fear creeping in but this is OK, it’s part of the process, the trick is to not resist it, let those feelings arise and be kind to ourselves in the process.
“Anything you can’t control is teaching you how to let go”.- J. Kiddard
Letting go of the controller doesn’t mean stop caring, or conforming into inaction, it means making space for those things that are, for what is happening now outside of our control, without trying to change it or wanting it to be different. In fact, by accepting things as they are, we’re able to tend to them from a place of calm and compassion, subsequently becoming wiser to make decisions and take appropriate actions. Life will certainly offer you plenty of opportunities to put this into practice, just remember Jackson Kiddard’s words: “Anything you can’t control is teaching you how to let go”.
This of course is a slow process which involves a lot of self-awareness, presence and brain rewiring, but intentionally choosing when to give up control will allow you to soften the grip of your controlling mind and live a lighter, more resilient and creative life.
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