Under Control

Control. It sounds like a good thing.

Self-control. I’ve got this under control. Control yourself.

For years, I had everything under control. I swore I did. Everything from family activities to how people were allowed to feel around me. Is some small detail unplanned? I’ll plan it. Someone has a problem? I’ll fix it, whether they want me to or not. Something needs to be done? I’ll take care of it. In fact, I’ll do it myself because that’s the only way it will get done right. Because only I know what the right way is.

See, everything under control.

This should feel good. My entire universe working according to my grand plan. Only it doesn’t feel good. It’s exhausting and it drives the people around me up a wall.

It’s also an illusion.  

How Do I Fix This?

When I started reading about Asperger’s, one of the first things that “clicked” for me was why so much of my adult life was dominated by a need for control. I’m ill-equipped for a lot of aspects of life; at some point, control became my primary coping mechanism. Life was hard and confusing and scary. Being in control could fix that.

It doesn’t, of course. If you’ve struggled to maintain an illusion of control, you know what I mean. Control strains and eventually suffocates relationships. It leaves you huddled in a corner, defending a small patch of territory that feels sacred. The Scientist says that I latch onto the things that I see as mine, people included, and guard them. He says I need to possess things.

That’s hard to hear, but he’s right.

I’ve been that way for so long I don’t remember if I was ever not like that. But until I had that key bit of information about why control was so important to me, it was something that lurked in the shadows, feeding a quiet sense of shame.

Changing something that’s deeply ingrained on a subconscious level is hard. It happens in baby steps. When you’re in the middle of it, nothing is as clearly defined as hindsight makes it appear. Looking back, I can see that understanding the root cause of the problem was the first step.

Step two was accepting that it was a problem. I didn’t want to, at first. That meant admitting to myself that I’d hurt people so I could feel better. The hurt wasn’t intentional, but it was damaging all the same. As I got braver, I was able to start examining what was triggering my need for control and then apply what I was learning about how my brain works to come up with new coping strategies.

Control was an all-purpose strategy. I couldn’t just replace it with one new strategy. Instead, I had (and still have) to look at each situation and ask myself where is the urge to control this coming from? What will I need to feel safe or comfortable in this situation? How can that happen?

Sometimes there’s a simple answer, like planning breaks into a long day of socializing. If I know that I can take a timeout whenever I need one, the urge to control what everyone else is doing lessens. That was a big revelation for me: I can be in charge of me and everyone else is in charge of themselves.

The Big Leap

The hard part about “everyone else is in charge of themselves” is that it requires me to trust other people so I can purposefully let go. Letting go is hard. When I let go, anything could happen. Someone could load the dishwasher wrong. Someone could be five minutes late for an appointment.

Someone could be sad in a way that I can’t immediately fix.

Then what?

What I’ve realized is that controlling all those little details was my way of avoiding other types of discomfort. Disorder is uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if it’s spatial, temporal, or emotional, major or minor, I wanted no part of it and I was going to do something about it.

I’m slowly letting go of that need.

Sometimes, even though I recognize that I need to step back from my urge to control, I still feel a strong need to do something. Then I remind myself that I am doing something: I’m respecting someone else’s boundaries. I’m supporting them. I’m taking care of my needs rather than imposing that responsibility on another person.

Learning to manage my own internal distress is also making it easier for me to ask for what I need from others. My default internal cycle for many years was:

panic—-> lash out in a controlling way to make the panic stop

When I first decided I wanted to change, the best I could manage was:

panic ——-> question why I’m panicking ——-> who cares? ——-> lash out in a controlling way anyhow

With practice, my new internal cycle is becoming:

panic —-> question why I’m panicking —–> ask myself what I need to feel comfortable —-> take steps to make that happen, including asking for help from others

Ironically,  the more I give up on trying to control all of the things and people around me,  the less out of control I feel. And that really is a good thing.

65 thoughts on “Under Control”

  1. OMG. You are seriously inside my head. I am going to have to make a serious effort not to be so controlling. And I’m going to have to let my fiancé read this because I’m going to need his help pointing out when I’m losing my shit trying to control everything.

