How to meet your need for Control

by Jo Flack | 02 Apr 2020

To help you stay well, we at Suffolk Mind use an ‘organising idea’ that we all have physical and emotional needs and a set of skills and resources that we’re born with to meet those needs. This is referred to as the Emotional Needs & Resources approach. We have 12 physical and emotional needs. Control is one of those needs.

To meet the need for Control we need to feel that we have some say over our lives and personal choices. It can be helpful to recognise what we can take personal responsibility for and what we can influence, and accept that there are some things which we cannot control.

One of Suffolk Mind’s Trainers, Jo Flack, shares her story and some tips on how to meet your need for Control.

Several years ago when I was suffering with anxiety, a therapist I was working with referred to me as a ‘control freak’. Perhaps not the most professional, appropriate or empowering terminology to use but she did have a point; I am very aware that I have a tendency towards needing a high level of control. The need for control, to have autonomy and a say over our lives, is a deep seated need.

But like all our emotional needs it should be met in balance. And that means accepting that there are some things that are beyond our control, we cannot possibly expect to control everything… and I know all too well that we can get into difficulties when we try. My attempt to control my environment to an unhealthy degree led me to become seriously unwell with OCD. It began as a reasonably rational dislike of ‘dirty’ things but evolved into a situation where I was attempting to sanitise my entire environment through ritualistic cleaning of myself, my possessions and spaces I inhabited.

So it is crucial to recognise that there are things beyond our control that we need to accept.

We might not like them, but we will not meet our need for control in a healthy way if we do not accept that some things just are. This is perhaps particularly relevant at this time. Not even the leading epidemiologists, who study disease for a living, know how to control COVID-19. And this is likely to threaten many people’s need for control. But by accepting the things we cannot change and focusing on the things we can have an element of control over, we can help meet our need for control in a healthy balance. For example, although we cannot control the existence of the virus itself, we can all do our bit to help control the spread by following the guidelines and advice given to us.

However, for some (particularly those with contamination Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD), the constant advice regarding regular handwashing can cause a spike in anxiety. Regular handwashing to control the spread of coronavirus is a rational and healthy response to a real threat, but if it becomes excessive and is meeting a need to ‘feel just right’ it is no longer rational and healthy.

For those who find their OCD symptoms worsening during this time, it is important to distinguish between a need to hand wash for genuine hygiene reasons and a need to handwash that is prompted by the OCD. If it is the latter then notice it, label it as an ‘OCD thought’ and try your very best to avoid giving in to it. For those of us who have a need to feel in control to a significant degree in order to avoid anxiety and relax our minds, our lack of control over the current situation may lead our minds into trying to fill the unmet need in other, perhaps unhealthy ways.

So here are some tips that we all may find helpful to meet our need for control in a healthy balanced way during this time:

  • To re-iterate, accept the things you can’t control. This includes other people’s behaviour; it’s easy to get really wound up about people who are ignoring government guidelines around social distancing, but how other people behave is not within your realm of control. You may just need to let some things be.
  • You are in control of your exposure to media content that might ramp up worry, so you can choose to give your attention elsewhere.
  • Some people find getting into a regular routine helps meet the need for control and also the need for security; we feel safer when we feel in control of our day to day life.
  • And finally, remind yourself when you need to that it is enough to do the best you can with the information you have.
by Jo Flack
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