Lately, I'm seeing a pattern among the women clients that walk into my office. There's a lot of talk about "not being controlling."
"I'm trying not to be so controlling," these women are saying. "I'm trying to just let go, and not have to control everything."
I get the sense they think I'm going to nod along enthusiastically when they say this. After all, I'm in the personal growth world. I'm a "life coach." I believe in the power of surrendering to something larger than ourselves. So wouldn't I give them a big round of applause for their attempts to "let go"?
Instead, when I hear them say this, I'm suspicious. I'm suspicious because these brilliant, powerful women are sitting across from me, telling me and themselves that they are being "controlling," but I don't see it.
I don't see high-strung women walking around the world trying to control it. I see intelligent women trying to have a voice in the world and take care of themselves. When they are met with disappointing results -- other people not listening to them or respecting their voices -- they are turning their disappointment inward, labeling themselves "controlling" and thinking they need to change.
It's in vogue "to just let go." But there's a thin line between letting go of an unhealthy desire to control and letting go of the healthy drive within all of us to be heard, to influence, to have impact.
I'm also suspicious because controlling is a term that's rarely applied to men. It used to be I mostly heard men referring to women as controlling, but now I hear more and more women applying the term to themselves, in "personal growth/self-awareness" guise.
Men who stand again and again for their own desires and needs aren't deemed controlling. They are called bold, persistent, committed, strong. I've yet to hear a man grapple with and be hard on himself for being "so controlling." I've yet to hear a man talk about "trying to just let go" at work.
I'm also suspicious because I hear the "I'm trying not to be controlling" line coming up in two contexts:
1) Romantic Situations
When he's not calling. When he's not acting caring or excited about her. When she's expressed something and is left feeling judged, dismissed or unheard. Next comes, "Well, I'm trying to not be so controlling, to not have to have everything go my way."
Two things are getting conflated here: letting go of unhelpful rules about how a relationship needs to go, and squashing one's own needs and voice.
2) At Work
The second scenario women are usually referring to when they talk about "not being so controlling" is work, but the underlying dynamics are the same. When they've expressed their voice and are left feeling disrespected, dismissed or not valued as much as their male colleagues, and they have to decide what to do next, up comes the "trying to not be controlling" thing.
Wanting to have a voice is not being controlling. Wanting to influence others, to be heard, to make an impact is not being controlling. "Letting go" isn't leaving your own side and settling for something that makes you feel bad. Letting go might mean letting that guy be himself and deciding he's not the right guy for you. Letting go is not letting him be himself, and staying around, even though you feel unloved, not cherished, not heard.
Here's my recommendation: strike the word "controlling" from your vocabulary. It's loaded, it's gendered and other stuff is hiding underneath it.
Take away the word, and look deeper: what's actually happening in the situation at hand? Are you actually trying to control things outside of your control, in a tight-fisted way? If so, that means you are afraid. Something about the situation has put you on alert. Maybe you are afraid of failing, or of being hurt, or of compromising yourself in some way, so you are trying to "control" to prevent that from happening. If that's the case, call yourself afraid, not controlling. It's kinder to yourself and more compassionate. It gets to the heart of the matter. From there you can start to explore what the fear is and what you need to do to soothe that fear and find safety for yourself.
If you look underneath the label of "controlling" and find not fear but simply a desire for agency, for expression, for your own needs to be met, if you find your voice and your heart, know that that's not something to let go of. It's something to cultivate. Agency is a gift, and it's something very different from control.