I’d like to tell you about one of my oldest friends in this post. I use the word “friend” here loosely; they’ve definitely been there to keep me out of trouble sometimes, but sometimes they’ve been very manipulative. They try to get me to do what they want, or make me see things the way they do. They are as persistent and as reliable as anyone I’ve ever known.
I first made this friend when I was in Kindergarten. It was while I was doing “Show and Tell” for the first time – this friend ended up telling me that what I had brought (a little wind-up shark toy) wasn’t interesting enough to show everyone. I felt so embarrassed – like I wanted to disappear. That was just the first of many times they did something to bring me down, but somehow they always stuck around, and I could never separate myself from them entirely.
This friend and I still have a relationship, but I’ve realized now that they aren’t always the best influence on me. I’ve actually been trying to let the relationship “phase out.” Still, at certain times, I know that this old companion will show up. They’ll be there to take care of me, like an overprotective parent, whether or not I need protecting.
Maybe the biggest problem with the relationship at this point is that this friend tries to convince me that I need to live my life in a very specific way in order to be happy. They point out all the little things that aren’t “going right” in my life so as to put me on a corrective course. It’s like they have this equation, where if all of the variables are accounted for, I’m apparently supposed to end up happy. I sometimes question how valid this formula is. It looks something like this:
Fulfilling relationship + well-behaved kids + plenty of money + a nice home + interesting hobbies + being athletic + lots of friends + a good career + an attractive body + being universally liked = ☺👌
What I’ve noticed is that the closer I am to this friend of mine, the more likely I am to try to make everything in my life fit into this equation. It can be stressful sometimes, but it’s easy to imagine that once everything is the way it’s supposed to be, life will be amazing.
If you haven’t guessed, my friend’s name is anxiety. It’s something that I’ve dealt with throughout my life, as many people do, and I doubt it will ever go away permanently. To some degree, anxiety is ubiquitous; everyone experiences it, even if we don’t identify it as such. It’s the force that answers the question we might ask, “What would happen if…?,” and convinces us to maintain the status quo. It probably serves us well in many, many ways. “What would happen if I stopped sleeping so I could have more time for Netflix?” Anxiety would gently pat us on the shoulder and, like a good friend, tell us how stupid that idea is.
One of the most common ways of dealing with anxiety is through exerting control. Someone with social anxiety might try to control how other people perceive them, by trying to act a certain way. Someone with a fear of snakes will probably try to control any situation involving snakes, by keeping an eye on it, keeping their distance, etc. And someone with anxiety about illness might try to control outcomes related to health, by eating and exercising in a certain way, or visiting the doctor often. The unknown is perhaps one of the most anxiety-inducing things that exists, and anything we do to gain a sense of control in our lives can really help reduce anxiety, at least in the short-term.
When you look up the word “control” in the thesaurus, the antonyms include “chaos,” “disorganization,” “lawlessness,” “mismanagement,” and “neglect,” among others. There’s generally a negative connotation to being “out of control” – we might imagine someone who is impulsive, reckless, and in need of supervision. I often hear people in my office say that they want to “have more control over my emotions,” or “be able to control my thoughts better.” The belief being that if I could just control how I feel, or how I think about things, I wouldn’t have the problems I’m having. And it’s possible that that’s true – the question is how much control we actually have over such things.
Control can become particularly problematic in relationships. Anxiety within a relationship can cause someone to attempt to exert control in any number of ways. This can include the obvious ways, such as controlling what a partner does, or who they are friends with, through coercion or manipulation. However, there are other, less sinister things we often do that are similarly controlling.
An example would be when someone asks their partner or child for access to their social media or email, to keep tabs on who they are communicating with. This is something we’re certainly allowed to do; I’m not trying to present it as “good” or “bad” – it just has certain consequences. One consequence of this behavior is a reduction in anxiety, because we know that our child is being safe, or our partner is being faithful. Another consequence of this behavior is inhibition of trust – we’re effectively telling the other person that we need to know who they’re interacting with, so as to make sure everything is OK.
Many people believe that trust is built when we get to know someone so well that we essentially know how they’re going to think or act. We want to see patterns of behavior that are consistent and somewhat predictable, and then we can “trust” that person. I believe that what we’re actually seeking in this situation is a sense of control – we can get enough information to plug into our equation so we can be reasonably certain that a person will act in a certain way, thus minimizing our anxiety.
I think of control as the opposite of trust. Control is safe; trust is risky. Control says: “I’m pretty sure you’re going to act this way, so we can have a close relationship.” Trust says: “I don’t know how you’re going to act, but I believe in you, and know that if you do something I don’t understand, there’s a good reason for it.”
It feels riskier to be in a relationship that’s based on trust, rather than one based on control. However, I believe that the strongest relationships are forged through the continual exercise of trust, trust that causes us to assume the best of one another, that makes us step toward one another in difficult times, rather than away from each other due to fear.
Anxiety tells me that I can’t trust others, that I have to be in charge of my own happiness by making sure my equation works correctly. I suppose we could get anxiety to stop pestering us if we just did what it tells us to do. But maybe we can also sometimes tell anxiety to take a hike, because we trust in others, in ourselves, in our strength and resilience to deal with problems when they come up. And maybe we’ll find that as we trust, others will take better care of us than we can for ourselves.
control. (n.d.). Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition. Retrieved December 04, 2017 from Thesaurus.com website http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/control