September 6

Letting Go of Control As the Formula For Happiness

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Articles | 2 Comments

It seems the more experience I gain in the field of psychotherapy, the more clients I interact with, the more I live my own life, the more I believe the attempt to inappropriately control events is at the core of unhappiness. The use of control is paradoxical: we believe taking control will bring us security and happiness, yet in many cases it causes unhappiness, anxiety, and malaise. In this article I will explain this premise, and support my observations with some findings regarding happiness.

I am often confronted with clients who have addiction problems, depression, marital issues, anxiety, and anger issues. It is my contention that these difficulties have a common thread: control.

Let’s start with depression. I have several clients who hold onto their pessimistic attitudes and beliefs. They are holding on to this style of living, as uncovered in therapy, as a security blanket against disappointment. In other words, they believe if they keep a pessimistic attitude, they are less likely to be disappointed. I purport that this is an attempt to control what is inevitable. Disappointment is a part of life. Being let down, disappointed, or hurt is part of the human existence. Granted, these people have experienced either an inordinate amount of these negative emotions, or they have been hypersensitive to events which were less than positive. But their current malady has as much to do with an attempt to prevent future hurt as much as with the scarring of the past hurt. And I contend this is an inappropriate attempt to control.

It is often easy to see how anger can be a result of wanting to control, and increasing the emotional reaction when control is impeded. Using children as an example, when you tell your child to do something, and they do not, or they talk back, or they ignore you, it is common to become angry. It is relatively clear how this is related to control: in this case the desire to control your child’s behavior. It is also reasonable to understand how it may escalate when this desire to control is obstructed.

This is not to say all anger comes from issues surrounding control. Anger often is a result of fear or hurt feelings in addition to thwarted attempts to control. And although this could be related to control, or the reaction to a lack of control, this is not the forum for that.

Another example of how anger relates to control is when driving and stuck in traffic. One may become frustrated with the inability to get where they need to be in the timeframe they expected. The situation has become out of their control. They may try to exercise control by switching lanes, trying to cut in front of others, or by leaving the highway and trying an alternate route. This can further complicate the issue. The bottom line here is that the inability to control the situation, the feeling control has been taken by extenuating circumstances, has led to the feeling of frustration and anger.

There are often many contributors to marital issues. Difficulty with losing or feeling one has no control is occasionally one of the problems. Some couple’s presenting for therapy do so as a result of arguments. These arguments sometimes stem from issues surrounding not behaving in a fashion that is consistent with the other’s expectations. And, as you can probably ascertain by now, this again relates to control, or the lack thereof. One partner wants something handled in this way. The other disagrees, either outwardly, or by not altering behavior. Arguments escalate or avoidance occurs. All are a result of wanting to have your way in the situation, and not getting it, or having the other try to take it away.

Addiction is often characterized by a loss of control. This loss of control is in regard to a substance or behavior that initially brings relief or pleasure. The actual substance use often starts as an attempt to control feelings. Many people who end up addicted begin substance use in an attempt to manage (or control) feelings and moods. They do not like what they are experiencing, and want it altered. For example, perhaps they had a rough day at work, and want to relax. The use the substance to alter their mood, hence taking control of a mood they otherwise felt was being controlled by external events (whatever contributed to the bad day). This theory can be applied to any such negative mood state. Eventually, they come to over rely on the substance, and eventually, the substance dictates the mood. This is true of other problems as well, and a vicious and self-feeding cycle can begin. But at least one part of the core of it is a desire to control.

Next lets address anxiety. Although anxiety is a general term, we can also call it being worrisome. When and why do people worry? Generally, we worry about the future, whether distant or near. An example would be worrying about your child being out with friends. This may seem like a normal situation to worry about. After all, you do not know what your child may be doing, or may be concerned with their decision making skills (rightly so, as teens have been known to make poor decisions). In psychology it is believed every behavior or action has a reward. In the case of worrying, the reward is to foresee a problem and take action. But often the worrying continues when no action is possible. Worry is often an attempt to control, or a wish to control, what is uncontrollable. When worrying, or anxiety, serves the purpose of aiding preparation, it is a worthy pursuit. But once what can be done is done, worrying is ineffective. These feeling then stem from a desire to control an outcome, and the anxiety about not knowing the outcome; or more simply stated, not being in control.

This is also true in dating, and other common life events. For example, when one meets someone they are interested in, many people start wondering about the experience. What do they think of me? There are these positives, and these negatives, will it work out? Is this someone I see myself with in the future? What about the obstacles, can they be overcome? Is this my soul mate, my other half? All of these questions, that can be common to those beginning a relationship, are an attempt to know the unknowable and thereby control the outcome. Rather than relaxing and letting things unfold, which leaves one somewhat vulnerable, we humans try to figure things out, often in futile attempts to know the future, and gain control.

