Recognize Control To Free Yourself For Happiness

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“Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them.” ~Anonymous

Happiness has really been on our minds. Take a look at all of the books and blogs on the topic. Amazon alone has 20, 656 books listed under the word “happiness.” Gretchen Rubin, a fellow blogger and contributor to my other blog, The Daily Brainstorm, has written a best-selling book called The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

Finding happiness can feel exhausting. It seems like an awful lot of work is involved in pinning down that elusive but highly desirable feeling. It reminds me of eating crab claws — there's a whole lot of mess before you get to the meat.

For a moment, rewind your life to its beginnings. You were born with a clean slate, full of enough genetic stuff to be quite happy every day. According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist who has spent her career researching happiness, we are genetically predisposed to a certain outlook on life. Some of us are just born with a more cheery disposition than others. Even so, that accounts for just 50% of our “happiness quota.” The rest is up for grabs. (See The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.)

If you were born with that cheery disposition, you had a healthy and loving upbringing, you had relatively few traumas in life, and you have overcome any emotional traps, then happiness is all yours. The two of you are excused from reading further. Most of us, however, have dealt with a lot of stuff between the day we were born and today. And all of that stuff has chipped away at that remaining 50% potential for happiness.

Our feelings and reactions to all of that accumulated stuff have fostered habits that can create a pattern of chronic unhappiness. But what if these habits could be broken?

What if you could rewind and erase your automatic reactions, many of which are unconscious, to the years of accumulated hurts, fears, and anger? Yes, it does sound like a lot of work. But breaking those habits can offer you more than just the tiny morsels of crab meat. It can provide the big, juicy steak of sustained happiness.

In his book, The Power of Self-Coaching: The Five Essential Steps to Creating the Life You Want, Dr. Joseph Luciani suggests that these bad habits take the form of insecurity, distrust, reflexive thinking, and controlling tendencies. He teaches five principles of self-coaching that have successfully helped people overcome old emotional habits and relearn new ones.

The first and most critical step toward changing your emotional habits is recognizing what your controlling tendencies are. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Luciani's book with the most common expressions of control.

See if you recognize yourself in any of these expressions:

Yes, buts

Yes, I didn't get the job finished, but I couldn't help getting sick.” A yes-but strategy allows you to sidestep responsibility by first feigning blame. “Yes, I took your money,” only to sidestep it with a rationalization, “But I wasn't stealing it, I was just borrowing it.” If you're impervious to criticism, you're in complete control.


” I have to be the best.” Or, “I have to lie; she would never be able to handle the truth.” Have-tos are compulsive strategies designed to help you control others and life. Once you become convinced that you have to do something, you can eliminate all doubt.

Worrying or what-iffing

“What if I fail?” Or, “What if he says no?” Worry is an attempt to eliminate doubt by trying to know what's coming before it arrives. In spite of the fact that no one knows the future, you keep telling yourself that if you can just figure out what's going to happen (i.e., worry), you'll be able to brace yourself and be more adequately prepared.


“I can't handle that job.” Or, “I can't relax.” When you say “I can't . . .” you're giving up in order to feel more in control. Once you conclude that you can't, you've just excused yourself from any struggle or possible failure. If you avoid failure, you're in control.


“I have to go; she'll be mad if I don't.” Guilt is  a powerful emotion that tries to keep you from going against someone or something. You're trying to avoid feeling that you did something wrong. If you allow guilt to pressure you into doing what's expected, then you maintain control by avoiding conflict. If, on the other hand, you do go against someone, guilt offers repentant, often anguished reaction meant to restore control. “I'm sorry, I'll never do that to you again.”

Black-and-white thinking

Black-and-white thinking is “all-or-none” thinking — never is there any gray or middle ground. If you can convince yourself that something is either black or white, you're done. Case closed. Nor more discussion. In control.


“Maybe I shouldn't call her. How do I know she won't be angry?” Doubts act as a brake trying to postpone, avoid, or somehow protect you from perceived danger. You're trying to control by slowing down and not being too hasty. Inertia is safer than making a mistake.


Shoulds are similar to have-tos. Both are compulsive strategies by which you attempt to control life.  Shoulds are more closely related to guilt and societal expectations.


“I'm such an idiot!” Putting yourself down is a cheap way of excusing yourself from conflict. After all, you can't really expect an “idiot” to handle life.

Not caring

“I don't care if I upset her.” Not caring is a form of denial. If you can insulate yourself with callousness, you can remain in control — even if you mess up.


“As far as I'm concerned, you can go straight to hell.” Hostility repels. By pushing someone away, you create an insulation between you and that person. Insulation is control.


Why take any responsibility when you can control others by lying? If one reality doesn't suit you, create another with lies.


People are malleable — a little white lie here, a bit of coercion there, and perhaps some feigned hysterics — these are all useful tools if you're trying to twist someone to your will. If you can manipulate others, you control them and the situation.

