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Episode 211: Control



And hello to you and welcome to the Richard Nicholls podcast.
The personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate and motivate you to be the best you can be. I’m psychotherapist Richard Nicholls and this is episode 211 it’s titled Control and if you're ready we'll start the show.


How're things folks. Are you coping? Things are difficult at the minute aren't they and I totally understand that my cheery persona can be a bit incongruous when Putin is literally on the war path. We're trying to learn to how to live with Covid and now we've also got to learn to live with a war in our back garden. It's been a traumatic few years and we're not going to forget it in a rush are we? One thing it highlights for a lot of people though, which is never a bad thing, is the importance of letting go of control.

Because at the minute a lot of our life is out of our hands. Yet at the same time it gives us opportunities to concentrate on the things that ARE in our hands. And as long as we're ok with the things that we have no control over we should all live happily ever after. That's not so easy though I've noticed lately. Not that all my private clients are control freaks far from it, but the crap of the last few years

has maybe exaggerated the control freak tendencies that are in most of us naturally anyway. And it's not always a bad thing you know. Having controlling tendencies can make us meticulous and efficient. It gives us high standards and when the world looks like its falling apart trying to gain a bit of extra control is a healthy coping strategy. But if we don't know that we have this tendency,

to use control over things as a way of compensating for our anxiety, then it can get out of hand. Because we can't actually control "everything" can we? There's uncertainty out there, we never actually know about the future and it's hard to be ok with that. Especially at the minute. And control issues usually come from this impossible attempt at eliminating uncertainty in our life. Because that's exactly what anxiety is there for.

Anxiety is the unconscious emotional version of the negative thinking that used to be conscious and in our awareness and now has become background. Things like "What if things go wrong?" And "If it was up to me I'd do it like that" Now, people without anxiety would have had those thoughts too, but they wouldn't have been repeated so often, they wouldn't have been focused upon. So "what if things go wrong?" Just simply gets the answer

"I dunno, I'll deal with it THEN" "If it was up to me I'd do it like that" ends with "Oh well, never mind, whatever" its not that non anxious people are uncaring it's just that they're good at acceptance. They're well practised at thinking "that's good enough" and knowing that underneath the urge to control is just plain old fear might make it easier for someone to accept things

and at the same time make it easier for someone to accept controlling people. But we do need to challenge it. Erik Helzer from Johns Hopkins university published an article in a journal I read once. He titled it Control and the "good life": Primary and Secondary Control as distinct indicators of well-being. And I found it important because it highlited some of the differences between the effects of primary and secondary control.

Primary control is adapting the external world to your expectations and secondary control is about adapting ourself to the external world. Useful because in Helzers studies both primary and secondary control are linked to well being. But only primary control was linked to unhappiness. So there are times that being a control freak can make you happy. But there are way more times that it will make you depressed.

Like with macular degeneration. you get diagnosed with that and you're likely to be legally blind within 10 years and in their 2016 study "Developmental regulation with progressive vision loss: Use of control strategies and affective well-being" (I love these snappy titles) the researchers from 6 different institutes worked together to study 364 adults diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration,

they were given the diagnosis of going blind and monitored their thoughts about it, their attitude towards it and found that over the 2 years of the study those that had been able to shift their control strategies from primary to secondary had higher happiness levels and lower depression. They concluded with the phrase "goal adjustments and self-protective thinking may help to find pleasure even from restricted daily activities."

Goal adjustments, that's probably the key I think, when we accept what can't be controlled we may well have to adjust our goals, our expectations. An old colleague of mine got throat cancer a few years ago now. He was a hypnotherapist, and a trainer. And he was told that things would more than likely be ok, in that he'd survive. He might lose his voice, it might be that he'd never be able to properly speak again,

but it was a small price to pay. And at the time I thought, jeez what would I do if that was me. If I lost my voice, permanently, as a therapist my job would change almost unrecognisably. As a podcaster that part of my career would be over. How would I adjust, and I did think about it, now I'm not a control freak, I'm quite good at acceptance but still it kept me awake a bit. The what ifs!

The worries, yet I was fine. Turns out so was Paul in the end, my colleague. He lost 9 stone and his salivary glands don't work any more but he's still a therapist and still specialises in hypnosis. So all's well really. But it's hard to accept "what is" sometimes. Its hard to adjust our goals, change our expectations. It relies on a strong sense of self and the ability to create a "good enough as it is" attitude towards your life.

You've heard of the serenity prayer I guess haven't you. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote it in about 1933, it's been updated slightly but is pretty much the same now since it was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs, as they're called. "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

I love that, who wouldn't? It makes absolute sense. What a great attitude to have. I first discovered that that attitude existed when I was about 8. I was quite an avid reader when I was young compared to other 8 year olds, I used to read all the enid Blyton mysteries the famous five, the secret 7 and my favourite was the 5 find outers. I dont know why I liked those ones the most I just really liked the characters. Enid Blyton was a clever woman a good writer.

Now, those stories were really quite old fashioned THEN let alone now. And so my Grandad who can see that I'm a bit more open minded about my fiction reading, it didn't have to be Spiderman and Mr Majeika. Although I did read those as well, so he wanted to share with me some of his favourite stories. And he gave me a load of Biggles books.

