Controlling doesn’t work

As the holidays (and increased interaction with family and friends) approach, one topic that sometimes comes up is the issue of control. The squabbles, tension and hurt feelings that often result from the behaviors of a controlling person are testament to the simple fact that you cannot control other people. You might try — and your spouse, partner, teens or even your little ones may pretend to comply — but it never works in the long run.

But if, in fact, you sincerely have a person’s best interests in mind and somehow need to get a point across, what can you do? The healthiest thing is to let go of trying to control and instead focus on the influence you have over that person. Try to persuade him or her with thoughtful points, facts and even arguments. When it’s appropriate, establish consequences for people’s actions. Set a good example, especially with your children. But any attempt to control, under the guise of ‘love,’ ‘their best interests’ (or whatever motive you might rationalize) only leads to frustration and conflict. It breaks your own spirit, and erodes the good will of whomever you’re trying to influence.

Many people worry about letting go of control because they fear others will walk all over them. My answer is, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’ In other words, we’re 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. Instead, think: ‘What am I allowing people to do to me that makes me angry?’ If you’re feeling victimized, you need to place the responsibility on yourself to bring it to an end.

Let’s say that your teenagers refuse to pick up after themselves, no matter how politely (or loudly) you request it. You have one of two choices. You can continue to scream and shout (ensuring that you’ll never get what you want), or you can simply stop doing certain favors for them. Say to yourself, ‘OK. How can I hold them accountable for refusing my very reasonable request to pick up after themselves? Should I stop providing food? Water? Well, that might be a bit much. How about clothes? Well, sometimes I buy them the more expensive brands they like. It costs more, but I don’t mind, because I love them and want to see them happy. But they’re refusing to take care of those very clothes I work hard to provide for them. 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 take my requests seriously.’

Notice how this generalized approach doesn’t involve control. The parent in our example already recognizes that she can’t control her teenage kids. If they don’t want to take care of 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. She puts the choice squarely on them. The underlying approach is very simple: You don’t get something for nothing. She’s teaching her kids that they’re not automatically entitled to the expensive clothes, and they’re not going to keep getting them 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. If the teenagers do give in, they’ll have learned a valuable lesson and, although angry at first, will ultimately respect their parents more. The venerable premise from physics applies just as well to people: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Holding people accountable, in proportion to their actions, doesn’t just apply to teenagers. It can apply to spouses, parents, business associates, anybody. Holding people accountable for their actions, even in very small ways, is kind of like going on strike. It sends a message that people are not necessarily entitled to your favors and good will. Just as it might 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.

Requiring accountability is also an effective way to let go of the unhealthy urge to control others. It replaces frustration, anger and a feeling of victimization with the wisdom that you can, indeed, be rational and fair — not just towards others, but to yourself as well. How good a parent, spouse, family member or friend can you be if you’re constantly carrying around bitterness and discontent?

Let go! It’s refreshing, and it’s truly a cornerstone of mental health. By keeping the psychological scales in balance, you and the ones you love will flourish, free of needless emotional baggage, in holiday season and beyond.