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The Illusion of Control

Photo by Simón Pais-Thomas
Editor’s Note

Don't miss this inspiring and beautifully written article on finding inner peace through our core. Kate eloquently articulated something I’ve been feeling but haven’t quite bubbled up into words. Amazing job.

Undertaking the journey to get some ground under our feet, is completely missing the point. ~Pema Chodron

Things I have tried, in order to reach a state where my life felt like it was all put together, where it was all in order, and to never again feel bad:

  • Meditating
  • Yoga
  • Reading lots of spiritual books
  • Attending workshops
  • Counseling, therapy, coaching
  • Raw foods diets (the books always talk about feeling so “clear” and “mentally alert”)
  • Workshops oriented around catharsis

There are more things that I could list off, but I’ll stop there–you get the picture. All the while, I was searching for something that the searching itself was going to keep me from finding–because all the while, I was “doing stuff” in order to maintain the illusion of control.

The hope was always this—that if I only meditated enough, or attended the right workshop, or got centered enough in yoga, perhaps I could stop the feelings of worthlessness, fear, and despair.

Perhaps, with enough personal development, I could get some ground under my feet and start to feel like I was a good person.

My history included suicidal depression, an eating disorder, cutting, and explosive rage, and I was mired in shame about all of it.

Undertaking a workshop or spiritual practice was both my penance as well as (I hoped) my doorway out of hell.

The Illusion of Control

Iyanla VanZant calls control “the number one human addiction.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

When we’re in control, we’re on a high. Life is going our way, and we love believing that it was our little will that made it happen, and that if we continue to exert our will, we’ll continue to be in control.

It’s a dangerous illusion, because the flipside will inevitably circle back around:

Life will hand us circumstances that we cannot control. Sometimes life will even hand us exactly what we believed we wanted the entire time, and we’ll find ourselves unable to enjoy it–or to control how we feel about that!

And like true addicts, few of us acknowledge that we have a problem. We’re in denial. I meet very, very few people who are willing to acknowledge their control issues. Instead, they say things like this:

“I’m not trying to control anything–isn’t it right to expect that if someone says they’re going to do something, they should do it?”

Being right? Expectations? Should?

These words point straight to the heart of control.

Control will put you under the illusion that your perspective is the “right” one, that expectations get you anywhere, and that “shoulds” are effective in changing other people’s behavior.

“If I just put my mind to it, I know that I will make it happen.”

Might be true–but if it doesn’t happen, what then? An addiction to control will have you worrying in the background the entire time, fixated on getting that fix at all costs. What if it doesn’t happen? Cue depression, rage, or your withdrawal symptom of choice.

Control is only ever an illusion. It doesn’t exist. We think it exists, but that’s only an outside appearance–a coincidence of sorts in which factors that were visible appear to come together.

Control and Stories

Control is built on a quicksand pyramid of Stories.

Capital-S Stories are those beliefs and assumptions that we take as truth in the world. Some serve us, and others don’t. If you walk the world with a Story that people are fundamentally good, chances are that this Story serves you.

If you walk the world with a Story that everyone’s out for themselves and the world is a selfish place, chances are that that Story isn’t serving you.

The day came–and for me, it was a sudden moment of blinding clarity–when I realized that there was no workshop, no counselor, no book that would “save” me. The Story I’d been holding on to about doing more “stuff” to feel better was utterly false.

Instead of filling me with hope, the realization filled me with a profound despair, because now it seemed that I had even lost my “plan.” The ground had left my feet, entirely.

It was like seeing a snake on a trail and suddenly realizing that it wasn’t a snake–it was a rope.

Once I saw the rope, I couldn’t go back to seeing the snake, and the truth was that part of me wanted to go back to the old comforts of finding a new book, person, or workshop–my next “thing” that would save me.

If I couldn’t even “effort” my way out of depression, what was left?

Of course, as Pema Chodron notes–when we’re trying to get ground under our feet, whether that’s safety and security in the form of a relationship, or money, or life working out the way we want it to, we’re completely missing the point.

I learned that the real work begins when the safety and security is nowhere to be found, when the ground has shifted so drastically that it cannot be counted on, any longer.

When the things I’d run to for safety and security no longer held me, an interesting thing happened–I surrendered to what was in front of me.

The Art of Surrendering

Tattooed above my ankle, in sanskrit, is the word “surrender.” I put it there after a dislocated bone in my foot left me unable to walk normally for nearly two years, and on top of that, no doctor could figure out how to fix it.