Mountain-out-of-molehill generalizing

Generalizing is an attempt to prepare for the worst. If something is catastrophic and you anticipate it, then you're not going to be unprepared. It's all about not being caught off guard and unaware. If the world is ending, you dam well better know about it so you can get ready.

Fatalistic thinking/down and gloom

With mountain-out-of-molehill thinking, you're at least trying to prepare for and defend yourself from adversity. With fatalistic thinking, you've already concluded the worst and you throw your hands up, becoming victimized, powerless, and impotent. You can feel a sense of control when you don't have to struggle any longer. (Luciani, 2004, p. 167-169)

Dr. Luciani suggests that you don't necessarily have to know the source or reason behind the behaviors. Just being able to recognize and have awareness of them is enough to begin the process of changing your habits. I don't completely agree with this. I think having some understanding of the history and roots of control tendencies is useful in seeing how they don't serve you. For me, understanding “why” is part of the process, although it doesn't need to be a life-long exploration.

What about you? Do you recognize any of these control strategies in your life? Do you feel you need to understand the root cause before you start taking action? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

In my next post, we'll begin to explore strategies for changing these control habits so you can clear the path to happiness.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 18 comments
  • Galen Pearl

    Wow, talk about timing. Developing habits to grow a joyful spirit is exactly what my blog is about. Here is the description. “10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place (and Staying There) is a program to help us develop habits to grow a joyful spirit. Many of us sabotage our happiness by habits that we might not even be aware of. Identifying and changing these habits can build a reservoir of well-being to enhance our happy times and sustain us during challenging times.” Beginning this month, I am highlighting one step every month to focus on habits relating to that step. Step 3 is giving up the delusion of control, so in March, I will be talking about what you are talking about right now!

    Last night was the first night of a monthly discussion group on this topic, and as a foundation, I showed a pie chart of the 50/40/10 percetage breakdown you refer to, with 40% of our happiness based on our habitual thoughts, words, and actions. In our discussion group, we are going to focus on one habit a month (since it takes 21 days to establish a habit). I also talked about being self-aware as the first step and encouraged everyone to take an honest look, holding what they see in loving awareness (instead of beating themselves up!).

    I will be reading with great interest your strategies for changing our control habits. Thank you for such inspiring and practical posts! I am going to send the link to this post to the members of my discussion group. I think they will really benefit from your wisdom!

    Forgive me for what I know seems like self-promotion in this comment. Really, I am just so excited that we are working on the same topics. I think that’s great.
    .-= Galen Pearl´s last blog ..The Power to Choose =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Galen,
      No worries about self-promotion — I’m glad you shared your blog info and course with us. It broadens the discussion and ideas shared! Feel free to jump in with any ideas or insights you get from your students. We are all learners here. 🙂

  • Christopher Foster

    Oh Barrie, here I am with my sweet wife (we’re seniors) freezing our butts coz our furnace has been out of action since 2am and it’s VERY cold right now here in Denver. The furnace man just got here at 11 am so we may see a bit of warmth before too long.

    It’s been uncomfortable and I’ve felt some “complaining” thoughts but I’ve also been aware that’s all been on the surface. Just underneath — happiness hasn’t gone anywhere. I think it’s part of our true nature, inherent in everyone, a jewel waiting to be revealed and known when we open our heart to our own true nature.
    .-= Christopher Foster´s last blog ..Love your own unconquerable spirit — and be free =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Christopher,
      It’s cold her in Atlanta too! And we have been trapped in the house with snow outside for days. But at least we have heat. I hope yours has been restored by now, but if not, you have your sweet wife to keep you warm! Glad to know that your happiness is always simmering near the surface. 🙂

  • Katie

    Funny, I do fall into that lucky category of having been born with a positive disposition, having had a safe and happy childhood, no big traumas so I am able to embrace happiness for the most part … but I do find I sometimes resist joy, get too serious and live with an underlying sense of uneasiness at times, usually when I’m not quite aligned. Like right now, I’m not in a regular exercise regime so I’m feeling off. My happiness levels are low. Recognizing it as a few doubts, have-tos, shoulds, and guilts seeping in makes it easier to strategize as to how to be more loving, more forgiving of myself and then move into healthier patterns without beating myself up for not being perfect. Yikes, this happiness thing ain’t easy! Thanks for helping me muddle through my muddled feelings.
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..Alone We Wander- Together We Find Our Way =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      Katie, the great thing is you are well-equipped with healthy emotional tools to get yourself back in balance. Feeling uneasy is a subtle symptom of needing an adjustment. Much more manageable than a panic attack, anger, or a full-blown depression! By the way, you are perfect, so now you can relax about that. 🙂

  • Tess The Bold Life

    Hi Barrie,
    That’s quite a list from the self-coaching book. I remember when I was in my 20’s and my first therapist told me I was a black or white thinker. I had no idea what he was talking about!

