05/28/2010 11:41 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mindfulness for Control Freaks

Most of know at least one person who struggles with control issues. I do -- and I'm including myself. How about you?

Not that there is anything wrong with wanting to sit in the driver's seat, especially if you're a skilled driver. It's more a question of having the freedom to chose when you want to drive. It's also important to know when you're craving control of your own car, or whether someone else owns the vehicle. As "control freaks," our biggest risk for getting into accidents coincides with impulsively grabbing the wheel at the wrong times or in the wrong situations.

That's why mindfulness improves safety on the daily road. Mindfulness means attending to present-moment experience -- right here, right now -- and this includes cultivating awareness of what's happening in and around us. Mindfulness doesn't impose control on controlling tendencies, but it can help us notice when they arise, so that we are more likely to discern whether or not they're constructive, and respond appropriately.

Having some "control freak" tendencies probably contributed to our evolutionary survival of our more primitive ancestors. Today, we might be more sophisticated, but those tendencies persist - albeit in more subtle ways. Maybe you're familiar with a few such manifestations, such as needing to be wired 24/7 or waiting to commit to scheduling anything until you know that a particular event is your best choice. Ironically, it's that inner voice of control that also occasionally whispers, "Geeze, it's time to chill out!"

If you welcome that type of directive (you know, something like "just relax"), you might find yourself listening to a backseat driver or letting someone else sit behind the wheel. But you also might come face-to-face with an obstacle. The thing is, it's hard to know how to control the need to be in control. After all, it's scary to let go when you're not in practice and maintaining control has served you well (enough) up until now.
So, here are some suggestions about how to begin:

  1. Practice noticing when that urge to control kicks in. Just notice how you feel when you want/need to be calling the shots. Feeling like you have to be in charge is neither good nor bad. If that's how you feel, then that's your reality. For now, the point is simply to recognize that reality. Keep in mind that the point is to notice -- not judge -- what's happening.
  2. Expand the scope of your awareness to notice your experience when your desire for control is unfulfilled. Do you feel anxious or irritable, freaked-out or frantic? Can you stay with your feelings without reacting immediately? Or, do you realize that your need to exert control triggers a reaction? There aren't any right answers here -- just the exploration of experience.
  3. Start acknowledging what's happening as it's happening. I'm talking about mentally nodding to yourself or letting your inner voice say, "So this is what feeling out-of-control is like." Whether or not you're in control or feel comfortable, you are here and you are feeling. Focus on noticing that you are having an experience, but refrain from commenting or engaging with it.
  4. Take a breath as you mentally nod to yourself. Just take one breath, or, okay, maybe even a few breaths. Actually, take as many as you wish -- there's no need to control the number. After all, breathing is necessary for staying alive, so there's no need to count those breaths. Instead, shift your attention from to your breath. So long as you keep breathing, you'll probably have time to return to the control issues. Taking a breath is useful because doing so provides some mental distance and improves perspective. And, learning to witness your own experience builds confidence that you're still there, regardless of whether or not you're in charge.
  5. Decide whether your current situation warrants taking control, or whether you're okay with letting someone else be in charge. Honor your decision by staying present -- even if you're feeling totally out-of-control, your awareness and attention directly connect you with reality. And, recognizing reality is the basis for survival.

Remember that your experience with control issues is just your experience with control issues -- not a fundamental flaw or weakness, and certainly not a permanent fact. Mindfulness is about noticing what's happening, and remembering that no matter what's is happening, it's constantly changing.

The bottom line is this: mindfulness is about living in reality, and realizing that while there is absolutely no way to control everything (or much of anything) -- it is absolutely possible to develop clarity and focus your attention here and now. Practicing mindfulness builds inner resilience -- and that's far more reliable, constructive and, yes, comfortable, than struggling for control!