Letting Go of the Need to Control
Letting Go of the Need to Control… as easy as 1,2,3
By Chula Goonewardene
“I mean no disrespect to those who do, but I do not believe in an omnipotent God-like higher power that can ‘care’ for me, so therefore, neither can I ‘hand my will and my life over’ to something that I don’t believe exists as a single entity with a will and interventionist ability of its own.”
I remember in my first few weeks of recovery, being given an assignment on ‘Perfectionism and the need to control’ and feeling incredibly offended at the implication that such a sentiment could possibly be applied to my laid-back, easy-going character. Obviously the denials of active addiction had constructed a significantly warped view of self, but luckily the gifts of desperation and despair had granted me the willingness to trust in the wisdom of my Counsellor, the programme and my peers, so I undertook the task with as much openness and honesty as I could muster, and I’m very glad that I did.
As a therapist in private practice, working with the broader issues of the human condition, I have found that this ‘need to control’ is a universal dilemma that afflicts not just the addict, but almost all of us. The idea that we are powerless over people, places and things, strikes fear into the hearts of many, as the illusion of absolute choice and ultimate control over our destinies, brings a false sense of security that allows us to feel sure about our place in the world. Even though most of us intellectually understand that external factors will always impact upon the paths that we choose, there seems to still remain a deep-seated belief in the approach that; ‘If I do this, then this will happen, then I will feel this, and it will all be ok’. How many times have we attempted to make this true, only to find that events turn out so very differently from what we anticipated, and how many times have we continued to push and force a square peg into a round hole?
The addict is taught this lesson in a harsh and profound way.
The experience of being totally and utterly addicted brings many of us to a place of absolute insanity; convinced that with the right amount of will-power, knowledge, medication, relationship, employment, or external success, that we will develop the ability to control our addiction and become manageable. As we know, for most addicts, this is not the case. So what is the answer? I’m sure there are many, so I can only speak from my own personal experience, and the observation of those that I have worked with professionally, to say that I have found the first 3 steps of the 12, uniquely designed to facilitate this process, in the context of a view that 1-3 are about how we relate to the world, 4-7 how we relate to ourselves, 8 & 9 how we relate to our past and future, with 10-12 supporting us to continue in positive relationship with self and others.
It took me a very long time to admit and accept that I was powerless over my addiction and even longer to see that ultimately, I am powerless over people, places and things. I tried everything I could to control my using and I feel with certainty that the repeated defeat, along with the unavoidably increasing unmanageability, were the catalyst to my initial surrender, a process that has often reappeared when I have felt the desire to control, avoid, or change the way I feel.
“Recovery has taught me that underneath lies fear, a fear that became embedded when traumatic events took any sense of personal control out of my hands.”
my experience was of an unbearable loss of control, that I then spent most of my life trying desperately to regain, along with a whole host of intolerable emotions that I sought to avoid, through the use of substances and addictive behaviour. Unfortunately active addiction works at first, and the absence of difficult feelings brings an ill-fated illusion that now, we are in control, the pain ceases to exist, we have found a cure, and that cure becomes our key to survival in the world.
The price we pay is to lose the natural process of emotional growth, to the point where the adapted child becomes an adult without many of the much needed skills of life, such as emotional self-regulation, healthy boundaries, balanced reciprocal interaction, or the innate understanding that; life won’t always go our way, and disappointment, dissatisfaction and sometimes devastation, are bearable and integral aspects of living. The end result is finding oneself in a cul-de-sac of hopeless addiction amongst war-torn surroundings, with the accompanying insanity as our only bed-fellow, making the same mistakes over and over again, expecting different results and finding a distorted security in familiar pain.
A true admittance and acceptance, of being powerless over our addiction, eradicates the illusion of control, along with softening the shame of seeing oneself as morally deficient and severely lacking in will-power. It in fact empowers the individual to face reality and see clearly the futility of attempting to control that which has become a seemingly irreplaceable component of personal identity. It is in this first surrender that we find the freedom to move forward, and by admitting that we cannot control our addiction, or our spouse, friends, workplace, car, or digital appliances, for example, we are able to acknowledge our insanity in trying to do. It has been said that; ‘we cannot control the things around us, or even those within us, but we can control our response to them’ and it is through this realisation, when it comes, that we find the ability to choose to do things differently. Ironically, through the acceptance of powerlessness we actually find power, and it is then how we source that power in its greater existence, as I have never seen this develop organically from within an active addict on their own.
This is where personal beliefs play a primary role in the restoration of one’s predicament of desolation and it is refreshing to see that what individuals chose to name as their ‘higher power’ doesn’t seem to matter, as it is the psychological and emotional process that heals, once action is undertaken. Step 2 states that we as a group, in fellowship, came; as we came we came-to; as we came-to, we started to believe we could get better; and as we started to get better, we fully realised that we couldn’t take this journey of recovery on our own. I sincerely believe that therapeutic healing cannot take place in absolute isolation, it is through the love and care of others (with healthy and appropriate boundaries of course) that we find salvation, in whatever form that may take, and it is our willingness to believe that this love and care will heal the parts of ourselves in need, that consequently restores us to sanity.
This also transfers well to my work with non-addicts, and along with supporting someone to recognise the value of the therapeutic alliance, a power greater than either party on their own, I always look to see where isolation is corroding the spirit and the need for control is stirring inner turmoil. Sometimes simply engaging in a positive way with others, or finding identification in sharing a common problem, is the most effective tonic in calming the mind enough to gain clarity and move forward. The power of the group is not to be underestimated and the pain of loneliness has the awful ability to attach itself to so many of life’s maladies and misfortunes.
Once we have recognised our powerlessness, realised that trying to change the things we can’t is driving us insane, and fully witnessed that there are elements outside ourselves that can bring relief, how do we rid ourselves of the need to control? Enter Step 3. Firstly, let me say that the wording of this step troubled me when I first read it and still troubles me today. I mean no disrespect to those who do, but I do not believe in an omnipotent God-like higher power that can ‘care’ for me, so therefore, neither can I ‘hand my will and my life over’ to something that I don’t believe exists as a single entity with a will and interventionist ability of its own. What I do believe however, is that there is ‘good and bad’ in all of us, that I can choose what to cultivate within myself, I can choose my intent, and I can choose what and who I surround myselfwith, obviously within the limits of practical living. So the essence of this step for me is simply about letting go of my need to control whatever outcome it is that I am striving for and just putting in the footwork with a healthy dose of hope. If I can find the right peg for the hole, then great, but if I can’t, I’ll wait to see if a right shaped hole appears, but the most important thing is that I accept, that the square will never fit the round.
By applying this 3-step theory I am ultimately able to recognise my self-destructive behaviour and acknowledge that only by taking personal responsibility will I actually gain freedom from my anguish and be able to soothe my soul; it is me that is in the way, and when it comes to supporting others in my therapy work, there are three questions that I like to ask; What have your efforts to change/control this issue brought you?, How does it feel to share this issue and what realisation does that bring?, and; How would it feel to let go of this perceived need altogether? I support my clients to identify the difference between wants and needs within the context of accepting the things they cannot change, to focus on the things they can change, with an understanding that; we all hope for the best, we all strive to achieve, we all like to feel that we have some control over that, but sometimes the only way to really get what we need, is to let go of what we want.