    I can honestly say I worry about “what if I fail.” It’s a biggie but not bad just one on the list. This list ought to be put on a bill board for the general population to check off. My guess is most aren’t aware of them. What is the percentage of people who go to counseling or receive coaching and stick with it???
    .-= Tess The Bold Life´s last blog ..50 Quotes to Inspire the Dreamers of 2011 =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      That’s a great question Tess. I think it is a constant work in progress, especially for those who have a lot to overcome from deeply ingrained habits. But I believe it is possible for people committed to the work. If you can consistently change your thoughts, feelings will follow. A year of therapy should be a requirement for everyone — like the required year of military service in some countries!!

  • Alex Blackwell

    Incredibly helpful post Barrie – thanks.

    I’ve learned when I “surrender” my anxiety, my critical thoughts and my negative emotions, then I open myself up for good things to come into my life. And when that happens, happiness quickly follows.


      Barrie Davenport

      Thank you Alex. What do you mean by “surrender” you anxiety? I’d love to hear more.


      Alex, I too would like to know more about “surrender”. I believe with all my heart that God exists and that He loves me yet I haven’t managed to turn over my worries for love, finances, worthiness and other “mind bending” thoughts regarding everyday life.

  • Ande Waggener

    Barrie, I think those two people with the cheery disposition and the perfect upbringing are sipping fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them on some beach in the Bahamas. 😉

    I have done every single thing on this list, and I am HAPPY to say that I’ve erased most of them from my bag of dirty tricks, but there are a few are like the slugs in my Pacific Northwest–they LOVE to hang around when it gets gloomy. But I’m AWARE of them, and being aware is the first step to replacing these thought patterns that don’t serve us. Thanks for the reminder of these critters’ names; helps me be vigilant. 🙂
    .-= Ande Waggener´s last blog ..Transform The Winter Blues- 15 Ways To Go From SAD To GLAD =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Ande,
      You are so right — awareness is the prerequisite for any improvement. I am always trolling my emotions to look for these reactions because I want to zap them. Maybe it’s easier in the short term to hide your head in the sand, but over time, you pay the price.

  • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife)

    Hi Barrie,

    This post is so important because there is no way we can change if we are not aware of what we are doing that doesn’t work. Thank you for raising our awareness about the ways we like to keep control. When we look honestly, we will probably see that most of these hinder our happiness rather than support it.

    I appreciate your question about whether or not we need to know why we engage in a habit before changing it. I think it depends. Some people, and some habits, need to be unwound all the way back to childhood, whereas others can be transformed by changing behavior in the here and now.

    The essential part is becoming familiar with the triggers and the steps of the habit – so familiar that we are able to catch it as it happens and make a conscious choice.

    Thanks for discussing this all-important topic.
    .-= Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife)´s last blog ..Feeling Unworthy How to Find Your Way to Freedom =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Gail,
      I’m sure you see this in your counseling practice regularly. Sometimes we don’t recognize our own demons, but can learn to. And then we can begin to get rid of them. I’m glad to hear you say that some issues need to be unwound back to childhood. I think that helps many people have a better understanding of their reflexive behaviors and why they are so ingrained.

  • Marci

    If I’m feeling tense and grumpy, I do typically look for what is cooking in me or my life. Is it life, a relationship, or me? Once I put my finger on what I think is cooking, then I can look at how I’m thinking about it. And, asking myself where have I forgotten that I have a choice in the situation/relationship – almost always helps me start moving in a new direction – even if just in my mind.
    .-= Marci´s last blog ..Do Opposites Still Attract =-.

      Barrie Davenport

      That is great advice Marci. Yes, we always have a choice, even when we feel like victims. Everyone has something bad to deal with at some point in their lives. We are not alone in that reality. But we do have a choice about how we respond to it. That is liberating.

  • Lauren Rains @ TheMadtoLive

    Hey Barrie,
    This is officially the 1st post I’ve read from your blog and I’ve sincerely enjoyed it. Excellent points and I love how you supported your content with such strong examples and experts. I am a writer as well so I like to pick up on good practices like this 🙂

    But as for the topic at hand I completely agree with you – I like to know the ROOT. I like to know the Why. Yes recognizing them is half the battle, but I believe that having a good understanding of yourself and really being in touch with yourself and who you are is just as important. Without that, understanding why we have these negative habits becomes more difficult, especially when trying to determine how we can stop them. Not to mention without knowing ourselves how can we love ourselves fully, trust ourselves, dive the deepest into our passions, etc.

    For me – I’m a “Have To”. I have to do it all I feel! And I get overwhelmed. I have FINALLY started recognizing that, but as to WHY – well I guess I need to investigate that root a bit more still. And that is something I am doing right now. 🙂

    Enjoyed your post very much Barrie!!!
    LAUREN 🙂
    .-= Lauren Rains @ TheMadtoLive´s last blog ..The Boxy Life and How To Think Out Of It Special Video Inside =-.

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