Control vs. Surrender in the Face of Life Change
The adults who raise us model resilience or resistance. We absorb their messages about how to manage shifts in mental and physical health, sometimes in ways that we don’t understand until we go through a trial by fire.
My Experience With Surrendering Control
A health crisis can show us how we bounce back and heal in a way no other kind of event can. Consider my case: In the midst of what seemed to be a normal day last year, I experienced a cardiac event. It sent me to the hospital for the insertion of a stent to open a fully occluded artery.
I followed my medical team’s instructions, altered my diet and exercise routine, began taking medications, and minimized my stress levels dramatically. I recognized my addiction of workaholism, and I’m modifying my relationship with my career path. I feel healthier and stronger physically, with increased endurance.
As the anniversary of the heart attack nears, I’ve observed an unexpected side effect: Although I used to be a go-with-the-flow kind of person, I’ve begun relishing a controlled environment. I have a medication regimen and a workout routine. Although there’s structure to it, my work schedule has become more flexible. In a way, I fear that if I venture outside these new parameters, I’ll stop functioning.
I wonder whether I’ll ever stop identifying as a cardiac patient. Seeing myself that way makes me feel limited, though I know I need to be mindful of my healthcare requirements and my body’s messages.
Just like most people in recovery, I wonder how much control I have over life events. I find I often need to invoke the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Where Does Our Sense of Control Come From?
Our beliefs about how much power we have over our circumstances have an enormous impact on the way our lives unfold, psychologists say. “One of our basic human needs is a sense of control, to know that we have a choice, that our actions make a difference,” Diane Dreher, PhD, writes in a 2014 Psychology Today article.
She says research shows that people who have an internal locus of control — or those who believe they shape their own circumstances — tend to be happier, healthier and more successful than people who have an external locus of control — those who believe outside forces determine what happens to them.
People who have an internal locus of control also tend to be better at coping with challenge — a quality that’s crucial to recovery. Conversely, people who don’t view themselves as having the power to control the way their lives unfold are more likely to remain immersed in the grip of an unwanted condition.
Advice From Others
How do people handle the struggle between attempting to control and needing to surrender to the circumstances they can’t change? I’ve gathered these perspectives shared by other people who’ve had health issues:
- “Working with a health situation, I’m dancing between control and surrender. Ultimately I believe it’s about surrender — really letting go of the control, which is usually about fear, to allow the experience its own life to unfold. I see committing to a routine as more of an act of self-love, rather than control.”
- “I learned surrender and great desire to give up control. That was the beginning of my healing.”
- “I focused on ‘control’ until in the end I realized that obsession didn't work. No matter how much I could predict, there was always something else I couldn’t. Then I’d think I wasn't good enough or didn't do something well enough. I have some formulas, which aren’t quite rules — I'm aware of what I'm doing and having and eating. If the formula doesn't work out one day, I'm okay with that. I move on. I choose to be aware of what I got out of the unpredictable thing, and of whether I enjoyed it, would do it again, etc. I found my stress and worry far outweighed the detriment from the perceived misstep. Knowingly surrendering feels good, too."
- “I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma 14 years ago. I'd love to tell you that across the board I became more or less controlled. It wasn't that simple for me. On the one hand, I took more control of things. I became a more diligent worker (when I worked for someone else). But on the other hand, I took a more blasé attitude toward things over which I have no control. Ultimately, it led to my husband and me leaving our jobs and buying a farm so we could be more in control, but in a different way. What I realized, but not immediately, is that it's not about being a more controlled person about the little stuff. It’s about being controlled about the big stuff while not sweating the small stuff.”
- “Surrender, but a vow to get my priorities straight and put my metaphorical oxygen on before helping others with theirs.”
- “In recovery from surgery, and my powerlessness to control those things which simply take time, I found myself at first wanting to control all the other tiny details, including how much care I was willing to accept. Then I found myself letting go and accepting that I can’t rush things, so there was a languishing. Now I'm growing stronger and want to do more, which can evidently be dangerous. Pain aside, the forced timeout from my daily activities has been a wonderful opportunity for introspection.”
- “I had a very particular health crisis around pregnancy. My learning was all about surrender, as well as trust and faith.”
- “I’ve found that I give in to my whims more now. I'm far less Type A than I was before my accident!”
I’ve learned from my experience that the structure of my new routine gives me freedom to experiment with stepping outside of the box. I’ve also learned to use my resiliency skills and professional training, to embody what I’ve encouraged my clients to do, and to turn to my recovery community to remind myself that I indeed can weather the winds of change.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1