Replace control with accountability, and boost your psychological health


You can’t control other people. Not your spouse, kids, teens or, to some extent, even your little ones. Sure, you can try, but it never works in the long run. So what can you do if you sincerely have a person’s best interests in mind, and need to get a point across?

The most healthy thing to do, psychologically, is to let go of the concept of control altogether. Instead, try to focus on the influence you have. Any attempt to control others, under the guise of ‘love,’ or whatever motive you might rationalize, only leads to frustration. It breaks your own spirit, and destroys the good will of those you’re trying to control. you have over others. Try to persuade them, with thoughtful points, facts and even arguments. Set a good example, especially with your children. Establish consequences for people’s actions, when it’s called for. But never try to control. Why? Very simple:

Many people worry about letting go of control, because they fear others will walk all over them. My answer to this is, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’ Profoundly true, it means that we are all responsible for taking care of ourselves.

If you feel like a victim, don’t stew in your anger. And don’t just tell yourself not to be angry, either. Instead, think: ‘What am I allowing people to do to me that makes me angry?’ You’ll see everything more clearly, by placing the responsibility on yourself for ending the victimization (if that’s what it is).

Imagine, for example, that your teenagers refuse to pick up after themselves, no matter how nice or loud your requests. You have one of two choices. Either you can continue to scream and shout, thereby ensuring that you will never get what you want, or, you can simply stop doing favors that you already do for them. Say to yourself, ‘OK. Let me think about this. How can I hold them accountable for refusing my reasonable request to pick up after themselves? Should I stop providing food? Water? No, that might be a bit much. How about clothes? Well, sometimes I buy them the more expensive name brands they like. It costs more, but I don’t mind, because I can afford it, I love them and want to see them happy. But they are refusing to take care of those very clothes I provide for them as a favor. How fair is that? That’s it, then: I’m going to take back the clothes with the nice labels, and refuse to buy them any more name brands until they show me that they will take my requests seriously.’

Notice how this generalized approach does not involve control. The parent already recognizes that she can’t control her teenage kids. If they don’t want to pick up their clothes, they’re not going to. Does this mean she gives up? Absolutely not. Instead, she influences their behavior by logically and sensibly holding them accountable for their actions. The underlying approach is very simple: In life, you can’t get something for nothing. She’s teaching her kids that they are not entitled to the nice clothes, and they’re not going to keep getting those name brands unless they shape up.

It’s a win-win. If the teenagers still refuse to cooperate, at least the parents won’t have to look at those expensive clothes on the floor any longer, since they have now taken possession of them. If the teenagers do give in, they’ll have learned a valuable lesson and, although angry at first, will ultimately respect their parents a lot more. The venerable premise from physics also applies to people: For every action, there is an equal, and opposite, reaction.

I don’t mean to imply that holding people accountable—in proportion to their actions—applies only to teenagers. It can apply to spouses, parents, business associates; anybody. Holding people accountable for their actions, even in very small ways, is like going on strike. It sends a message that people are not automatically entitled to your favors and good will. Just as it’s sometimes reasonable for an employee to go on strike, the same holds true in life. You are just as deserving of a fair give-and-take as anyone else!

Holding people accountable is a powerful way to let go of the unhealthy urge to control others. It helps eliminate frustration, anger and a sense of victimization; replacing these unpleasant feelings with the wisdom that you can, indeed, be rational and just—not just towards others, but also to yourself. How good a parent, spouse, family member or friend can you be if you’re carrying around resentment and discontent?

Letting go of control is refreshing, and truly a cornerstone of mental health. With the psychological scales in balance, you, and the ones you love, will flourish, free of needless emotional baggage.