This experience was one of my biggest teachers of surrender and control.

For the first two years of this injury, I was miserable–utterly attached to the control of my foot being fixed. I saw every doctor and tried every remedy I could find.

I spent thousands of dollars and participated in hundreds of hours of appointments to seek a solution or to process out my anger and sadness with a counselor.

Nothing worked.

The day came when I decided that I just needed to let go. My foot injury was what it was, I decided. I was not going to seek out any more appointments. I was going to find alternative ways of exercising, and if I walked funny forever–well then, so be it.

Immediately, I felt more at peace.

It was one week after I came to this space that someone said to me, “Here’s the number of this chiropractor that you should try–he’s the best.”

He was the best. He fixed my foot in five visits, whereas a myriad of other doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and podiatrists over the past two years had been unable to.

Perhaps this example is a little “woo-woo mama juju” for your tastes, but the point to drive home is that even if no one had said, “Talk to this guy,” it wouldn’t have mattered.

I surrendered the control, and I was already happier.

When we are willing to be with what shows up in our lives, and quit participating in the desperate, clinging hunt to bend life to our will, that’s what happens.

Today, I’m training for a marathon–and this is after doctors had told me that I would never run again and would have to wear orthotics for the rest of my life.

That’s the power of surrender and giving up the illusion of control: your quality of life immediately increases. Nothing outside of you even needs to change.

Parting Words

If you’re anything like me, right about this point you recognize yourself and you’re thinking, “Sounds like what I need but where do I begin?”

I could offer you ten questions to ask yourself, or 3 easy steps, or 5 helpful tips–but instead, I’ll offer you this:

If you go from the gut, from the heart, from the core of truth within you, you already know where you’re attaching to control. Your life is speaking to you. Your life is already showing you every single thing that’s off-kilter.

There’s nothing to discover, here, so much as there’s the courage and integrity it takes to honestly see what’s getting in the way of a true reckoning.

The best news is that just as life is showing you every single thing that’s off-kilter, your core knows exactly what the next right action is. It’s different for everyone.

For some people, as you question that troubled relationship, your core will whisper, “No, it’s not time to leave–it’s time for you to act with full integrity.”

For others, your core will whisper, “Let go, release, let go.”

We know our truth–we just convince ourselves that we don’t, and that we need outside opinions or more yoga. While these can help, they are no substitute for the answers that unfold when we trust ourselves enough to go within.

And–I bet you already picked up on this–trusting yourself enough to go within is the courageous journey of a truth warrior. It’s the place where there is no control, no ground under our feet, just a journey laying out before us and we have no idea where it will lead.

Congratulations on your willingness to take the first simple, courageous step.

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About the author

Kate Swoboda is a life coach, speaker and writer who specializes in courage. You can learn more about her at YourCourageousLife.com, where she writes about courageous living, integrity, and ferocious love. Life Coaches can check out her resources for business and leveraging your practice over at YourCourageousBlueprint.com

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17 thoughts on The Illusion of Control

  1. Divya

    This has resonated with me more than any book or article I have ever read. Thank you so much.

  2. This was a lovely post.

    “The hope was always this—that if I only meditated enough, or attended the right workshop, or got centered enough in yoga, perhaps I could stop the feelings of worthlessness, fear, and despair.” I resonated with this. If you name a self-help/spiritual based book, I probably read it. :)

    I just read something from one of the folks at Mark Husson’s 12House.com about having a ‘light heart’ when seeking information on esoteric subjects. I never realized how ‘serious’ I was about learning and practicing what I read. It’s no wonder the information wasn’t bringing me any joy or peace. I put too much pressure on myself to ‘get it right’ the first time. Instead of just reading a book for pleasure and taking from it what would work for me, I kept trying to ‘hammer’ the information into my brain.

    I also recently discovered how I’ve been trying to control every aspect of my life. It’s exhausting and unsatisfying. I decided to let go and allow things to be as they are. I may not like it, but I can appreciate how far I’ve come in my life. I can have gratitude for what I do have and for the blessings to come. I guess that’s progress. :)

  3. ‘Going within’ is the real challenge!

    Acknowledging my own tendency as a ‘control freak’ is difficult yet surrendering to the rhythm of life is ultimately more rewarding.

    Thank you for expressing this in such a heartfelt way.

    PS I’m a Star Wars fan and your post reminded me of Obi-Wan!

