How to Control an Out-of-Control Attempt to Control

How to Control an Out-of-Control Attempt to Control


My wife Lea loves to garden and create beautiful outdoor spaces. One summer day she decided to make a simple fence from birch tree branches. I thought it would be fun to spend some quality time together and "give her a hand." The helping hand turned into conflict when I saw how she was tying together the birch branches with leather shoelaces. Willy nilly. Loose. Wobbly. Unacceptable. To me anyway. I talk to her about this. I go inside and start watching YouTube videos about how to lash together fence posts as if she were building a horse corral. Armed and ready with my newfound expertise I returned to the scene ready to implement. It didn't take long before I found myself inside, irritated and frustrated that she did not want to lash together fence posts for the horse corral. She just wanted to lash them together in a simple, attractive way. The Mel Robbins podcast episode on The Let Them Theory and her psychocatalytic phrase Let Them could have rescued our day, if only I had known about it then.

Birch Branch Fence 
Audio recording of this post

Time to read = 12 minutes.

Key Takeaways

  • Trying to control others, situations, or reality is a recipe for misery, anxiety, and disconnection.
  • Every human struggles with controlling behavior.
  • Trying to control what you cannot is like paddling a canoe upstream against the current - it takes a lot of energy and effort and can rob you of mental peace by generating more resistance and frustration in your head.
  • Trying to control, and then failing (as is usually the case), paradoxically makes you feel less in control because, after all, you failed!
  • Even if you manage to control someone, it is only a short-term win, and a pyrrhic victory at that, since the other person will likely resent you for having granted you control and power over them, which in turn makes the relationship frosty, leading to distance and disconnection, which ultimately circles back to hurt you.
  • The phrase Let Them can act as a psychocatalytic (something that catalyzes a shift in perspective) to get you to stop trying to control someone or something, truncating your futile efforts at paddling against the current of another person or reality, thereby allowing your mental canoe to turn around with the current and float peacefully down the river of your mind.

Summary and Thoughts

Mel Robbins opens the podcast with a personal story that is so relatable. She is taking her teenage son Oakly to pre-prom pictures at another parent's house. They arrive at 5, and a torrential, soaking rain starts, dampening the evening. The prom starts at 7.

Mel overhears the kids talking about what they should do for dinner, which launches the interrogation phase of her control effort.

"You guys don't have a reservation somewhere?"


"Well, what are you going to do? Do you want me to call a restaurant?"

As Mel said, "I am jumping in and over-functioning with my anxiety.

Next a kid pipes up and says "Why don't we go to Avocado Pit" which is a tiny taco place the size of a one-car garage with only a few tables. Mel pictures all 20 of them in their tuxes and long gowns, soaked by pouring rain, eating these amazing but messy tacos.

"This is their plan for the night?"

Now Mel launches the intervention phase of her control efforts - "You can't go to Avocado Pit, what if..." and she rattles off her bulleted list of possible negative outcomes. She is controlling, and she notes, "I am behaving like that person."

Her daughter turns to her and says, "Mom, if they want to go to Avocado Pit, let them. It's his prom, not your prom. Let them."

The words Let Them were a cue for her to stop, take her hands off the steering wheel of her out-of-control attempt to control, and let the current of what was happening take her in a different direction.

The phrase Let Them is a psychocatalytic that can 1) help you become aware of moments when your hands are white-knuckled and squeezing the steering wheel of your agenda, and 2) snap you out of the subconscious and emotionally driven trance of trying to fight reality or have things the way you think they should be.

Let Them halts the juggernaut of the emotional intensity of trying to control and replaces it with surrender, peace, and the possibility of serendipity (which can be a source of discoveries and delight).

Some other situations where Mel has found Let Them to be of incredible value:

  • When you feel left out or your feelings have been hurt because a friend group goes away for a weekend and you are not invited, or if you don’t get asked to a golf weekend by your golf buddies. Let Them.
  • When you find yourself getting frustrated with others (control attempt). Let Them.
  • You always host Thanksgiving, but now your sister-in-law wants to this year. Let Them.
  • It is Saturday morning and you would love to clean out the garage but your partner wants to go to the hardware store instead. Let Them.
  • Your kid does not want to be on the traveling baseball team anymore. Let Them.
  • Your friend is always dating losers and you have already spent hours dispensing advice like a gumball machine, turning yourself into an overbearing friend, which makes her want to avoid you. Paradoxically, now you feel less in control. If your friend wants to date a loser that is beneath her, Let Them.
  • You are all worked up about layoffs at your company. Let Them.
  • A driver tears by and is cutting into traffic. Let Them.
  • You are in an Uber and traffic is hell because they are painting a tunnel in Boston in May during college graduations and you start bitching to yourself about the Boston government, why now at this time of year, and on and on and on. Let Them.

As Mel says, "It is so liberating when you can just drop the sword, and let it go. It doesn't matter if they want to go to Avocado Pit, who gives a shit."

There are 3 reasons we need the Let Them psychocatalytic cue:

  1. Trying to control something and ruminating about it is a form of anxiety. Ruminating and our efforts to control things are fueled by our own deeper anxieties. The anxiety that drives being overbearing with someone, or the inability to keep your opinions to yourself, or being constantly frustrated with a parent, child, or town politics is an alarm inside you saying something is wrong or that something matters to you a great deal. Overbearing parents for example, though well-intentioned in their desire to protect, care for, and help their child succeed (thinking it is a form of love), instead end up suffocating them, creating distance and disconnection.
  2. It is so much easier to focus on other people. Trying to control (i.e. manipulate) someone with guilt, shame, a compliment, or love is palpable to others, and it sabotages psychological safety and trust, which creates distance and disconnection. The Let Them psychocatalytic turns the tables back on yourself, forcing you to adopt Extreme Ownership of your role in the situation.

