Sometimes when I work with young children I have them stand up, spread their arms out wide, and spin around a few times. “What,” I ask them, “is inside this circle you just made?” After a few guesses, the answer comes: “This is the amount of the world over which you have control.” The children giggle. I’ve done the same exercise with adults, and in the case of adults, I get much more pushback. “No,” many say (or silently think, based on the number of frowns I’ve seen), “there are many things I control. My career, my health, my popularity, etc.” Some will even say, “I do a pretty good job of controlling my spouse and my children!”
Let’s look at this illusion of control. We can sometimes confuse influence for control. Certainly we can influence the trajectory of our careers, health, popularity, etc., but since all these things depend largely on forces outside our own will, they are most definitely not in our control. Take a moment and reflect on this. Surely you know someone who has lost a job due to forces outside his/her control, or perhaps have a relationship with someone that isn’t exactly as you’d like it even though you’ve put good work into it. Research even tells us that 50% of our “happiness quotient” is genetic, outside our control. Thinking of my own parents, I’m reminded of how my mother, who lived a healthy lifestyle, died of cancer in midlife, while my father, whose food pyramid consisted largely of red meat, vodka, and cigarettes, lived well into his eighties!
And if we can’t fully control things as personal as health or happiness, how can we believe we might control or manipulate persons and situations outside of us? Yet much of the suffering we experience in life comes from trying to exact our wills upon others. Bill W in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (The “Big Book”) points out that “Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show, is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way.” And when, as is bound to happen, life doesn’t follow our ordinances, we become “angry, indignant, self-pitying.” Bill goes on to ask, “Is [this controlling person] not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? … Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?” (pp. 60-61).
If we’ve had the experience of living with an active alcoholic or addict of any sort and trying to control their behavior, we’ve surely had the experience of frustration and felt the anger, indignation, and self-pity Bill W. writes about. Of course, the same is true if we try to control, manipulate, or orchestrate the non-addicts in our lives, too! Scripture as well as recovery literature is clear that our attempts to control, manipulate, and otherwise act as God’s stand-in in our or others’ lives never brings the results we hope for. The eventual disastrous results of the alliance of King Ahaz with Assyria (2 Kings 16) and Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) are only two of many examples.
Altering our patterns of trying to control the actions and thoughts of others isn’t easy. Often we grow up believing that trying to exert our wills over the people and events in our lives is in fact the only way to “wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world.” After all, if I don’t push my will forward, who will? Well, probably no one. However, this line of thinking is based on a few assumptions that, if we think about them, can’t possibly be true:
- That I know what is best for others: can I really claim to have a better understanding of someone else’s life and experience than they themselves?
- That I know what is best for myself: can I read the future?
- That my will somehow perfectly aligns with the Divine Will (let’s face it, this is a form of idolatry!).
- My happiness and wellbeing depend on external circumstances and the choices of others.
When our good instinct for self-preservation has become malformed into acting as if we are our own, or someone else’s, Higher Power, we will end up suffering and end up causing suffering for others… no doubt about it. But even if we agree that the assumptions above are ridiculous, it can be difficult to know how else to act. How do we alt? There are many insightful people who have come to realize that God holds different, and better, plans for them than their egos can imagine, and they have released, at least a bit, the need to control and manipulate others for their egos’ ends. Perhaps you are one of them. Yet some of these same insightful people, when confronted with what they judge to be self-destructive or negative choices of their loved ones or friends, still feel a “duty” to intervene. Perhaps you are one of them, too. After all, who will help them if we don’t? Given the people in our lives (!), how can we ever give up trying to control them for their own good? Perhaps it is our unhappy destiny…
And yet, if we are honest, we can almost always track how our controlling and codependent behaviors (manipulation, guilt, shame, yelling, helicoptering, reward and punishment, etc.) lead to fractures in our relationships and at best a temporary change in the other’s behavior. What does last a long time, however, is the litany of resentments those we are “helping” will hold against us. We need to alter our patterns. Let’s look at how.