    Thank you for writing this. I needed the wake up call.

    1. You’re welcome. 🙂 “Losing my shit trying to control everything” is such an apt description.

      I hope your fiance is tactful! Having an external reminder can be really helpful at first to short-circuit the impulse. I’m much better at recognizing when I’m “doing it” now than I used to be. One thing to keep in mind as you work on this – be gentle with yourself. The letting go can be hard and painful and the progress not very linear. I’m still working on it but it’s getting easier and my responses are getting more reliable.

  2. Wow. I’m not sure I’m ready yet to understand what you’re saying. It rings true but I can’t apply it to myself in a practical way yet. Need to think about this.

    1. It may depend on how you much need for control you have? My need was intense and it’s been such a relief to start unclenching that clenched fist feeling I’ve had for much of my adult life.

      1. I recognise nearly all of it except perhaps the parts where it affects people around me because I live alone. But it might affect others just the same. I’m thinking I may need to be patient with myself on this because I’m still processing all the ways autism has affected my life. It’s something to keep in mind though.

        1. There are definitely stages to processing. I was quick to take on control early in the process, whereas shame took me a long time to look at and I know there are other things that I’m not yet ready to take out and examine closely yet. Be kind to yourself! 🙂

  3. I also always “need” to be in control. That is the main reason I have never used drugs and didn’t get on with anti-depressants. I’m only just getting used to a new diagnosis so not ready to let go of control just yet. Something I will have to think about another time.

    1. Oh, same here! I avoided drugs during my teenage years when all of my friends were using because I was afraid of what might happen if I wasn’t completely in control. And probably with good reason, because as an adult, I get exponentially more autistic when I’m drunk.

      Everything in its time. Also, I’ve found that undoing this one is a very slow process, so when you’re ready, it’s a good idea to give yourself a long timeline. Years wouldn’t be unreasonable. 🙂

      1. “I get exponentially more autistic when I’m drunk.”
        Oh lordy, yes. I too did the stimulant avoidance thing. For one thing, I cannot ‘bite my tongue’ when I’ve had alcohol and I need to, badly. I’m guessing extreme self monitoring can be a factor too?

        I get the control thing, oddly I’m also an atheist who believes that all life is chaos, which, in practice makes relinquishing control even harder.

        1. Yeah, I think I self-monitor a lot when I’m around people I don’t know well. When I drink, that self-monitoring breaks down so I end up with zero filter. Even my husband gets a little overwhelmed by it at times though he’s mostly just amused.

          I’m curious how many autistic people are also atheists or have alternative (non-mainstream?) religious beliefs. I don’t subscribe to a particular belief system although I do think there are some guiding principles in the universe. So not complete chaos, but not any particular god-like being overseeing things, which I guess does make it harder to let go. I see a lot of affirmations that suggest when people relinquish control they put trust in a higher power and when you don’t have that belief to call on, it’s definitely a bit more like jumping out over a chasm and blindly hoping you make it to the other side.

          1. I don’t know. A lot of resources claim that people on the spectrum are more likely to be atheists, but in the blogging world I see the same kind of mix of religions and beliefs that I see in non-autistic acquaintances. So basically I think the resources are full of bullshit on that issue. Maybe we sometimes have an unorthodox approach (I read one blog by a woman who said she decided to live *as if* she believed in God because that was an all-around more solid assumption than not believing) but I think we are no different than NTs in that respect.

            I come from a family (4th generation!) of devout atheists. I always call it that way because it *is* a belief system! But personally I don’t really have a preference. I guess I’m sort of agnostic. I just think there’s beauty and ugliness in all religions, just as there is beauty and ugliness in all people. I don’t know if there’s any divine force behind that, and I have no need to know for sure. It’s enough for me that people I know are comforted by their belief in God.

            1. My views are pretty close to yours (except that I was raised in a religious family). I’ve seen some things about people on the spectrum being more likely to be atheists too but I’ve also noticed that in practice there seems to be quite a bit of diversity so maybe that’s a myth.

