It is one of the most core human fears, and if we are honest, every single one of us has worried about it at many different points in our lives. It spans people, places, and circumstances and does not adhere to any particular timeline or mode of reasoning. Young and old experience it and although people have different ways of coping with its reality, the overriding theme is that it is something to be avoided at all costs. What we are speaking of is the sense of loss ꟷ loss of another person, loss of a position, loss of an expected or desired result, loss of a clear direction, just loss of any kind.
Often, when a loss of any kind occurs, you will hear someone utter the timelessly trite, but often true phrase regarding a “loss of control.” The reality is that in life, we rarely have the level of control we perceive, but losing anything certainly results in an increased desire to retain control over a person or circumstance that may never have been in one’s control at all. All of it is understandable because in some ways, we humans appear more inclined to remember our losses than our gains.
Given this temperamental tendency, we might find ourselves seeking control over others and situations to whatever degree that appears to minimize this uncomfortable possibility. Specifically, as adults, we seek to control other adults, whether our significant others, close family members, friends, coworkers, or others that are near to us. We do this because not only do we fear losing them at times (in mind, body, and spirit), but also because we fear outcomes that will test our abilities and our flexibility. There is a sense of safety and security that comes with knowing just what will be expected of us and what will come, even if the circumstances with which we reside are not altogether ideal or desired. There is a truth to the idea that we as people often prefer an unpleasant future over an unpredictable one.
The issue at play, though, is that when we attempt to exert a particular level of control over others that are similar in age and autonomy, the risk is that we might actually lose more than we gain. On the surface, this seems implausible because if we push or force others into a particular mode of action, reason suggests that this action is more likely to occur. And although this very well might be the case (at least in the short-term), the reality is that a coerced or forced action becomes increasingly devoid of that which is easy to forget, but is central to what we all desire. The entity I speak of is another person freely giving of themselves in a way that is replete with mutuality, respect, trust, and love. Yet when control and coercion are the primary means of inducing motivation and action, the person pursued for a particular purpose may naturally find themselves distancing from the one controlling even if their actions appear to be acquiescing to the other person’s particular demands.
Some of you reading may be thinking that in philosophy this makes some sense, but in reality is fraught with all kinds of holes. You might be asking, “Do you think I should just let my spouse do whatever they want?” or let “my family member ruin their life?” or act as if it is fine “as my coworker makes horrible decisions?” You might be questioning whether I live in this fairy tale world where it just takes some kind, heartfelt words to move others we love and work with to better decisions. If you find yourself in this camp, I understand your contentions. The modus operandi that I am proposing is a scary one because it distinctly suggests that if we really desire communion with others and our world, and also desire to maximize our influence, we must refrain from using methods of control as our primary means. Otherwise, we risk not only bitterness and/or frustration, but even worse ꟷ alienation and indifference. Regardless if we are talking about minor matter and major issues, control tactics are never the right, or best way, to go.
To make this possible, there are a few necessary shifts that must exist. One, we must be willing to acknowledge that our perspective and ideals are not necessarily THE perspective and ideals. In other words, we must truly seek to empathize with others even if we find their opinions distasteful and uncomfortable. Two, we must recognize that as we desire that another changes their behaviors or opinions, we also must be open to the possibility that we may need to do the same. Three, it is imperative that we are open to all avenues of communication that can provide further understanding, cooperation, and resolution. When these avenues are closed, it limits possibilities not only for influence, but also possibilities for growth. Finally, and this might be the toughest of all, it is far better to commit ourselves to a process defined by virtuous practice than a desired outcome. To even say this makes me cringe as I know full well that so often it is one particular outcome that I believe holds the key to my happiness and/or success. But the reality is that when we wed ourselves to a singular outcome, and hold steadfastly to this at all cost, we may find ourselves bushwhacking through a dense forest full of pathways unrealized, and a world full of possibilities unseen.
We do this because in some ways, we treat our relationships as enemy countries treat each other. We protect our borders (boundaries), treat harshness with harshness, and go on the defensive or offensive when we feel we are being attacked or justified to exert our force. And although wars do change borders and lives, the problem with this approach is that seeks first to force and control, and not to love and understand. Again, I am not suggesting a quixotic, unrealistic approach to relationships. But if we really want to have satisfying, long-lasting, mutual bonds, we will consider that digging in the trenches and guarding ones domain is at best going to keep an unnatural situation intact, and at worse is simply going to hold off the inevitable (loss) for the short-term.
In the end, we really must ask ourselves what we want from our relationships and each other. For those who have experienced loss or trauma, it is completely understandable that exerting control seems like the safest route. But even in these situations, using control as a primary tactic will put a “ceiling” on all relationships to come. Relationships grounded in control and coercion will go only as far as the control allows, and ultimately, are limited by fear, envy, wrath, and other negative emotions that fuel these decisions. Still, it might not be the relationships that suffer the most. It might be each one of us individually. The reality is that very few people in our lives typically have the knowledge and rapport to help us grow as people. But if we seek to exert control over those closest to us, we may be inadvertently (or intentionally) closing the doors on personal growth that simply will not occur in other ways. Maybe the only thing sadder than seeing a separation occur is seeing a person make the same bad, painful decisions over and over, and having nobody left to influence them in a different way. Ironically, those who seek to control the most may end up losing the most and wonder why they feel so alone.
The good news, though, is that it is never too late to approach our relationships with a sense of empathy, openness, respect, and humility. It’s never too late to “take a chance” in foregoing the forceful route for the loving, evolving one. When this occurs, true wrongs become much clearer, and necessary decisions to remedy these become more possible. Similarly, areas of potential growth and understanding emerge more clearly, too, and the fear of where all this may lead gives way to a genuine realization that the best things in life are often the ones that emerge when we finally let go of what we “must have” and consider what we might be missing.