Anxiety and the Illusion of Control | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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Controlling behaviors can be an attempt to not feel anxious. We’re better off allowing ourselves to feel anxious because control and anxiety don’t go so well together.

When many of us get anxious our default response is to pull it together, intellectualize, make plans, and be in charge. Now there are times when this way of masking anxiety with control can be adaptive and even helpful in some situations, but can way too easily slip into violence and abusiveness.

We’re not going to escape anxiety by becoming controlling, even trying to control how others view us, but we might drive away people who we care about.

Learning to accept how little control we have may be the way out of the anxiety we’re trying to avoid.

We Have No Control

I want to distinguish between feeling anxious and the many behavioral ways our anxiety gets played out. Please understand that I’m not here to let anyone off the hook for what their anxiety has led them to do (not made them do, but perhaps encouraged them), but I do want to separate you from your anxiety so you can make different choices in the future (while also making amends for how you’ve chosen to express your anxiety in the past and how it’s affected other people.)

The problem is that we are often under the delusion that we can control, well, anything.

We don’t have control over our emotions. Our thoughts. Our children. Our wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and husbands. Certainly not our parents. Definitely not our friends (and they may not stay friends for too long the more we try to control them.)

We don’t control the weather. We don’t control fate. We don’t control so many things.

Basically: We. Have. No. Control.

Oh, and that fear. That discomfort that you’re feeling right now. That is anxiety. It becomes pretty damn debilitating if we can’t stop thinking about it. And it becomes overwhelming if we start organizing our lives in such a way as to prevent feeling it.

How we manage the uncertainty in our lives is a measure of how much we let anxiety runs our lives. Because we can control that–which is the caveat to my “We Have No Control” statement.

Anxiety and Control

So how does our fear of uncertainty show up, and I’m going to restate that as How do we manifest anxiety?

Well, we’ve talked about control already, but think about the many, many ways we try to have control. But if we’re really honest and accept how little control we have, then one way to take care of our anxiety is learning to minimizing risk without going overboard. Because that’s all we can do.

I mean, we can avoid getting in a car accident by never getting in a car, but that doesn’t mean that a car won’t hit us. High risk takers may seem to have less anxiety than others, but there may be some denial there, and they may be risk avoidant in other areas of their lives, perhaps interpersonally. (Or not. No judgment, we just can’t be fully sure.)

Let’s take a look at some ways that our anxiety and control manifest:

  • Death anxiety is pretty big in the anxiety game. Some would say that in order to live we need to engage in some denial of death. Of course, there are so many sci-fi stories that revolve around someone trying to achieve immortality. It’s the ultimate form of control of anxiety: cheating death. Others—Buddhists in particular—go the other direction. They intentionally focus on death at least five times a day. (Have you seen the app WeCroak?) Contemplating death can be a Mindfulness Bell ensuring we are fully alive moment to moment. Think of the flush of feeling following a near death experience—did you experience more joie de vivre for a bit after that? Or are you taken down into a dark place because of the inevitable end of yourself? Or both. Both is good—balance, remember!
  • Phobias are types of anxiety—they’re extreme anxieties that are highly focused. There are too many to name and they’re pretty present in pop culture, although you’d need to really dig down (preferably with a professional) before you conclude whether you have a healthy aversion to spiders or full-blown arachnophobia. People with phobias go out of their way to stay away from the thing they are afraid of. There’s only so much you can do, though, to control that.
  • OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)–in fact most obsessive and compulsive behaviors or thoughts are other extreme forms of anxiety. People struggling with OCD feel that if they can just order things or do certain behaviors in a certain way they will certainly ward off some horrifying outcome. (So much pressure to control.)

Sometimes anxiety can be traced back to a trauma. Trauma reactions are a way of managing unmanageable horrific events that happened to us or that we witnessed. This can be a horrifically intense trauma such as war, genocide, rape, sexual, or physical abuse or something less acute, but just as chronically damaging. Those above events only need to happen once for us to be traumatized although, sadly, they are often repeated.

You don’t need to have been traumatized in order to experience anxiety, but there are some unhealthy coping skills that arise as an avoidance of the anxiety stemming from a trauma. And often that’s control.

Also, it’s worth mentioning you don’t need a mental health diagnosis to receive support.

Taking Charge Might Be Killing You

Has this sounded like you? Do you find that you try to ‘take charge’ in ways that are actually about managing your anxiety?

Being the guy who is in charge and gets things done may be a big part of your personality. i’m not saying you need to give that up, but consider what some of that controlling energy is blocking. There are times your Fix-It personality is stopping you from engaging with others, connecting with them, or giving you a chance to note what you’re actually going through.

Allowing yourself to feel your anxiety may end up saving your life. People who hold that all in are taxing, not just their mental and emotional aspects, but their physical body as well.

So ask yourself: are you taking charge because you’re avoiding some other feelings. Is your control a way to mask your anxiety?


Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.