  4. This one’s gotten me thinking — in a good way. I think I have a need for control in situations that cause me anxiety, and my perceived lack thereof could be one of the causal factors. Could it be that coping strategies are ways to gain a level of “real” effective control to replace the illusion of omnipotence that is so easily shattered? The knowledge that one can ask for help, or even just walk away, can alleviate the panic that arises from that trapped sensation caused by feeling as if one is being swept along by events beyond one’s power to influence.

    1. Control feels closely tied to anxiety for me too, except I think I let it become so pervasive that it eventually spilled over into lots of other things too. I think you’re right about coping strategies providing other options for a more realistic type of control. Ultimately, the best we can hope for is to control our own reactions to things or at least to be okay with them. Trying to control other people and entire situations is unrealistic and frustrating.

      1. I agree: it’s about focusing on those aspects that one is able to control and letting go of those one can’t. Sounds simple when I put it like that 😉 but I know the devil’s in the details.

      2. Impeccable timing: I saw my therapist today and spoke briefly to her about the link between control and anxiety. As soon as I mentioned it as a possible factor even I could pick up the signs of recognition — and this was a phone session. She confirmed that being in situations that are out of your control is known to cause anxiety.

        And then I remembered this blog post which approaches it from a sports psychology angle and talks about the need to focus on what is controllable to keep your attention off the distractions of things that aren’t.

        1. I’ve actually be thinking about it in the reverse way, that things that cause anxiety make me like I need to gain control of them so it was a bit startling to have it reversed there. I’m not sure why, because once I read it like that, it looks obvious.

          I like the way that post separates the controllable and uncontrollable into very specific lists. It’s not quite that easy to do in some life situations but thinking in concrete terms feels useful for things like this.

          1. There’s a good chance that it’s a cycle: feel things are out of control leads to increased anxiety which leads to feel things are slipping further out of control and so on until your head explodes — not literally I hasten to add 😉

            I have been trying the technique of concentrating on controllable aspects of my game when I play darts. It’s too soon to say whether it’s improved my playing but I don’t get distracted by things like background noises because of my focus. I can see parallels between that and my anxiety counseling which leads me to believe it stems from a cognitive behavioral approach.

  5. Oh dear… I come from a long line of controllers. My father, my grandmother, Aunts… now my husband, me… There’s this wonderful thing that was written with addicts in mind about a person (the addict) being like the director of a play. The lighting must be just so, the actors must stay on script and when things do not go as planned the self appointed director alternates between having temper tantrums and cajoling and manipulation, he will get his way at any cost. Meanwhile the actors, the set designer, the lighting and sound person are all becoming increasingly resentful, the whole thing falls apart, people storm off, fights break out, everyone is discontent, but the director is sure if he could just make others see his vision, they would get on board and it would all go as beautifully as he wanted it to. This scenario ends with the idea of “letting go”. Such a simple idea and yet, so, so difficult to actually do. I am right there with you, learning to see when I am being controlling, learning to accept that I do this, learning to embrace the desire, but not give into the behaviors that inevitably follow that desire…

    1. As I was writing this, I was thinking of control as a type of addiction in itself but didn’t feel comfortable drawing that parallel since I don’t personally have experience with addiction. So I’m glad you added this story. It makes a lot of sense. The desire to control what other people think (making others see my vision of what reality should be) is perhaps one of the most difficult–I’ve actually been writing about that in terms of perfectionism this morning for a post next week.

      I suspect this will be a long or perhaps lifelong process. Maybe we’re recovering controllers and will always have to be vigilant?

      1. Ha! I also feel uncomfortable drawing parallels between addiction and autism because I’m not Autistic, but am an addict, though I have found ways to live without picking up my substances of choice. And perfectionism… whew… that’s another big one!
        I agree, a lifelong process. In addiction recovery they talk about “progress not perfection” which I have also always loved.

        1. I was just thinking about perfectionism today, in response to a post on Rose With Thorns about how comparing ourselves to others prevents us from having compassion for them. And I thought, I mostly compare myself to myself, to where I came from and where I want to be, to my idea of perfection. And yes, it is true that this stops me from being compassionate with myself, I’m always pushing myself to do better. But on the other hand, this same drive helps me to become a better person, especially because it’s the drive I’m using now to learn how to forgive myself! So it’s all very contradictory and confusing, lol.

