As the summer season (and increased interaction with family and friends) approaches, one topic that comes up in my office is the issue of control. As people spend more time together, tension and hurt feelings can be caused by somebody who has to be in control. The tension and anger this causes is proof positive that you simply cannot control other people. You can try – and your spouse, partner, teen or little one may pretend to comply – but it never works in the long run.
So, what happens if you sincerely have a person’s best interests in mind and somehow need to get a point across? The healthiest thing is to let go, and focus on the influence you have over that person. Try to persuade him or her with thoughtful points and facts. When appropriate, establish consequences for people’s actions. Set an example, especially with your children. But any attempt to control under the guise of “love” or “best interest” or whatever motive you might rationalize, only leads to conflict. And it erodes the good will of whomever you’re trying to influence.
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 heard), or you can simply stop doing certain things for them. Say to yourself, “OK. Sometimes I buy them the more expensive brands of clothes 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 clothes I work hard to buy. How fair is that? I’m going to take back the clothes with the nice labels, and refuse to buy them any more until they take my requests seriously.” A generalized approach, of course, but notice how it doesn’t involve control. The parent recognizes that she can’t control her teenage kids, but should she give up? Absolutely not. Instead, she influences their behavior by simply and logically holding them accountable for their actions. She puts the choice squarely on them: “You’re not automatically entitled to expensive clothes, and you’re not going to keep getting them unless they take care of them.” It’s a win-win for both parties.
And if the teenagers still refuse to cooperate? Well, 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 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. It’s sort of like going on strike. It sends a message that people are not necessarily entitled to your favors and good will. You are just as deserving of a fair give-and-take as anyone else.
Requiring accountability is an effective way to get rid of the urge to control others. It replaces frustration and victimization with the wisdom that you can, indeed, be rational and fair – toward others and yourself.
Let go! It’s refreshing and it’s a cornerstone of good mental health. By keeping the psychological scales in balance, you and the ones you love will flourish, free of needless emotional baggage.
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