Well, not really ... but here's how to turn your desire to control others into something better.
If we’re honest, every single one of us has worried about it at different points in our lives. It spans people, places, and circumstances and doesn’t adhere to any particular timeline or mode of reasoning. Young and old experience it and although each of us has different ways of coping with its reality, the overriding attitude is that it’s something to be avoided at all costs. What I’m speaking of is fear of loss — loss of another person, loss of a position, loss of an expected or desired result, loss of a clear direction … loss of any kind.
The truth is, we rarely have the level of control we think we do, but losing anything results in an increased desire to retain control over people or circumstances that may never have been in our control at all. It’s understandable because in some ways, we humans appear more inclined to remember our losses than our gains.
Given this temperamental tendency, we may find ourselves seeking control to minimize the uncomfortable possibility of loss. As adults, we especially seek to control other adults, whether it’s our significant others, close family members, friends, coworkers, or others who are near to us. We do this because not only do we fear losing them at times (in mind, body, and spirit), but we also fear outcomes that would test our abilities and our flexibility. There’s a sense of safety and security that comes with knowing just what’s expected of us and what will come, even if the result is not so desirable. There is a truth to the idea that most of us prefer an unpleasant future over an unpredictable one.
The issue at play, though, is that when we try to exert too much control over others, we risk losing more than we gain. On the surface, this seems implausible — isn’t it true that if we push or force others to take certain action, the action is more likely to occur? While this very might be the case (at least in the short-term), the reality is that a coerced or forced action becomes increasingly devoid of personal freedom. The other person can’t freely give of themselves with mutuality, respect, trust, and love. When control and coercion are the primary means of inducing motivation and action in another person, we may find that other person naturally distancing themselves from us, even when their actions appear to be in line with our demands.
You might be asking, “Do you think I should just let my spouse do whatever he or she wants?” Or “Should I just let my family members ruin their life?” Or “Are you really saying I should act as if it’s fine if my coworker makes horrible decisions?” You may wonder whether I live in a fairy tale world where it just takes some kind, heartfelt words to move others to make better decisions.
If you find yourself in this camp, I understand. The modus operandi that I’m proposing here is a scary one because it distinctly suggests that if we really desire communion with others and harmony in our world, and we also desire to maximize our influence, we must refrain from using methods of control as our primary means of doing that. Otherwise, we risk not only bitterness and/or frustration, but even worse: alienation and indifference. Regardless of whether we’re talking about minor or major issues, control tactics are never the best way to go.
There are a few necessary shifts that must exist. First, we must be willing to acknowledge that our perspective and ideals are not necessarily the only perspective and ideals. In other words, we must truly seek to empathize with others even if we find their opinions distasteful and uncomfortable.
Second, we must recognize that if we want to see change in another’s behaviors or opinions, we must also be open to the possibility that we may need to do the same thing.
Third, it’s imperative that we’re open to all avenues of communication that can provide further understanding, cooperation, and resolution. When these avenues are closed, it limits possibilities not only for influence, but also for growth.
Finally — and this might be the toughest of all — it’s far better to commit ourselves to a process defined by virtuous practice than to a desired outcome. To even say this makes me cringe because I know full well that often I believe one particular outcome holds the key to my happiness and/or success. But the reality is that when we wed ourselves to a singular outcome, and hold steadfastly to it at all costs, we can find ourselves bushwhacking through a dense forest full of pathways unrealized and possibilities unseen.
We tend to treat our relationships as enemy countries treat each other. We protect our borders (boundaries), treat harshness with harshness, and go on the defensive or offensive when we feel we’re being attacked or justified to exert our force. And although wars do change borders and lives, the problem with this approach is that it seeks first to force and control, and not to love and understand. Again, I’m not suggesting a quixotic, unrealistic approach to relationships. But if we really want to have satisfying, long-lasting, mutual bonds, we’ll consider that digging in the trenches and guarding one’s domain is at best going to keep an unnatural situation intact, and at worse, going to hold off the inevitable (loss) for the short-term.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves what we want from our relationships and each other. For those who have experienced loss or trauma, it’s understandable that exerting control seems like the safest route. But even in these situations, using control as a primary tactic will put a “ceiling” on all relationships. Those grounded in control and coercion will go only as far as the control allows, and will ultimately, are limited by fear, envy, wrath, and other negative emotions that fuel these decisions.
Still, it might not be our relationships that suffer the most. It might be each one of us as individuals. If we seek to exert control over those closest to us, we may be closing the doors on personal growth for ourselves and others that simply won’t be able to occur. The only thing sadder than seeing a relationship fall apart may be seeing those people make the same bad, painful decisions over and over, and have nobody left to influence them in a positive way. Ironically, those who seek to control the most may end up losing the most and wonder why they feel so alone.
The good news, though, is that it’s never too late to approach our relationships with a sense of empathy, openness, respect, and humility. It’s never too late to “take a chance” on foregoing our desire to control and opt for a loving, evolving approach. The best things in life are often the ones that emerge when we finally let go of what we “must have” and consider what we might be missing.