  6. I loved reading your thoughts here. I had problems with control. But I think that for me it originated from two things at least. One was that I didn’t understand the rules in life and social interaction, so when I worked some out I tried to stick to them religiously. Of course, other people were much more flexible than I and it always caused me heaps of stress and argument as I didn’t understand how they could break the rules that I was expending so much energy on following. The other reason related to this was that I was terrified that people would discover all of my weaknesses and inadequacies that I struggled so hard to hide. I found it especially difficult because people close to me never took my fears of misunderstanding/failure seriously and they totally never understood the extent of my anxiety about getting every little thing in the day ‘right’.
    Fortunately, I have generally learned to give up on this need for control (except it is my default mode in extreme stress), as well giving up on expecting others to understand my level of anxiety. Discovering I was autistic made it so much easier for my partner to understand (late adult diagnosis) my anxieties and the reasons for them, as I had been unable to articulate the reasons for them before – at least in a way that he could understand.
    I have also found that other people often feel much more relaxed around me when I’ve given up control and are much more tolerant of me as well – that is very rewarding in itself, nothing like being liked 🙂

    1. It sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought and put a lot of work into it. Your reasons resonate with me because I see both of those things in myself, especially the part about the social rules when I was younger. Control is a pretty typical coping mechanism for anxiety (or so that’s what I found in researching this) and I think people on the spectrum naturally have higher anxiety plus a tendency toward rigid thinking. Both of those can feed the urge for control.

      It’s amazing what can happen after a diagnosis, isn’t it? Once things start making sense, so much can change for the better.

  7. …Woah. I definitely have this issue. It also reminded me of my boyfriend-ex-whatever-the-fuck-he-is-now, who’s also on the spectrum, but I digress.

    Thinking about it, I have two extremes; letting people walk all over me because ALL THE FEAR, or being really stubborn and wanting to take charge of everything. No middle ground. Ugh. 😦

    (P.S. Yesterday’s Tumblr post had me a little worried. You okay?)

    1. I tend toward those extremes too, though I finding that moving away from one is helping me move away from the other as well. I’m growing some backbone, it seems. 🙂

      This weekend was rough. Yesterday I was feeling rode hard and put away wet, as my physical therapist liked to say. But today is much better. Thanks for asking.

  8. I was surprised to see that there were others out there that avoided drugs because of control issues. Everyone assumed that I avoided drugs and alcohol because I was a goody-two shoes preachers kid. The truth was that I was a rule follower who was terrified of anything that might interfere with my self control. To this day, I will reject any medication that clouds my thinking at all.

    John Mark McDonald

    1. Very good point, I have a lot of issues with medication as well! I need to be absolutely clear on what it does and why I’m getting a prescription for it, before I consent to taking it. Always chalked that up to a healthy questioning of authority but your comment made me realise it could very well be a control issue as well.

      (For the record, tried alcohol under very controlled circumstances – with my GRANDMOTHER! – before daring to use it in a social setting. Never used drugs either).

    2. It’s interesting to look back our younger days and see them in a whole different light, isn’t it? I’m not a fan of medication that affects my thought process either and I’ve had some odd reactions. The one time I took strong painkillers (post surgery) I started having hallucinations within a few days and had to go off them.

  9. Great post. I think everyone has the need for control – some people more than others. Letting go of that control is a process but it is liberating. It doesn’t matter how the dishwasher gets loaded as long as it is loaded. Okay, it might matter but the world won’t end if it isn’t loaded MY way. Now that I don’t have to always load the dishwasher or something else, I have energy for other things. Life is easier when I don’t have to try and control (or think about) what someone else does.

    1. *giggles* I had a similar issue with folding t-shirts. My ex just folded them down the middle (sleeve against sleeve), really easy to do but leaves a crease down the front. So I got all control freaky on him and said he was doing it wrong and explained why. And he said I had a point and then continued to fold his t-shirts that way. Which made me fume but I was too lazy to start refolding all his t-shirts after he was done. Although I also had to ignore the way that his t-shirts and mine didn’t line up properly in the wardrobe because different folding techniques. FUME. 😛

    2. Yep, the world continues to turn if the bowls aren’t facing in the right direction or someone puts the spoons upside down. And you’re very right about having more energy when we stop letting that stuff bug us so much and share the burden with others. I hadn’t thought of that until just now, but being in control means taking responsibility for so many little tasks that others could easily help out with. Wow. That’s actually a great positive reinforcer for letting go.

