This episode goes with Chapter 2, Lie # 4: “You Must Be In Control!” of Anxiety… I’m So Done with You! It’s time to unpack control. I’ve said control issues are anxiety issues, and now we need to dig deeper into “control.” In this episode, you’ll learn:
- The correlation between control and anxiety
- How to distinguish physical vulnerability from emotional vulnerability
- How to identify danger and when you’re in it
- Why letting go is not what you think it is
Do you feel anxiety about being in control? Anxiety tells you that you are in danger if you are not in control. That worry convinces you that you always need to be in control. But when you believe that, you will always feel anxious since ‘control over everything’ is an impossible quest. This episode unpacks the concepts of control, danger, and vulnerability, so you no longer have to listen to anxiety.
“You Must Be in Control!”
Anxiety always calls attention to control – specifically, the things you don’t have control over. This makes those things feel more significant than they are. You see, anxiety is rigid. It tells you everything needs to go how you expect it to, or you’re out of control. I’ll remind you that there are many things that go differently than you plan, and they have gone fine. Plus, I’ll show you where and how you have agency.
There are things you control and things that you don’t. Anxiety wants you to see what’s out of your control. However, refocusing on what you can control brings calm and builds confidence.
“Control has come to equal safety. This has led to the belief that vulnerability equals danger. These concepts have small relationships to each other, but they are in the context of so many other things. They are not equal. Control is relative. There are things that you have control over and things that you don’t have control over.” – Dr. Jodi Aman
Listen to Anxiety Lie #4:
Resources for this Episode:
Get my other book: You 1, Anxiety 0: Win Your Life Back from Fear and Panic
Transcription of Episode
Chapter 2, Lie Number 4: “You must be in control!”
Welcome! We’re talking about Chapter 2, Lie #4, “You must be in control!” If you’ve been on this journey with me from the beginning, you know the correlation between control and anxiety. So, you know control issues are anxiety issues!
In this episode, I:
- unpack control a little bit further
- talk about vulnerability
- distinguish physical vulnerability from emotional vulnerability
- unpack danger and how you know you are in it
- go over “pseudo-power” (where I tell you why it is not sustainable)
- share why letting go is not what you think it is
Let’s dive in. How many of you can relate to the anxious thought that I quoted at the beginning of this section: “If I’m not in control and something bad happens, then I can’t do anything!”?
This thought decidedly makes you think that you must always be in control! Control makes people feel safe, but when they expect to be in control, it can be consuming. So many things that you are experiencing and interacting with are out of your control.
Humans are constantly being reminded that we are failing the expectation to keep control because it’s an impossible expectation. And even though the expectation is impossible to meet, not meeting it feels dangerous and so completely unacceptable. Again, this happens implicitly. Remember from the last episode implicit means it’s there and impacting things, but you may not be conscious of it. When we feel out of control, we try to grab something near us to control so that we feel in control again. We try to catch whatever we can put our hands on, be it cleanliness, other people, substances, anger, perfection, sex, exercise, or whatever is close at hand. And when controlling that calms us a bit, we keep grabbing that thing again and again.
Anxiety is constantly trying to engage you
The problem is it’s unsustainable. I call us trying to control these things “pseudo-power” or “pseudo-control” because it doesn’t satisfy us and we have to keep grabbing it. Bullies, or people who engage in power tactics in relationships, are playing this out. Getting power over others is their way of trying to regulate their implicit anxiety. They feel out of control and compensate by controlling something or someone.
Did you ever hear the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people”? This is what they mean. Bullying others comes from pain or anxiety in the bully’s life. That doesn’t make it okay that they hurt you, but it can help you understand that it’s not you and you don’t have to put up with it anymore. In fact, if some sirens are going off as I say this, check out my Red Flags video on the blog post for this episode. That’ll tell you if anything you are experiencing is something to be concerned about.
In chapter 3, I go deeper into finding sustainable empowerment. Still, for this section, I’m mostly addressing the expectation that you have to be in control because that unrealistic expectation hurts you. In your implicit belief system, control has come to equal safety. This has led to the belief that vulnerability equals danger. These concepts are related to each other, but they are not equal.
Control is Relative
Control is relative. There are things that you have control over and things that you don’t have control over. Anxiety calls your attention to where you have no control. Making you think that they are so much more impactful than they are. Anxiety makes them feel like they’re real threats. However, the things you do have control over––your agency or your response––means more to how good your life is than anything else. (This is why I dedicated Chapter 3 to your agency.)
Anxiety likes to spin the tale that you are out of control when you’re not. Also, anxiety is rigid. It makes you think that everything should go exactly as you expect it to or you’re out of control. For example, if someone else changes a plan, you feel like the whole thing’s falling down around you, and your anxiety spikes! Changing plans could be for the better or benign. When it’s worse, it might not be that bad. The other person might give you notice ahead of time. They might communicate the reason they are changing, and it makes sense to you, or they may suggest an acceptable alternative. None of that is out of control. Even when someone changes plans last minute, you can still decide what to do next. You’re still in control of what you do.