I believe, in the brief format provided, I have adequately demonstrated how control, either the desire to have it, or the loss or removal of it, is involved in the above issues. I will now discuss some of the effective ways to address and minimize its affect. I will start with how those in addiction recovery combat it. Of course, I believe much of what is applicable to addiction treatment and recovery will be effective with depression, anxiety, anger, or the other issues discussed.

In addiction treatment, which has been my primary area of expertise for years, people entering recovery are often told the virtues of “acceptance,” (please see page 449 of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition for further explanation) “letting go and letting God” and “live and let live.” These saying are all geared at helping the substance dependent individual practice letting go of control, allowing things to happen, and not fretting about the future. The goal of the 12 steps of addiction recovery is “Spiritual Awakening.”

As long as we are on the spiritual, lets discuss religion and faith. In several articles I have read some keys to happiness were discussed. These articles, which varied in some respects, had a common theme: faith. According to these articles, those that have faith, faith that things happen for a reason, faith that things will work out as they are supposed to, faith that a higher power is acting on their behalf, are happier than those who do not share these beliefs. Although other keys to happiness are discussed in these articles as well, I do not believe that the role of faith should be minimized. If you believe things will work out, there is no need to worry, or hold onto depression or a pessimistic view to protect you. If you believe things are as they are supposed to be and that in the end there is a good end product to be had from seemingly negative events, you will be happier. Faith cannot be minimized.

However, faith does not necessarily require belief in God. Faith can simply be the belief that you will benefit from this in the end. This may be through personal growth, a life lesson, or simply a nudge in the right direction by your unconscious. Even the most vehement atheist might be able to accept that the unconscious is a power that influences behavior. And if that atheist can believe their unconscious is helping by pushing in a positive direction, then the faith necessary for happiness can be found.

The power of letting go of control is evident through the recent movement in psychology to incorporate Eastern thought and beliefs. From Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for certain mental health issues, to the recent well written book “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” Eastern thought has been slowly but effectively adopted and often proven effective by the psychological profession. This is nothing new. I recently completed reading a book written in the 1970′s with a similar theme that was again geared at psychotherapy. All of this writing and use of Eastern thought for improving mental health seems indicative of its benefit.

Although Eastern thought does not explicitly discuss faith as in Western religion, there is a letting go of control that is incorporated into its thought. The main theme of the aforementioned books are accepting things as they are, and returning to the present moment. There is a sense of understanding humility, that there are powers greater than you at work in the natural flow of the universe, that things will unfold in a natural order.

My favorite thought in Buddhism is the second noble truth. Loosely translated, it amounts to desire being the root of all suffering. It means when one wants things to be different than they are, when one attaches themselves to good feelings and attempts to avoid bad feelings, when one attempts to control their life to exclude everything they do not like, suffering occurs. The way to happiness is through non-attachment, letting go of expectations, being in the present, not making judgments, and simply accepting life as it presents itself. This is a tall order for sure. Even wanting to be this way defeats the point (there is again desire to be other than you are). But striving toward it by simply reminding yourself occasionally that the present is what it is, that everything doesn’t have to conform to your desires, can bring happiness.

I believe I have presented a thoughtful argument that inappropriate attempts to control are a root cause for discontent. I also believe I have offered some practical thought for how to combat it, and to bring more (not complete) happiness to life.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, September 6th, 2008 at 5:33 PM and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Letting Go of Control As the Formula For Happiness”

  1. greg on January 1st, 2009 at 12:29 PM

    Hi William, hope you are enjoying your holiday.

    I got up early and wanted to read this article after our last discussion at group. It was extremely insightful, especially with my issue. I have been asking myself “how did I let myself get to this point?” I am slowly realizing since I could not control my environment then maybe I could or in my case would control my “feelings or mood” as you so eloquently put it in the above article. Trying to work through that learned behavior is akin to trying not to use the word “Umm” when asked a question.

    It’s a revelation, but it sure as hell not easy. Enjoy the holidays and see you next week.

    Greg

  2. William Berry on January 1st, 2009 at 3:59 PM

    I think its excellent you gained from it. That says more about you than it does the article.
    It does take a great deal of practice to apply these suggestions though, but from what I’ve learned about you it is definately within your grasp. I really feel its about balance, like with all things. Anyhow,
    Enjoy your holiday, and the weekend.

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