  10. wow. ouch, but wow.
    I’ve written down the points that I’m going to attempt to use. The “panic” feeling is as far as I get most of the time in knowing what is going on with me in certain situations and tasks.
    There is so much that this applies to in my life and my life history that it is too much to write here, so I’ll leave it at that.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful. The first draft of this post was much more technical and distant and it got a big thumbs down so I went back to the drawing board and faced up to the painful stuff. That was definitely worth doing, though there was much cursing involved. 🙂

      1. Nasty people always making us do the hard emotional stuff instead of letting us get away with nice factual accounts. 😛

        I’m glad you went through so much effort to write it all down. I still feel I need to do something with this but I need to have confidence in my ability to remember this when I’m ready to tackle it. I think that’s part of the panic I feel right now, “what if I forget that this is important!” and then I won’t do anything with it. So part of me is pressuring me into doing something with it right now, and I can’t because I don’t have the processing power.

        Your words will still have the same power a few months or a year from now. I need to have more trust in that.

        1. I suspect when you’re ready to tackle it, it will feel like an unavoidable thing that needs to be seen to and you’ll remember just fine what you wanted to do. 🙂 Until then, patience! Oh man, I should write about that too. Since I have so little of it.

  11. I thank you for cursing your way to forgoing the distant and zooming in to the meaningful & painful. The other part of the wow is that this is quite timely for me right now. I’ve ‘bitten off more than I can chew’. I curse too. Trying to gradually stop it though. lol

  12. I agree that control is an illusion… as is security… the thing we hope to get with our control. Fear of the unknown pushes some of us to avoid change, in part because we don’t know if we can control the new situation, which leads us to doubt whether it’s secure or not.

    Nearing fifty, I look back and have to laugh (or better yet, cringe) at what I thought was control or security over my life. I was the sole provider for myself, my wife and my kids. I did all that with the meager income one earns from cleaning houses and windows. The people I worked for liked me, and I felt secure, I felt in control. All the while, though I dodged all the bullets, I put myself in harms way all the time by playing baseball and softball, in addition to riding quads (four wheeled motorcycles). More than once I avoided serious injury, that would have prevented me from earning money for long stretches of time, which would have imperiled my family’s well being. I also couldn’t afford health insurance, so I didn’t have any… one broken bone and that could have led to a disastrous downward spiral… yet, all along, I thought I was in control.

    I still like to control things, and I think that is a good thing as long as balance and reason ore interjected into the mix.

    1. I like your explanation of why we might fear change. It’s interesting to look at it from the perspective of being uncertain whether we can control the new “status quo” once it’s in place.

      Control is very much an illusion. It takes only one quick bad turn to hammer that home in a big way. I guess that’s a lesson we all learn at some point in midlife (if we’re lucky, some must learn it earlier).

  13. edit above reply to say: that your post on Catastrophizing meshes with this one – for me – in a constructive way.

    1. Thank you – I think this one, the catastrophizing one, and the one I’m writing on perfectionism are sort of my trifecta of things I’ve been working hard for the last two years. I have no idea why I decided to write about them now . . .

  14. I don’t really have the words to explain what I am thinking having read this. Close to home, very accurate. I’m in that realisation bit. Learning that I can’t control all the things and accepting that the world won’t fall to pieces if I don’t try. The fear drives the compulsion.

  15. This is probably why I freak out, too. I need to control….something. I don’t know what it is I need to control, I just need to control something. But on some level, I know that I can’t. Not completely. So I end up going on a tirade: “I can’t believe this is going on, why is it happening to me?” Freaking out is my struggle to understand that I can’t always be in control!

