Do you struggle with control?
If you are anything like me and many people I know, letting go of control might be a challenge.
I had a simple but profound experience in the swimming pool a while back – learning to float on my back for the first time in my life. I do know how to swim and enjoy being in the water, but for some reason, I never was able to figure out how to float on my back when I learned to swim as a kid, and as an adult, it hasn’t been something that has come up as an issue in my life.
Thanks to the help of a friend who coached me, I was able to let go and allow the water to support me. It felt scary at first, but it was an incredibly liberating and relaxing experience once I figured it out. As I was floating there in the pool, I had many thoughts, feelings, and insights – the biggest of which had to do with my obsession with controlling things and my struggle with letting things go.
Would you consider yourself very controlling, moderately controlling, or not controlling at all? Control is an issue that can get in our way – especially in the most important (and stressful) areas of life and work.
3 Things That Make Letting Go Difficult
To understand why letting go of control may be hard for us, we must take a look at the underlying causes.
Many beliefs and experiences can lead us to hold on tight and feel the need to control others, situations, circumstances, money, communications, our team, workflow, details, our work environment, and various other aspects of our lives.
However, here are three things that are usually underneath our controlling tendency:
- Fear: We worry that things won’t turn out, we will get hurt, bad things will happen, etc.
- Unworthiness: We don’t feel as though we deserve support, help, or for things to go our way.
- Lack of Trust: We’re scared to let go, count on others, and believe that things will be okay without us managing every aspect of the situation, relationship, conversation, etc.
When it comes to leadership and teamwork, specifically, it’s essential to trust those around you. Because if you don’t trust your team, you will lose control.
What does being controlling cost us?
There is a huge cost associated with control. This negative impact is not only on us and our well-being but also on those we love, the people we work with, and everyone around us.
Here are some of the biggest costs:
How can we expand our capacity to let go of control?
There are many things we can do to let go of control. With compassion for ourselves, it’s important to remember that this is a process and something (especially for some of us) that may not come all that easy.
Many of us have been literally “trained” (directly or indirectly) to be controlling, and in specific environments and situations (at work and home), being controlling has been encouraged or seemed necessary for our survival and the survival of those around us.
That being said, here are some things you can do and think about to expand your capacity to let go of control in a positive and liberating way:
Be honest with yourself.
Make an authentic assessment of how control shows up for you. It probably varies a bit for you (as it does for most of us), but at the same time, we all have certain tendencies, especially in the most critical and stressful areas of our lives. With empathy and honesty, take a look at where, how, and why you hold on tight to control in whatever way you do. Be honest with yourself about what this costs and how it impacts you and those around you.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing to let go of control?”
This is an important question to ponder and to answer honestly. In some cases and situations, the answer to this question may be “no.” It’s important to honor that if that’s the case for you. And at the same time, the more willing you are to ask and answer this question, the more likely you are to start letting go of control consciously (assuming it is something you’re genuinely interested in doing). You may not know how to do it or what it would look like, but authentic willingness is always the first step in positive change.
Consider who could support you.
Getting support is one of the most important (and often most vulnerable) aspects of letting go of control. Even though we sometimes feel like we’re all alone, that no one “gets it,” or that we couldn’t possibly make ourselves vulnerable enough to ask for help (especially in certain areas of life), it’s challenging to let go of control without the support of other people.
The irony of asking for help is that many of us don’t feel comfortable doing so and fear it makes us seem weak or needy. And on the flip side, most of us love to be asked for help and enjoy helping others. We can’t do it alone! The good news is that we usually have lots of people in our life who would jump at the chance to support us – if we were just willing to ask for their help.
Surrendering, which is the bottom line of letting go of control, doesn’t mean giving up or not caring, it means trusting and allowing things to be taken care of by others, by the process, and by the Universal Intelligence governing life – some call this God, some call this Spirit, some don’t call it anything, but most of us have an experience of it at some level.
Surrendering is about consciously choosing to trust and have faith. It is something that can liberate us in a profound way and is all about us choosing to let go. And while it’s important to trust ourselves, sometimes it’s even more important to surrender and trust that things will work out – in one way or another.
When we look back on our lives in hindsight, we usually see that “things happen for a reason.” What if we lived in the present moment with this same hindsight awareness?
Letting go of control is about loosening our grip, allowing ourselves to be supported, and trusting that things will turn out as they are meant to. Is this easy? Not usually. However, as we practice this and expand our capacity to let go, we’ll be able to release and transform a good amount of unnecessary stress, worry, and anxiety from our lives, our work, and our relationships.
Letting go of control helps you grow as a leader, a team member, and, most importantly, a human being.
Share your thoughts, action ideas, insights, and more below.
Mike Robbins is the author of five books, including his latest, We’re All in This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging. He’s a thought leader and sought-after speaker whose clients include Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Schwab, eBay, Genentech, the Oakland A’s, and many others.
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This article was originally published on September 6, 2012 and updated for 2022.