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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, 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

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