Vulnerability is not dangerous. If you’ve grown up in a chaotic household where you experienced some insecurity in any form, you have probably learned that vulnerability is dangerous. We noticed an interesting phenomenon when I worked in a preschool for kids at risk of being removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect. When one of the preschoolers cried, the other kids would come up and hit them. The vulnerability was not tolerated.
If you ever spent time with someone who grew up in a chaotic environment, for example, they had a parent who was selfish, abusive, or emotionally unavailable, or they had a significant loss, trauma, extreme poverty, or housing instability, you might have noticed this. They get nervous, upset, or play devil’s advocate whenever you’re vulnerable. They equate vulnerability and danger and are worried about you.
Vulnerability is only dangerous when there is danger there. When you’re safe, vulnerability is not only safe; it’s beautiful, intimate, connecting, transformative, and for that reason, very often inspiring.
It’s important to delineate physical threats from emotional threats. The sympathetic nervous system, that fight or flight reaction is practical when you’re in physical danger, but not when you’re in emotional danger—taking a moment to observe your situation and make this distinction can save your mental health.
In the book, I told you about Kate and how she pulled back from social situations because she was so afraid of being vulnerable. Her fear was understandable because she was abused in a previous relationship. I’m glad she pulled away from the guy who abused her. However, her isolation and anxiety hurt her more than the risks of being around new friends, co-workers, and classmates. There are good people out there!
Kate didn’t trust that she could distinguish between good and abusive people. She rationalized this since she had gotten herself into that one bad relationship. In therapy, I argued that she had the skills to notice people. She could have minor interactions with new people and know quickly if she was physically safe in their vicinity. And then, she could take her time, getting to know them enough to witness their kindness and authenticity before she’s ever vulnerable with them. Making good connections is worth this small risk! Anxiety wants you to be alone because it can have more power over you that way. There’s nothing for you in that isolation but misery.
Sometimes influencers, adults, or authors say something like, “You have to surrender control, and then you could let go of anxiety!” I never saw that going over well with someone who has control issues. My method allows you to control the things that matter, your agency and your ability to make meaning, and then respond to a situation the way you want to. Knowing that you have your agency means you never have to give up the control that matters. You don’t even have to grab anything to maintain it!
Agency maintains itself. Letting go of control is letting go of attempting to control things you don’t and will never have control over. It may feel scary to think about letting go, but not meeting the impossible expectations that you must be in control causes more chaos. Deciding to focus on what you can control brings calmness. You don’t have to grab anything; you don’t have to effort more; you don’t have to hurt yourself or anyone else to be in sustainable control; you just have to root into what you already have, your agency. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Anxiety about something that is not worth it
Let me give you an example of this. Dean is an 18-year-old who gets anxious about missing class even if she’s sick. She has been worried about this since she was little. She’s primarily worried that she’ll feel out of control trying to make up missed work. It’s not like she was never sick, but those few times when she was, her mother had to convince her to stay home. Each time it went fine. There was far less work than she thought, and she caught up quickly. In retrospect, she reported that it wasn’t so bad. Dean knew how to ask the teachers for help, get notes from her classmates, schedule time to make up tests, and complete missed work. Those were never problematic.
However, the next time she was sick, the same anxiety of being out of control would come again. If Dean remembered and focused on what she did have control over––the ability to navigate communicating with her teachers and completing missed work–– instead of focusing on––”I’m not there! I will miss everything! And then, I’ll be behind! How am I going to catch up? What if I’m behind?”––she would have less anxiety. She can give up control over that all day long and feel more in control of her life, not less.
That was a simple, benign example. I did this on purpose. A traumatic example could distract or worry you, or worse, it could trigger you. This also works with something more severe. You may live in a context of unspeakable stress, oppression, and hardship much worse than Dean. If you do, then you have the skills to keep yourself safe. You wouldn’t be here listening to this podcast if you didn’t.
You have kept yourself safe.
That means you’ve harnessed your agency about the things you can control. You need to make decisions to keep yourself safe. We’ll get into those safety measures in the next chapter, but here we’re leading up to that by talking about your abilities to assess your safety.
One more note: In the book, I share the social identifiers of the characters in the stories I tell. I may not do that in this podcast because I’m being more explicit about diversity, equity, and inclusion in other ways. However, I have to apologize for my misstep in the book. I’m sorry that I used the word “straight.” Since writing the book, I was schooled about this word, and that feedback uncovered an implicit bias of using words that we have always used without critiquing them. Using the word “straight” suggests it’s preferable, but I don’t think it’s preferable. Unfortunately, I cannot change that because I did not publish the book. I’m sorry that I used this exclusive term, and I hope to do better in the future now that I know better.
Thank you so much for listening to this podcast, “Anxiety… I’m So Done with You!” with me, Dr. Jodi. Don’t forget my five-star review on Apple Podcasts, and remember, every episode has a blog post with more videos and resources for you.
It’s time to read Chapter 2, Lie #5, “You shouldn’t have to do it!” Read or listen to that, and I’ll catch you there.