“Dear Adam, I am a control freak. I have lists of my lists, plan everything I do, have five savings accounts for different potential problems, arrange my sock draw by size, colour and age and account for virtually every minute of my day. On the one hand, I achieve a lot, but I never relax and I’m never spontaneous. It drives other people mad and no matter how much control I have it is never enough to make me feel safe. I’m constantly imagining the worst about every situation, even to the point of mentally rehearsing for alien invasions. I know it’s not rational, and I want to stop, but if I don’t do it I feel incredibly anxious.”
Hi Control Freak,
You are not alone and believe it or not, what you are doing is not as irrational as you think. I’m not saying that some things don’t need to change, but the distance back to balance isn’t as far as you may imagine. Let me explain.
There are two mechanisms by which people keep themselves feeling safe. The first, which you are very familiar with, is control. We all do this to some extent. We plan our lives, try to foresee potential problems, limit the risks we take, have some backup plans and stay alert for dangers. This is the left hemisphere of our brain doing what it does best – learning from the past to predict the future and keep us alive.
It has many benefits including enabling us to be conscientious and disciplined, to delay gratification, to solve problems and to achieve long-term goals. People who don’t do enough of this often have low levels of attainment and life satisfaction. The classic line of “failing to plan is planning to fail” has a lot of truth to it. I know. I’m one of those people who lived far too impulsively for my own good. It was fun for a while, but the novelty had a shelf life and I eventually tired of seeing all my peers progress in life while I stood still.
However, the other way we keep ourselves feeling safe is a little thing called confidence. The technical term for it is self-efficacy, which means a belief in our own competence. In short, we come to trust that we will be able to handle the challenges that life throws at us, so we don’t need to know what they are ahead of time or try to prevent them.
I’ve come to believe this is the result of having a strong connection to our right brain hemisphere. This is our emotional brain and it’s where most of our decisions are made. People typically make very few decisions logically or consciously. Instead, we go with our feelings, which have their own kind of logic.
This is particularly true of the big decisions like buying a house, choosing a partner, purchasing a car and taking a job. You probably spent less time choosing the house you own than you spent choosing dinner at a restaurant. We walk in, we love it, we indenture ourselves to a bank. No SWOT analysis, no pros and cons, very little due diligence. Nothing logical about it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t intelligent. Our right hemisphere is an extraordinary computer that processes millions of bits of information per second, and it’s very good at knowing what we want and how to respond to life.
The left hemisphere works rather slowly because it works in symbols (language) that translate reality into a story and then examines that story, compares it against past stories, references stored decisions and knowledge and then generates a probability of success or failure. It’s pretty fast by most computer standards, but in the same amount of time the right hemisphere has already made a decision, put the kettle on, caught up with it’s emails, clipped its nails, drank the tea and is catching up on some light reading. All the time waiting for old slow poke to figure out why it’s choice is the right one. Sounds a bit like a typical heterosexual marriage (but I’m not saying who is who).
That’s because the right brain simply compares the direct sensory information against a known set of needs and wants and determines if it’s a fit. It then communicates its decision to us in language of feelings (more about those here) which contain a strong motivational push. In short – a gut feeling.
So long after the left brain is still trying to figure out what kind of snake it’s looking at, the right has jumped the body away to a safe distance. I believe this is the source of confidence, our willingness to trust our gut combined with enough history of success to form the belief that we can handle most things if they go wrong. The more confidence we have, the less control we need. Similarly, the less we can access and trust our gut, the more desperate we become for control.
There are lots of reasons people can lose access to their right brain and the confidence it gives us. Overly restrictive or punitive parenting can make us feel it is unsafe to follow our own impulses, as can poor attachment experiences. Believing that our impulses, desires and instincts are bad or selfish will also create right brain detachment. Exposure to significant traumas and dangers that overwhelm our coping can leave us believing we are powerless. Making a big mistake, or a lot of them, can stop us being willing to trust ourselves (though usually, we make them because we didn’t trust our gut).
Obviously, getting to the bottom of this is best done with the guidance of a good therapist (but I would say that, right?). However you do it, once you figure out what has impaired your trust in your own instincts you can repair your confidence in yourself, which should allow you to chill out a bit.
We can never guarantee our safety completely, but the combination of the right amount of control and the right amount of confidence (too much makes people reckless) can bring us to a place of relaxation and resilience. You might even end up just throwing the socks in the draw (too far?).
I hope that helps.