“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” 

Victor Frankl

“I’ve done everything possible to stop his drinking, but I can’t control him.”

“Every night I look at the cocaine. I swear I won’t take it. I hide it, do other things. I phone friends, read recovery posts, say positive things, whatever comes to mind. But sooner or later I lose control.”

I hear the word ‘control’ said many times from my clients. We continually strive for some kind of control. This makes sense because we are faced with so much beyond our control: life, death, illness, our given attributes, our childhoods. All of these we have either little or no control of. Because of this, most of us will try to control what we can in life. This can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on what we do to exert this control. 

Unhealthy Control

Unhealthy control is often characterized by extremes. As my client Josh says about his drinking. “It’s all or nothing”. He sees that his control is either 1/ Rigid control 2/ No control. He, like many others lacks flexibility regarding control. This, in turn, relates to problems with anxiety symptoms,  stress management, , anger issues,  codependent relationships and signs of depression. This rigidity and these subsequent problems, are learned in families, often alcoholic families. 

Unhealthy control is also characterized by trying to control others.   So when Jill told me about trying to control her alcoholic husband, she mentioned the means she went to do this: hiding his alcohol, spying on him when he went out, questioning his friends and seeking out groups for him. None of these worked. But she kept trying for years and possessed by her codependency, this became her life’s mission. To move from unhealthy to healthy control involves knowing what is controllable and what isn’t.

Healthy Control

Victor Frankl in his wonderful book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ looks at the question of control. Frankl, a psychiatrist, found himself powerless as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He lost all control of what happened to him. He saw that many of the prisoners around him could not tolerate this. They showed signs of depression, had severe anxiety attacks and suffered from trauma. Nevertheless he realized he had control of what lay inside him. He could control his feelings, his perceptions, his thoughts and how he faced everything around him. 

Frankl’s message is that ultimate control lies within. We can begin by facing and understanding who we are. As a result, we can learn to control how we feel and react to all that is around us. Jill realized she couldn’t control her husband’s drinking. She was then able to see that she had options. She could choose to stay or leave. Josh also started to understand himself better. He became more flexible and successful in dealing with his alcoholism.

“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” 

Viktor E. Frankl

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