Fear & its friends (and what we need to help us through)
I am a control freak. Freak is a strong word and I don’t want to give you the wrong impression straight off the bat. But I think I probably am. Perhaps a closet one. Perhaps not that closet at all.
Newsflash – I have realised today (or re-realised – is that a thing?) that this control regularly has a root in something else. Fear. Or call it anxiety if you like. Or worry.
Infact I would go so far as to say it’s not just regularly that they cuddle up – I would say they are pretty much co-habiting.
Fear plays footsie with Control whenever it gets the chance.
There is a lot to worry about. A lot to think about. A lot that can cause us anxiety. Let’s cover a few topics (so we can start off in a nice positive vibe). Starting with the current and obvious – the overarching global go-to for a bit of anxiety (and panic) is Coronavirus. A whole range of valid worries are frogmarching through our brains. Will I be ill? Will I be one of the serious cases? Will people that I care for die? Will I be able to work? How will my business cope? Will we be able to go on holiday? Will our wedding day go ahead? Will I be able to go to that football match I have waited for all year?
Moving away from the global issues, there’s the day to day stuff. Work worries – Will I get the job? What if I get it and I am rubbish at it? What if everyone finds out I don’t really know what I am doing? What if I make a huge mistake? What if people don’t like me or think I don’t know how to lead? What if I accidentally forget to get dressed and go to work naked? (OK maybe that one is just me). Then there’s personal panics – What if I am the only one not invited? What if I am actually really ill and I don’t know it yet? Does anyone really like me? Am I good enough? What if I don’t know what to say at the party or say something really stupid? Throw in some doubts about your darling – Do they love me? What if they leave me? What if they become really ill or die? How will I cope without them? Add in a few parenting perturbations (of which I promise there are WAY more than a few) How do I know I am doing a good job? What if they are ill? What if they grew up to hate me? What if they grow up and struggle with their self-esteem, eating disorders or mental health? What if they can’t find work, or struggle with friendships, what if they fail, what if they blame me for it all? What if I am doing things wrong that can’t be made right again. And finally, and by no means least, there’s the final ingredient of the existential anxieties – what am I even here for? Is what I am doing even worth it?
If you weren’t anxious already, I imagine you are now and for that I am very sorry. But hopefully you can see from my limited list that there is a whole load out there to fill our brains with worries and woes, and I am pretty sure you have a shedload of anxious thoughts that I haven’t even come close to mentioning (no, please don’t tell me them).
But what happens, when we focus on these anxieties, is that it leads us to a place of panic, and, right there, sitting next to Panic, is the age-old answer to our problems, our old friend and comforter, and its name is Control.
We look to Control and give it free rein to remedy the situation.
How Control responds can look very different from person to person but I challenge you to look for it because it lurks there for so many of us.
For some, control might be to expand your knowledge. When something unexpected happens, my family will tell you I become master research and investigator. I read, watch, scan tweets and social media, talk to clever people and find out all there is to know. I become the knowledge. When our niece was born at 1lb prematurely, I read so much about it I honestly think I could have done a dissertation on it.
You see, the more I know, the more I limit the risk, the more I feel a sense of Control.
Control might also look like making a detailed plan – one that mitigates for all possible disasters and each and every route or possibility is covered for. A flowchart and a project plan for the whatifs and maybes gives a sense of order, a calm voice of organisation in the chaos.
What about those that let it all go, don’t worry about it at all? Party, or drink, or eat their worries away? I have no sway, no authority here, it’s all up to chance and to the gods, so what will be will be. Live and let live.
Isn’t that the opposite of Control? Maybe, but I want to suggest that actually this is Control in camouflage. By releasing all sense of authority, by adopting a devil-may-care approach, you are actually invoking a sense of Control: I can’t do anything about it, so whatever happens won’t be about me, it won’t be my fault and so I won’t have failed. Phew. It’s something or somebody else’s responsibility and I can just sit back and relax.
Finally, control might be about eliminating risk. I just won’t do it, not at all. I will hold back. Hide. I will withdraw and stay safe. I won’t say that hard word because it might not work out. I won’t tell that person what I really feel because they might reject me. I won’t go for that promotion because if I don’t go for it, I can’t fail. I won’t speak up for my team and lead them forward because we might go in the wrong direction. Or perhaps, I won’t let anyone else do anything that I can do because they a) might cock it up b) might not do it as well as I would do it c) might do it better and I get exposed as a fraud. I won’t give freedom to my team because they might do it differently to how I had hoped. I won’t share my ideas and so then no one can say they’re ridiculous. Or, I won’t let my child go on the bus, or the train, or to the park, or the party, or to her friends, or on social media, or eat unhealthy foods, or….