  4. David B

    I like thinking that I have all the information I need to live a happy life. But the surrender part I am having a hard time understanding.

    I know we want more then we can have in this modern era. We want more then this world can offer. But can’t we still make a situation better by putting effort?

    Where is the line? I can’t surrender to my hunger for food. I am going to get up and go to the grocery store and buy food. And my hunger is gone. I will surrender to the fact that I will die and that I wont get everything I want. I am just curious where the line is.

  5. David B

    Also, when I meditate, I feel more soul centered. I feel like I can hear my true self. It feels like I have more control. My inner voice tells me what I need. And I grab it. Its like someone took off my blind fold. I am not getting happiness based on what other people tell how to. I am getting my happiness from within. I feel empowered. Isn’t empowerment the same as control to some degree?

  6. What a wonderful post. I’ve really felt that I’ve been encountering things that I need to see/read at perfectly timed moments. This is one of those times. I completely relate to everything you said, especially about looking for the next thing to “save” me. This was a great reminder that I need to 100% believe in myself, be fully present, and remember that everything comes from within. No one is going to save me, but me. I need to surrender, honor, and love myself first above anything else :). Thank you!

  7. Kate:

    I read this post last night and thought about it off and on for most of today.

    I am 53 years old. In my late teens and early twenties I struggled with all the things you wrote about in your post.

    The desire to control doesn’t go away as you age. I think this is in part due to what it means to be human–we want to control, because it gives us a sense of security. The desire to control is also a function of our cultural world view. Most of western society lives under the scientific or newtonian paradigm. This paradigm or world views assumes that the world is like a machine. It is made up of parts and if you create the right conditions all those parts will work in unison to produce an expected result. Create the right conditions and you can control the outcome.

    Over the years, I have found that if I want to reduce my desire to control things I have to shift my perspective. I have to stop thinking that control is possible and take on a different world view.

    The Quantum paradigm throws the idea of “control” out the window. It views the universe as a chaotic mess of disorder. Over time, out of that chaos an order emerges. Using this world view, I have learned that patience is the essential quality to embrace. I have learned that the times that I most want to control things is the time when I need to embrace patience and wait for the order to emerge. As I wait patiently, a curiosity emerges in me. This curiosity opens me to all the possibilities of what might happen. I find I am happier when I think about and view my world from this perspective.

    Warmly, Laureen

  8. I’ve lived this same truth, and you expressed it so very well. Be blessed.

  9. I’ve lived this journey, and it’s hard to imagine it being written any better by anyone. Be blessed.

    Tom

  10. Very wise words Kate, thank you.

  11. Thanks for this. So well written and right on point. I needed this today :)

  12. elizabeth

    Your post resonated with me – thanks for sharing. I have enjoyed reading Pema Chodron’s work and keep going back to it time and again to be “reminded”. I just finished Ken Druck’s book The Real Rules of Life which you might find interesting. Thanks again!

  13. Bob

    I think this is a double-edged sword.
    Yes, we often cling to control too much of the time, when we’re really not in the driver’s seat.
    On the other hand, too much of the time we surrender to the illusion of powerlessness – the feeling that we can’t do anything about our circumstances.
    Both of these paradigms can hurt us and take joy out of our lives – and it’s a delicate balancing act to find out when we’re engaging in which of these. That’s why I love your advice when you say to go inside, because with the very fine tuning fork of awareness, we can stay on course :)

  14. Gezim

    Islam is submission to the will of One God.

    Here’s a beautiful example of how Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him submitted immediately:

    ‘When his Lord said to him, “Submit”, he said “I have submitted [in Islam] to the Lord of the worlds.’ (Quran 2:131 http://allahsquran.com/read/verses.php?ch=2#2131 )

    :)

  15. Hey all, just wanted to let you know that I’ve been reading (and loving!) your comments. ;-)

  16. What you have written here resonates with me.

    Surrender.

    Give up the illusion of control.

    I surrender to God and continue to ask for His guidance and help.

  17. John Frederick

    It is an illusion to think we can control things OUTSIDE of ourselves. Through meditation however, we can find an inner stillness in which we can gain insight into the workings of the human mind and gain increasing control over the way we think, speak and act. This gradually leads to our life changing. It begins to unfold more positively as we cease generating negative elements in our life. So, in this way we have control, or should we say influence, on our external world but we must first surrender our desire to control and just seek to gain and apply more wisdom and find joy in that way of living.

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