Being in control of the way you live your life is typically a good thing. Living in chaos can undermine personality characteristics like empowerment, self-worth, and resilience. However, wanting control over your choices and the outcomes of those choices is not the same as wanting to control everything around you. If you feel a desperate urge to control every detail in your life all the time, it could be a sign of underlying anxiety.
Anxiety can be tied to any number of factors, including trauma, conditioning from past experiences, learned behaviors, and anxiety disorders. Understanding what’s beneath your need to control everything can help you manage your symptoms and find freedom from the cycle of anxiety and control.
How can you know if anxiety is causing you to try and exert too much control in your life? Here are some signs:
All of these situations involve trying to control other people, external circumstances, or your own nervous system’s response to something. Unfortunately, the more you try to exert control over your life in this way, the more likely you are to develop even more anxiety.
This is because when you put colossal amounts of effort into making something run smoothly and it ends up going well or at least decently, you attribute the success of the outcome to your controlling behaviors, not to you. Each time this happens, you reinforce the idea that you need to keep controlling everything in order for things to turn out okay.
In this way, your anxiety builds and builds. You don’t trust yourself to handle an unknown scenario or outcome. You may worry that the discomfort will be too great or that something bad might happen if you let your guard down.
If you realize or have been told that you have controlling behavior, it’s easy to feel bad about yourself. After all, we’ve all been told that controlling behavior is bad and wrong. But there’s nothing wrong with you for having anxiety that undermines your ability to “go with the flow.” Becoming aware of hurtful behaviors you’ve engaged in can help you make amends and prevent making the same mistakes in the future.
So what causes all this anxiety in the first place? While the list of possibilities is long, here are a few common things your anxiety may be linked to:
Trauma. Trauma can cause you to get stuck in a state of hypervigilance and fight-or-flight mode. Having a dysregulated nervous system makes uncertainty especially scary, because everything feels more frightening after trauma.
Early childhood experiences. If you grew up in a family with unstable dynamics, you may feel the need to control everything in adulthood. For example, if you were the eldest child and had to take care of an emotionally immature parent as well as siblings, you may have learned that your household would fall apart without you holding it all together. Whatever you learned in childhood about what has to be true in order for you to stay safe often goes with you into adulthood.
Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety ramp up controlling behaviors in an attempt to manage anxiety. Intense worrying and rumination is miserable, so people with anxiety disorders usually do their best to control as many outcomes as possible in an attempt to soothe these worries.
Neurodivergence. If you have ADHD or autism, anxiety can stem from masking your behaviors to appear more “normal” or functional. . These behaviors can create anxiety about things like not belonging, or shame about not being truly genuine in order to fit in with the rest of the world.
Controlling everything around you might work in the short term, but it’s usually not a sustainable way to live. It often causes tension within yourself and others, and it ends up increasing your anxiety in the long run.
If your need to control the circumstances in your life is impacting your happiness, relationships, work, and home life, it may be worth seeking mental health support from a qualified professional.
Working with a therapist can help you gain insight into your thoughts, beliefs, and behavioral patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular is designed to help give you strategies for managing your anxiety without using controlling behaviors.
If you’d like support navigating your anxiety and controlling behaviors, I’m here to help. As a therapist who specializes in anxiety, I can help you understand where your anxiety is coming from, give you tools to cope with uncomfortable or scary emotions and thoughts, and help you learn new skills and reframes for unknown circumstances.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.