The good news is that managing others’ lives is never our job description. Such management—doomed to fail—leads only to unnecessary worry, frustration, and eventually despair. This of course doesn’t mean we give up caring about or loving others, or offering help when that help is asked for. It does mean, however, that we stop playing God, and stop confusing codependence with care, and worry with love.
How can we tell if we are controllers and need to delete this behavior? See if you resonate with any of these statements:
- My peace and happiness depend on the situations of others in my life.
- Others in my life will fail or meet with disaster without my management.
- I end up in conflict with those I try to help/manage/control.
- I worry a lot about others (or myself).
- Deep down I resent those I help.
- I have given the same advice to someone more than three times in the same year.
If one or more of these statements describes your common experience, it’s quite possible that you would profit from deleting control from your life. If we take this huge step (yes, it surely feels huge!), we will not only recover our own sense of serenity but will actually open the possibility of bettering a strained relationship. If I can really come to believe that others in my life have a Higher Power more powerful than I, and that they are full human subjects who deserve the respect and space to make choices (even bad ones), I can learn to love them and still be of help to them without the pain and conflict that arise from trying to manipulate their lives.
If we take Jesus at his word, we need not worry and fret, manipulate or orchestrate, because God is God and we are not: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). “And if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). And so we can see how faith, hope, and love work together as we move toward deleting control from our lives. If we truly have faith that God is working in the lives of our loved ones, we can loosen our grip on outcomes and hold a hope that feels like a helium balloon rather than a dread that feels like a weight on our backs. And as our grip opens, so does our heart. It’s not truly possible to love someone we are bound to through codependency and control. What we love in such cases is the feeling we get when they act as we wish. That’s a very different thing from truly and freely loving another person, don’t you think?
By deleting our controlling behaviors—the 12-Step group Alanon focuses on how to do this—we become capable of truly loving another for who they are, not for what we wish them to be or do. Praying for the faith to release our loved ones to God, opening ourselves to accepting their choices, and disciplining ourselves to give our opinions only when asked are all difficult practices but definitely worth the work. And let’s add to our to-do list the removal of the subtle guilt trips, looks of disappointment, and easily readable body language that can also be powerful forms of control.
Deleting control from our lives is possible even when we are in relationship with someone in active addiction or other self-destructive behavior. Alanon teaches “the three C’s”: we did not cause it, we cannot control it, and we cannot cure it. The “it” could range from a tendency to overspend or be forgetful to full-blown drug or alcohol addiction. Working the 12 Steps in Alanon helps us relocate the source of our happiness from externals beyond our control to the experience of the internal Spirit that dwells in us (1 Cor 6:19). We are meant to share our inner joy with those we love, regardless of their choices, not gain our joy through management of their lives to fit our vision of what should be.
Let’s face it: this may seem impossible at first blush: how could I ever be happy if my husband doesn’t stop drinking? How could I have serenity if my child is on the street? Difficult, yes; impossible, no. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen this miracle occur many times over. In each and every case like this, we have only three options: accept the situation, remove ourselves from the situation, or change something in ourselves. Any of these options can be chosen in love and enacted in loving ways.
Thankfully, each of us has a Higher Power and we can trust that this God of faith, hope, and love is working in every life. And thankfully, it’s not us. So when we feel heavily burdened by the choices of others, or angry, indignant or in self-pity, let us rise to our feet, stretch out our arms, and spin around with a smile on our face: this is all we can control. We may not have chosen, or even like, all that is happening beyond our arms, but we can trust that somehow, in some way, God is there in it all. We can hit [ctrl + alt + delete] and be assured that God shows up in the pages of every life we know.
James Reho is an Episcopal priest, school chaplain, and spiritual director. He is also a devoted husband, part-time gardener, and aspiring fiddle sensation. 12-step spirituality holds a central place in his life, which he tries to live one day at a time.