Recognise any of these in yourself? Do you have any tendencies to one or the other of these behaviours? It’s OK – Control is a human, natural response to any unknown situation, anxiety or fear. But – spoiler alert – it’s an illusion. Or, to be more accurate, it is definitely an augmentation of the truth.
I am learning, that we have way less control than we realise.
Especially over most of the things we actually worry about. Can I eternally eliminate the unpleasant outcomes and hard situations from my life that I am worrying about (including all the ones that haven’t actually happened)? Can I add a day to my life by worrying?
No, not really. And neither can you. Yes, we can make good choices, yes, we can plan, yes we can learn more so we aren’t naïve, yes we can stay away from risky situations. These are all good and right things to do. But, we need another colleague in the relationship between Fear, Panic and Control.
And that is Balance.
There’s another way. When we can feel ourselves diving head long into the Control Centre, we can bring a bit of Balance.
Because Balance, more than Control will give us the peace of mind we are all searching for.
Read. Learn a bit. But know you’ll never know all there is to know.
Organise. Plan a bit. But know there will be scenarios you hadn’t envisaged.
When it comes to caution – everything in moderation. Don’t throw it to the wind. But don’t get stuck in its claws either. You might feel such deep regret if you do.
Here’s some top tips to bring balance in a few areas of our life where control may have too much airtime:
I am (obviously) NO expert on this. But what I will say is this.
Let’s take a day at a time. Make some plans for how you can still work and what you might be able to cut back on if finances take a hit. Buy sensible amounts of food and loo roll. Look out for your neighbours. Feel sad (and let your kids feel sad) about stuff they might be missing out on. Remember the bigger picture. Read the news no more than two times a day. Don’t keep refreshing the daily cases on the worldometers page because it really won’t change anything for you to know. Wash your hands to the tune of any song that you desire. Trust the scientists know what they are doing and have all of our best interests at heart.
2. Leading – at work
Praise your team and tell them what they are good at without reservation and regularly. Risk assess what you give away – how mission critical is the outcome of this piece of work? Ask yourself a few key questions including – what am I afraid of? If I give it away, how much involvement should I have, how clear can I be upfront about expectations and outcomes? Is it OK if it looks differently to how I might have done it? Don’t assume just because you can do it and you have an idea of how to do it that you should be doing it. Decide case by case as to what you should be involved with and what you might be able to let go. How much checking in does that person need (or want?) Talk about this upfront in the project so it doesn’t feel like micro-managing on the receiving end. As for speaking up and speaking out – what is the worst that could happen? That you are wrong? That’s ok – great leader admit their errors anyway. Again, how important is this? Are you speaking up and risking it about the right things? If you’re more inclined to go for it and see what happens, partner up with those more analytical and deliberative than you and get them to help you see what might happen and how you might mitigate for that.
3. Leading – at home
This is a whole area I am well and truly a Learner with undeniable L plates. With three growing sons (17,14,10) I know that I am balancing every day how much is too much to say, how much is too little. When to nag, when to let it go. Great advice I was once given was to ‘pick your battles’. I sometimes (OK often) remember this too late. Recently my middle son was assaulted when coming home from school. He was waiting for the public bus and it was low level in the grand scheme but was pretty frightening for him at the time, and did involve police. What do you do? Follow them to and from school every day, or take them off public transport and drive them in every day? Maybe sometimes these changes need to take place (and I did feel like that at the time) but this is where our good friend Balance needs to take centre stage. At some point, and pretty soon, my son won’t even live at home. If I don’t help him prepare for that now, with little letting go’s every single day, I am not doing my job properly and sowing a culture of fear in him, too. So let’s try to work through our initial reactions of control and settle on a plan after we have had some time to think, maybe spoken to those less close to the epicentre of the situation.
4. The general stuff
Fear, worry, anxiety pops up in every sphere, for most of us, most days. So finally here are some control free ways to, in the words of the wise, Let It Go.
P.S. there are some things we CAN control. These are often the things we don’t bother to control. What we say, what we do, where we go, who we allow to speak into our lives, how we react, how grateful we are, how we let go, if we forgive, if we speak with life. Let’s take full control in this area!
P.P.S. please, if you are really struggling with anxious thoughts, talk to someone. Start with a friend but please also talk to those that know how to help you best. Talk to your doctor, or other professionals. Otherwise, there are some great links here.