The Illusion of Control: How Using Control as a Strategy Can Worsen Anxiety

vector picture showing a woman choosing between different types of mindsets: scared, sad, or happy

November 30, 2023

Understandably, anxiety is a prevalent mental health issue affecting people worldwide. It can be triggered by various factors and can appear in different ways, such as restlessness, irritability, and panic attacks. Coping with anxiety can be challenging, and some individuals might resort to control to manage it. The belief is that by controlling their environment, they can avoid situations that trigger their anxiety and feel more secure. However, this approach can lead to the opposite effect, resulting in increased anxiety.

In this article, we’ll delve into the illusion of control and how it can manifest day to day. We’ll also explore Margaret’s story, past and present. 

Just relax!

That’s what someone who relies on control tends to hear from others, along with “you’re so uptight”, or “you’re such a stickler for details”. In the specialised literature, individuals with controlling tendencies sit under the compulsive and obsessive umbrella. Perfectionism is paramount, expressed through a great deal of attention to all details, no matter how insignificant. Life is lived according to a rigidly fixed pattern and any unseen change is a source of anxiety. Ruminative thinking is a constant, as well as lots of guilt about what could have been done better, faster, or just differently. 

Now that we’ve seen a nutshell description, let’s look at a more detailed vignette, with the help of Margaret (not her real name). For Margaret, the intellect reigns supreme. Personal superiority is granted by her ability to perform in her studies and her workplace. Life is devoid of playful spontaneity and instead mired by constant planning that leaves no room for failure. She’s very careful with her appearance because any “bad hair day” can be seen as vulnerable and exploited by others. 

Because Margaret’s intellectual abilities are so polished, she quickly finds countless explanations and hypotheses for her daily interactions. When she is faced with the unknown, Margaret does not feel safe until she has exhausted all the avenues she could pursue and her reaction to all possible scenarios. Margaret’s external demeanour is reserved and composed – she’s often perceived as closed and inaccessible. It’s challenging for Margaret to display warmth and affection towards her friends, although deep down she knows she cares about them. It’s just that she doesn’t know how to translate that into gestures, so she’d rather not try at all. That doesn’t change the fact that Margaret is very reliable across all areas of her life. 

The fear behind the control

If we look at rigid control as a strategy to make life more manageable, we need to ask ourselves what is the threat underneath. What are we trying so hard to avoid when we’re in our controlling attitude? 

According to Nira Kfir, the fear of appearing helpless, inept or foolish drives us to fight for an existential condition for psychic survival. We wage this battle by controlling ourselves and external events. If everything is under our control, we eliminate the risk of being humiliated. 

This unconscious lens, which Nira Kfir calls the number one priority, ends up dictating how we tackle the perceived challenges in life. Have you perhaps noticed that when you’re in a stressful situation, you start to want to control all circumstances, allowing no one to help you out? Could it be that if you lost absolute control, others would believe you’re not as good as they thought? Does that thought come with a visceral reaction for you? If so, you’re likely to turn to control to escape feelings of ridicule. 

When we operate out of this inferiority-stemming fear of “being wrong”, psychologists like Harold Mosak argue that we create two contrary systems: the good me and the bad me. The good me is the controlling force, the perfection-seeking, unflinching energy that puts things in order and ensures we are safe from disgrace. The bad me is what we perceive to be the sum of our weaknesses, the shadow that must be hidden at all cost. In reality, the bad me is our human side and we want it under the rug, so that the good me, or the more than human side can prevail. The question boils down to: “Who is stronger – me or me?”

In Margaret’s case, will her more-than-human, good-me win? The me that has it all together, not one inch in disarray? The force that she uses to appear as perfectly intelligent and good-looking, the full package? Or, to her dread, will the bad-me rear its head, with its terrifying imperfection?

It looks innocuous - think again

Wondering about other real-life examples of how control makes its way in? Let’s look at a couple of scenarios that might ring familiar to you or someone you know:

  • Work: obsessing over details that do not matter in the grand scheme of things. In hindsight, you can understand that those details didn’t matter but you couldn’t just ignore them. What if something had gone wrong because of that?
  • Friends: they must be able to see how you are simply right, not because you’re the greatest or you want to achieve perfection, but because you are terrified of being humiliated, of showing weakness. As one great joke put it, “I’m not always right but I’m never wrong”. It grates on you when friends disagree – can’t they understand you’ve given it much more thought than they have? 
  • Love: you can’t think of the last time you did something spontaneous. The last time your partner invited you on an unplanned weekend getaway, you flinched at the sheer idea of going somewhere just like that, with no pre-planning at all. Naturally, you are unprepared and therefore your partner’s invitation was unreasonable. 

The biggest complaint people have when seeking my help is that this attitude of controlling everything is outright exhausting. How long can one go on constant high alert? And when the inescapable happens and things do not go as planned, that dreadful feeling is unbearable. Even with all the monitoring in the world, the worry that others will be forever judgemental causes great anxiety. When a distressing event takes place and strong feelings emerge, the dread of losing control by expressing these feelings only makes matters worse. We want to control and we end up being controlled by our desire to control. 

What happened with Margaret?

Margaret got fed up obsessing over how she was seen and that it would never be good enough. She learned that by ruminating over her internally distorted image, she fails to bring her beautiful strengths and resources to the forefront. Margaret understood she couldn’t ever connect with others if she saw them as potential humiliators and that perfection meant trying to be God. All she can do is give things a go with her best intentions and respect others. 

She unconsciously learned at a very young age that immaculate mastery was an exchange currency for love and attention. The better she did, the better she became in the eyes of others – so the conclusion she drew was that she needed to keep it up. Margaret now knows she can’t change the past, but she can choose to change her relationship with it – along with her reactions to present-day circumstances. She acknowledges when she feels the anxiety stemming from not having “enough control”, so she learned how to ride that wave with courage and compassion.

You’re invited

Margaret’s progress sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? The feeling that comes with recognising the same old stimuli and not letting it take over is exhilaratingly liberating. I know because Margaret is me. I have been precisely where you are right now, and I understand how frightening it can be to let go of that anxiety-infused grip. The secret I had to learn is that the more I try to control, the more anxious I get. I am not more-than-human. 

It sure isn’t an easy lesson so I appeal to you not to do it alone. It’s way easier when there’s someone who walked that walk doing the hand-holding. Get in touch to discuss how we could work together to do away with the good-me and bad-me.