Can keeping control keep worrying at bay?

Can keeping control keep worrying at bay?

If you’re a worrier (come in, sit down, make a cuppa, you’re among friends) I’m guessing you also like to have things planned out, know what’s happening, where, when, how and with whom. You like to have thought of every possibility, rehearsed conversations (playing all the parts in your head), explored the full range of scenarios, and be sure you know how those involved will react.

Worriers don’t like worrying, you know you do it more than is helpful and you don’t like how it feels so you look for ways you can eliminate the worry. That’s only sensible, surely? So if you cover every base, if you’re in control and are certain of the outcome, you can stop worrying. Can’t you?

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Planning to the nth degree doesn’t stop you worrying.

Can keeping control keep worrying at bay?

I know why you think it should. For example, if you’re nervous of a situation because you don’t know who’s going to be there or what time it’s going to finish then once you fill in those gaps in your knowledge you’ll no longer be nervous. But then again, what if the people you think are going to be there aren’t, or other, unknown people, are? What if it finishes early or over-runs? How will that make you feel, what will you do?

Perhaps you’re relinquishing the oven mitts and giving in to your partner’s request to cook dinner tonight. You know what they’re making, they have all the ingredients needed, the recipe to follow and they can call on you if they get stuck. But what if they do something wrong and the dinner is inedible, what will you eat, how will you feed the children? What if they make a huge mess and you have to clean it up? Or what if they don’t prepare the dish properly and you get food poisoning? You’ve got a presentation to do tomorrow, you can’t be ill.

You planned and prepared and thought all the way around the issue so that any worries you have could be eliminated. But they weren’t. Because there’s always a What If lurking somewhere. You may have thought and prepared for ten possible outcomes but then What If pipes up with the 11th possibility. You could plan for 1000 variables but What If will still find the 1001st and wave it in your face.

And then you’re back to square one, worrying again.

Because worriers want to feel in control and believe that if they are in control everything will be okay. The trouble is, maintaining complete control is impossible. Not simply improbable, it’s impossible.

Situations can’t be completely controlled, people cannot be completely controlled and outcomes certainly cannot be in yours or anyone else’s complete control.

That’s hard to accept, I know, really I know. It’s difficult to admit that you can’t keep everyone safe, that you can’t know what someone’s reaction will be, that you don’t know what’s going to happen.

The tighter you try to grip on to control, with the intention of pacifying your worries, the less likely you are to find peace. You spend so much time, thought and energy into managing what’s happening, trying to anticipate changes and worrying about the What Ifs that you aren’t a part of what’s going on around you, you may barely notice it in fact. And once it’s over you there’s a good chance you’ll realise that your worries were unfounded, your What Ifs never materialised and you missed out because you were too busy holding on so tightly.

You end up feeling exhausted, let down by the actions you thought would help you and fed up that you spent more energy worrying than you did enjoying yourself or simply being part of it all.

And what about those around you? How does this desire to control in the name of keeping people safe and happy, of getting work completed, of being responsible, of making sure things are okay and nothing goes wrong, impact the people you love, work with or spend time with?

In the process of wanting to feel in control of a situation it’s easy to feel the need to know what other people are doing, where they’re going and when, how they’re going to think, feel, act or react. If that doesn’t fit in to what you believe needs to happen for everything to be okay than there can be the tendency to want to exert a little bit of control over them too. Not in a sinister, threatening, take-away-your-liberty way, you want what’s best for them and for everyone, after all.

But. Here’s the but. There is still the desire to influence other people’s behaviour to fit in with what you can control so that you can stop worrying. And when those around you realise that you’re micro-managing them they may not like it so much. Think of it in reverse, how would you feel if you knew you were being controlled by another person, even a small amount and even in the name of love or concern?

The fact is you can never be in complete control. Striving to stay in control doesn’t lessen your worry, it maintains it or even increases it. Going in the total opposite direction isn’t helpful either, I’m not suggesting you give up planning, preparing, asking questions or relinquishing all responsibility in life.

So what can you do?

Recognise your need for control and why
First of all, learn to recognise what you’re doing, look out for the signs that you’re overthinking, and overplanning. Do you really need to know all the details? Are you trying to second-guess people? Are you creating multiple possible scenarios and are you trying to influence others by stealth? Ask yourself why you’re doing this and be honest, you don’t need to admit it to anyone else if you don’t want to but you do need to be truthful with yourself.

Be kind to yourself
Then give yourself a break, practice self-compassion. You’re not a bad person, you’re not trying to play puppet master and you don’t want to be controlling. You worry, you want what’s best for everyone and your intentions are good. Worrying this much is no fun, you don’t want to feel like this, you don’t want to spend so much time overthinking and you don’t want to micromanage other people. Be kind to yourself, this is difficult.

Begin to loosen the grip
Now you’re aware that your worrying is leading you to try to control a situation, and you’ve decided this is not how you want to feel or act, you can begin to loosen that grip.

• You know deep down that you can’t plan for every possible outcome so bring it into the light and tell yourself that.
• You know that trying to be in control doesn’t make you worry any less. It’s hard to admit but you know it to be true.
• You know that you have managed, coped with, and survived every unexpected and unplanned for event and situation that life has thrown at you so far because here you are today.
• And you know that relinquishing just a little bit of that need to be in control doesn’t make you out of control. It doesn’t mean that your life will fall apart and anarchy will reign. It means that you are in control of your own life, not your worry, as you have known all along.

Try relaxing your need to always be in control, even just a little, so that you can spend less of your time worrying and more of your energy enjoying life.

I’d love to hear how you feel about trying to keep your worries in check through planning and preparing and thinking of all possible scenarios. Have you tried letting go of that control, even a tiny amount, and how did that feel?


  1. patti on 16th July 2017 at 4:10 pm

    This very much resonates with me, especially when you have had some real tough ‘grit’ to deal with in life you can tend to want to control all you can to keep a felt sense of safe to feel less vulnerable. But what I have learned is that you do manage, you do endure and overcome and it is a way to grow resilience. I learned to recognize my worry of “will it be ok” as a reaction to circumstances in my life which i had no control over and left me a bit wobbly and made me want to keep all safe. But again and again life teaches you that you can not control what you can not control. And it is in the Uncertainty, that i think I really grew. “Do not worry” Perhaps i will always be a bit of an anxious person. But I see better now that excessive concern for results is not a good witness to the truth that God is really in control.

    Instead, I pray for the gift of trust. The gift of courage, simplicity and trust.

    • Gabrielle on 17th July 2017 at 9:15 am

      Thanks, Patti. It’s difficult to be okay with knowing that we can’t control a lot of things in our lives, but accepting it brings peace with it.

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