    1. Yes, controlling something, anything, feels like it will help in those situations. I get really irate too! My husband has taken to saying soothing things like, “try to focus on [some important thing rather than the little thing I’m all worked up over]” which seems to help. At least it gets me to stop ranting and take a breath.

  16. I love the practicality of your introspection. I am not overwhelmingly dominated by control(but it is there!), I internalize my anxiety and have sporadic “nervous breakdowns.” Yet, your new internal cycle is just what helps me. I never realized that this is what I have been doing to cope, but your post captured the essence of my struggle.

    Thank you for putting your experience in words.

    1. It’s been so reassuring to see how strongly people relate to this post. That recognition cycle was one of those things that evolved half intentionally and half accidentally. It felt good to finally be able to articulate it.

  17. My daughter just pointed me to your blog – brilliant! I have always had a need for control and now realise that my need to “help” others could be a symptom of this. My daughter had Aspergers traits and my grand-daughter has been diagnosed as being on the Aspergers spectrum. I also have a problem with concentration and noisy environments, large groups of people and I talk too much when nervous, realising I have said things that were tactless. I also had a problem with relationships with men, mistaking their want of sex for affection. Does this put me on the spectrum? I am retired now, so it has taken me a long time to recognise that this could be the problem! Sorry to land you with this but your writings ring such a bell!

    1. It does sound like you have a lot of spectrum traits and the fact that your granddaughter has a diagnosis and your daughter also has a lot of traits increases the odds for you (in reverse, but still 🙂 ). I’m glad you found the blog and I hope it helps you answer your question. You might find the adult diagnosis series helpful (linked from the top menu). It talks a little about how to figure out if you’re on the spectrum and what that might mean.

  18. Wow. Just…wow. I’m not on the spectrum (although probably very close to it, as I’m neuroatypical in other ways), but this and so many of your posts have been speaking to me as of late. I found your blog while trying to explain “sensory seeking” to a friend, and it’s been quite wonderful to read your descriptions of so many things (especially the process of getting diagnosed, because it helped me realize that while I have some (or many) autistic traits, I’m probably not actually autistic).

    This post in particular is striking very close to home, because my desire for control is something my therapist and I have been working through recently. It’s so, so scary to let go, even when I know logically that it’s a good idea and will benefit me in the long run. It definitely sends my anxiety skyrocketing, though.

    1. Welcome! I love getting comments on these older posts because it allows me to revisit the topic and sort of check in with my progress. Letting go is so worth it. I know it’s incredibly hard but it does get easier and there are huge rewards. Hang in there and trust yourself. 🙂

  19. Hi. Thanks for your site and words. They are helping me to understand my AS girlfriend and some of the difficulties she goes through. That in turn, helps me to be what she needs me to be when she is struggling.

    I have a question, if you don’t mind.

    We are in our mid thirties and have been together for seven months. It has not always been easy. This control aspect plays a part of it. She often feels overwhelmed with her strength of feeling for me. Also with thoughts of the future and where the relationship could go. It’s difficult. The relationship has been very intense at times. Often, after we have been particularly close, she backs away, shuts down or tries to end the relationship. When she backs away she often looks for fault in me as a reasons to end things. She tries to talk herself out of us. I’ve learnt not to take it personally.

    We have spoken and she has told me how she feels overwhelmed and like she is losing control. She often feels out of her depth. The anxiety becomes so much that she can no longer cope. She says the hardest thing is she cannot control the feeling of love. She hates the feeling of not being able to control it and compartmentalise it.

    I’m wondering if you have any advice on what to do. Is there any strategy or coping skill she can try to adopt? We are crazy about each other but every time we get close it causes a meltdown or shutdown. Therefore much of our relationship is on the phone whilst avoiding intimate talk or future talk that will overwhelm her. The relationship is becoming less and less. We see each other less, we talk less, etc. It is the only way to maintain it at the moment. The stronger her feelings become for me the less we can be together. She has control over when we see each other or talk. I’m being patient and waiting. We are both hoping this is something that will lessen in time so we can have a more normal relationship.

    She has spoken to people and they all say she needs to learn how to embrace what she feels rather than fight it and try to control it all the time. Do you think that is right? Or would it do more harm to relax her grip and let go to her feelings?

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