coaching topics

Control – getting a grip or letting it go

I have at times been called a “control freak”. It’s not been meant as a compliment (though there are some situations where being a control freak is absolutely a good thing – health and safety, etc etc). I had not heard it for a couple of years, but in the last couple of weeks, those I love, with the best of intentions, have let me know that they will be using this term again shortly unless I change my behaviour.

I hate feeling “out of control”. The reasons for this are complex and many, and generally in the realm of therapy rather than coaching, so I’m not going to go into them here. Suffice it to say that when we have such strong feelings about this type of behaviour, it is usually a combination of experience of negative outcomes of being out of control, internalising other people’s opinions and views on “control”, and fear of strong emotions or strong display of emotions.

When I feel things are “out of control” – there is a physical change in me – i don’t breathe properly, and I find it impossible to sit still. My brain function changes – I forget things, I can’t focus. My behaviour changes – I don’t listen as well and I tend to communicate much less well with those around me. My defence mechanisms are well and truly triggered. To try to bring things back “under control” I make endless lists, I take on even more responsibility for more things – because it is “easier and quicker to do it myself” and I hover when other people are doing things to make sure they do it “right”.

In coaching I often use the “Circle of Influence” with clients who are experiencing this type of challenge.

Influence circle

The basic idea is that we all have things we worry about but only some of those things can we influence. And even fewer can we control. We work to assess where all our worries and concerns actually fit in order to reduce overwhelm, “let go” of things that will never come under our control and understand that at best we may be able to influence them, or usefully “get a grip” on things that we are worried about that we can control (hint, there are fewer of these that you think and it’s usually limited to YOUR behaviour, YOUR response, YOUR words, YOUR actions).

What I realised I was doing in the past couple of weeks as a defence method was to try to expand my Circle of Control into things that are, in reality, at best, in my Circle of Influence. For example: I can control whether I order food for delivery – I can’t control exactly when it will arrive or exactly what will be in it (though I can influence this by specifying substitution or not). Obsessing over  delivery times just resulted in frustration when timings slipped due to demand on the suppliers and wasted time that could have been spent doing more fun stuff. Likewise, I can’t actually control how much effort my 10 year old puts into his school work. I can try to influence in a variety of ways, but at the end of the day even if he stays sat at the table, I can’t really control what he writes, unless I do it for him. As an educator I know this behaviour is at best unhelpful.

It is always easier to coach others than to coach yourself but this week I am trying to focus on visualising the circles when I start to feel like the “control freak” is looming. Asking myself whether this is really something I can control, or whether it is something I can at best influence, or whether it is even something I need to be concerned about (I find letting go of things entirely quite difficult) is turning out to be somewhat useful. With practice, I may be able to push the unnecessary control freak away for another few years.

(Interestingly, though I hate feeling out of control, I love rollercoasters. Perhaps this is because my trust in the laws of physics means that I know that from that point of view I am not really out of control bar genuine accidental machine or human failure).