If you don't know who Biggles was, James Bigglesworth was a fictional First World War pilot who represented everything that was British when the books were published during the 1930's. Biggles combined professionalism with a gentlemanly air and has been parodied ever since. They were alright from what I remember, a bit dated obviously, but I remember them fairly fondly,

but mainly because of this quote. From spitfire parade, spitfire parade is set in world war 2 it's the book where you also meet lord Bertie, a pilot from 666 squadron An eccentric former racing driver, who flies with a monocle and a hunting horn, when I think about it now it sounds absolutely hilarious, but was just accepted at the time anyway Spitfire Parade has this amazing quote in it.

The chapter is titled Biggles philosophy and this is what the author W.E Johns wrote. "When you are flying, everything is all right or it is not all right. If it is all right there is no need to worry. If it is not all right one of two things will happen. Either you will crash or you will not crash. If you do not crash there is no need to worry. If you do crash one of two things is certain. Either you will be injured or you will not be injured. If you are not injured there is no need to worry.

If you are injured one of two things is certain. Either you will recover or you will not recover. If you recover there is no need to worry. If you don't recover you can't worry." And aged 8 I thought "I want to be Biggles! What an attitude" and you've probably heard me say on this podcast something similar over the years. That there are 2 things in life, the things you can control and the things you can't.

And theres no need to worry about the things you can control, after all you're in control of those things and the things you can't control? Well there's no need to worry about the things because you cant control them anyway. Well there you go it all started with Biggles. And I wish that all it took were words to make this happen. I wish all you had to do was just listen to this podcast, hear me waffling on about Biggles whilst you wondered "where the hell is he going with this one?"

Before the penny drops but it takes more than words. It takes effort actually, sorry. It takes hard work. Its not easy to change your personality, I've watched my wife struggling with perfectionism and the effects it has on her need to control the external world and even though I said to her last year. "You seem a lot better these last few years hon." She raised her eyebrows and said "Really? I think I'm getting worse sometimes."

"Why's that?" said I. "Next door haven't rolled up their hosepipe properly and I can't stop thinking about it. I want to go round there and reel it up. Do you think they'd mind?" "Ok so MAYBE there's some room for improvement sweetie. Take a deep breath imagine the hosepipe's attached to a load of helium balloons and just let them float away taking the thoughts of the hosepipe with them."

She didn't like that. "Don't tell me what to do, I don't need your help." Alright "definitely" room for improvement then. I mean she was laughing about it and she didn't go round there in the end, but I think only because moved house. So who knows. But after trying to hang 2 I think 26 x 33 inch pictures on a wall recently and watching her freak out about the distances between them and the exact measurements from the corner

and the ceiling and the radiator compared to the height of the door, its no surprise that they're still leaning against the wall. Ready to do later instead. And there was no way on earth that she was going to let me do anything there. It's bad enough for her watching me prepare a meal I can see her itching to step in and take over. So I know its not easy when you feel the need to intervene into things. Whether it's your children's homework,

a wonky picture on a pub wall or next doors hosepipe. You need whats called distress tolerance. Which is exactly what it sounds like, tolerating being distressed. Get used to it, train your brain that you can wait. Because genuinely when you feel the urge to correct someones grammar, it helps to simply try not to.

There are lots of reasons why pedants exist, I can be really pedantic, but that's probably because of imposter syndrome, I just want to appear clever if I'm feeling stupid. But an introvert can be really pedantic too, because of a need for order that errors will violate. Sigmund Freud once said that pedants are men who are unable to laugh at themselves. I would also point out that female pedants do exist, but he’d just say I was proving his point and call me a pedantic fool.

No he wouldn't he'd call me Anal and ask me about my childhood. No matter, practise being uncomfortable about things. Practise delegating to others. If you have these perfectionist traits then it's highly likely you feel that no-one else can do as good a job as you at those little things. Maybe the big things too but definitely the cleaning,

the tidying away, the folding of clothes. Let other people do it. Delegate. I'm 46 years old and can't hang wallpaper because I have a perfectionist control freak of a wife. I'm ok with that, and she's ok with that. But I want my son to learn how to do stuff and whether that's ironing, cleaning the car, loading the dishwasher. Hanging a picture! Being ok with other people doing things differently, does take practise,

but you have to practise, it doesn't happen by itself. And when you do that, when you let other people do stuff. don't re-do it yourself, that defeats the object. It puts across the idea that they cant be trusted, that they're not good enough. I mean thats good for business for me as a psychotherapist, because the whole family will need therapy in the future. but it's not really what we want is it. anyway look at the time.

I try to aim for 15 minutes for these episodes and that's pretty much where we're up to. If you do want to hear more from me do please consider coming on board through Patreon where there's an episode every Monday morning, you can subscribe through Apple Podcasts as well but I put some hypnotherapy bits on Patreon on a Monday as well. Oh and a little bit of extra news for you. My and a colleague of mine Fiona Biddle are collaborating on a podcast project.

It's going to be called Therapy Natters where we ask listeners for questions about therapy and mental health and we'll do our best to answer them for you. We're going to get started on that very soon so if you could submit a question to us there's a link in the show notes to a form on my website. You can call yourself whatever you like. You can be anonymous if you prefer of course. But if you've always wanted to ask me something you can do and in the next few weeks we'll get recording. So go and enjoy your month. Be good, stay safe, be Biggles and I'll talk to you again next time. Take care.