    For example, your friends go away for a weekend and you are not invited and you start the anxiety-driven rumination. Why didn't they ask me? Should I text one of them? And so on. All this obsessing about why is a massive distraction from your role in this situation. If you are the one who is so upset, then take responsibility and ask yourself what you could do in the future. For example, you can start organizing these weekends, or do a better job of staying connected to your friends. Now, you are no longer the victim. Instead, you are empowered and taking personal leadership.
  3. It distracts us from what we don't want to deal with. Later at home, Mel realized the deeper issue: she felt sad and was going to miss the kids and their parents whom she had known since her kids were in diapers. The prom was, in essence, a slap in the face by the changing reality of her life. These subconscious forces acting on her in the moment of picture taking were also fueled by Mel's memory of prom when she was growing up.

Let Them is a great psychocatalytic, but there are clear caveats:

  1. When someone is doing something dangerous (about to drink and drive) or discriminating against you or harassing you or being mean.
  2. If you are in a situation where you need to advocate for yourself or ask for what you need (e.g. salary negotiation), do not let them decide for you.
  3. Crossing your boundaries when you have expressed and defined them. For example, as a parent, you cannot let them not do the homework or help around the house.

The Let Them psychocatalytic can also benefit our children in three big ways. The first is in helping them learn how to contend with and solve problems. For example, Let Them do their laundry so when the clothes come out with bleach stains (something my dear wife has approached with the same intensity as a natural disaster) they will be motivated to do it the right way next time. This is how we all really learn, by firsthand experience. Let Them.

The second one is stepping back and seeing who they are, and not how you want them to be. I worked hard to try and mold one of my sons into my sense of who he should be because I had a vision for him that was driven by my past and my desire to help him avoid the challenges I faced. Of course, I thought I saw him for who he really was at his core as a young man, and I did to some extent, but it was buried beneath the thick layer of subconscious mental frosting that blocked my ability to really see him and his perspective. Years later, when I realized this, I apologized for not seeing him for who he was when he was younger, and his sigh of relief was a real moment of peace and connection for us.

The third one is to Let Them have their emotions. Don't judge them or try to fix them. I am not a very outwardly emotional person, especially with negative emotions. When I was a househusband, I drove my 10-year-old daughter to school and home every day. At pick up I never knew what her mood was going to be. It could be joyous and bubbly and other times so irritated and testy. All over the map. Being a surgeon, I of course always tried to figure out why and to fix things. Never worked. All she needed was to have her emotions. Let Them have their emotions, so they can learn, through experience, and with guidance from you, how to live with and manage them.

The Let Them psychocatalytic creates a space for three things:

  1. Detachment from the mental and emotional struggle of how something "should be." Mel gives the example of going to the wedding of a close friend and being assigned to a table of strangers and an Aunt. Instead of saying "Why the fuck am I sitting with the Aunt?" and conjuring up a story to support the grave injustice thrown at you, Let Them have the wedding seating the way they want. It's their wedding, and you have no idea what pressures they had in planning the wedding. Now that the door is open for mental peace and a more open mind, serendipity may come into your life by meeting someone new at the table whom you really like.
  2. Letting people fail and take responsibility for their own lives. A few examples:

    The laundry issue above, or your kid forgets his lunch for school. The sting is the fuel of learning.

    Someone you care about is addicted. No one gets sober until they are ready. I can attest to this.

    Bailing someone out with money.
  3. Letting people be who they are. I talked about this with our children, but it applies equally to anyone in our lives. Mel talks about being in love with someone's potential, as you see it, and not with who they really are. Smoke signals that should alert you to this are:

    You gripe constantly in your head about how they should change. You are in a relationship with who you think they should be, and not with who they are, now, in this moment.

    Gripping about the things that make you irritated or jealous, like your ex getting to spend more time with the kids than you, or your partner going off golfing with buddies. Again, the root is fear and anxiety because you feel threatened, subconsciously, that you are not loved or that you are not wanted around. The attempt to control is an attempt to remedy these anxieties, and it always backfires by pushing the other person away.

There is a deeper and profoundly important principle in our efforts with other people, highlighted by the Let Them psychocatalytic, and it is the issue of influence vs. control. I have learned the hard way, especially with my children, that efforts to control feel good in the short-term, but only to me, since it feels like you are doing something. But that momentary short-term sense of control borne of getting someone to comply is a mirage since the resentment and disconnection will be the boogeyman in the other person's mental vault until it escapes later to haunt your relationship in some unproductive way.

The Let Them psychocatalytic gives us the mental space for the real opportunity at hand, the long-term opportunity - the ability to influence someone. Our ability to connect with and influence someone is represented by this formula:

The more pressure you put on someone to change or do what you want, the more pressure they feel to comply, and the more resentment and irritation they will feel, which creates disconnection and diminishes your ability to influence.

The more psychological safety someone feels with you (which is how safe one feels to be their authentic self when expressing their values, preferences, and priorities without fear of judgment or attempts at being controlled), the more vulnerable and open they will be with you, which dramatically fosters your connection and your ability to positively influence them.

So Let Them, and Let Yourself experience the mental peace from Let Them, and with time, the massive increase in connection that blossoms.


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