Anxiety and Control

by Taylor Qualls

It’s hard, if not impossible, to live a life of love when we live out of anxiety.

It seems to me that there is a direct link between our anxiety and our attempts to control our world. For so many of us, the more overwhelmed and afraid we become the more we try to do the impossible, controlling everyone and everything around us so that we can feel safe.

If it is true that God does not control, then it follows—at least in my mind—that God must be perfectly non-anxious. To be present in love and the gift of freedom, God’s presence with us must be completely lacking in anxiety.

As a therapist, I believe it is my sacred task to emulate this uncontrolling, all-loving God by engaging those whom I encounter with loving, non-anxious presence. It is this presence that provides the space for healing. Sometimes however, it is easier said than done.

The Millers were incredibly loving and caring, anxious parents. They actively sought the best for their children, but they became anxious when their children deviated even slightly from the course they had charted out and understood to be best for them. At least that was how I understood their family when their son Dean entered my care in long-term residential treatment. His parents’ incredibly high anxiety and well-intentioned high expectations had created something of a split in Dean.

Dean had a greater desire to be and be seen as good than anyone else that I have entered into a therapeutic relationship with. He did all the right things, he opened doors for old ladies, served on school and youth group leadership teams—you get the idea. Sometimes he would even risk his social standing to call others out on their bad behavior; he wanted to prove that he was the good kid. Until he wasn’t anymore. Like a boiler building up pressure, Dean’s denial of his own darkness would result in an explosion of some truly outrageous acting out.

Dean had internalized his parents’ anxiety and their attempts to control him into their image, and by the time I met him he did the exact same thing to himself. His acting out was not the result of him being some wild, out of control kid, but quite the opposite. His attempts to control his image created a comfortable lie that he told himself—that he was completely good with no darkness inside of him. It also created a dangerous split within him because what we don’t allow ourselves to see can never be healed.

So here I was, doing my best to bring a loving, non-anxious and non-controlling presence into the Millers’ lives. I would offer my observations, hoping to help them see the pattern that they were in. I would teach them different ways to communicate so that they could really listen to each other. These are often the things you do in family therapy. The problem was that it was not going fast enough for them. As the months passed by and the Millers were not getting the results that they were looking for, their anxiety level rose higher and higher, and with it the intensity of their grasping for control.

This reached its apex one day in family therapy when Dean’s parents said, “If you would just let go of your thoughts and feelings and accept that we are right, your life would be so much easier.” On the outside I like to think that I was calm, cool and collected, but on the inside, I was outraged. I knew they were afraid, but this felt like an attempt to deny his very personhood, his individuality. On top of that they were shutting me down every time that I attempted to help. With every attempted intervention I felt more and more like they were telling me to go sit in the corner while the family worked this out on their own. The session was completely out of my control.

I now appreciate the irony of that last statement, but it took me entirely too long to figure out what was going on that day. For all of my desire to bring a loving, non-anxious presence into the room, I got lost somewhere along the way. I became overwhelmed by the Miller family’s anxiety, and I joined them in it. While Dean’s parents were saying that everything would be fine if he just abandoned his own self and did as he was told, I was doing the exact same thing to his parents (albeit a bit more subtly). I had joined in the control-fest. We were a trifle of control (a trifle is a layered cake, right? I’ve been watching a lot of The Great British Baking Show lately). This was far from my best moment as a therapist.

At this point I ended the session because I knew that I was lost, and we were not going anywhere good. Then I had a choice to make. I made a mistake and joined in the chaos and attempts at control, now what was I going to do with it? I wish I could say that I devised a brilliant plan going forward because I am brilliant, but if I’m being honest, I sort of stumbled on the answer as I went. I joined in with the family’s mess, and I was now in the unique position to show them the way out.

It did not take long for anxiety to kick into high gear for everyone in our next family session, including me. Instead of following it and grasping for control, instead of shaming myself as a bad therapist or pretending that it did not exist, I offered the same grace to myself that I wanted the family to offer to each other. Then I extended it to them. Instead of being an outsider offering a non-anxious presence, I was now an insider who knew and understood the anxiety they were feeling, who had engaged the very same desire to control that they were experiencing now. I did my best to show them the way out from the inside.

When Dean’s parents said something that struck me as outrageous, I checked my own anxiety and desire to control and turned it into curiosity and a non-anxious presence. I did my best to help them do the same, translating their anxiety and attempts at control into the language of relationship and hurt, something that Dean could engage with and connect to. Dean’s walls of defensiveness came down as he could see his parents as people who were hurt, not out to get him.

Let me be totally clear, my choosing to be a non-anxious, loving presence with the Miller family was not the magic bullet that solved everything. It did, however, bring about a shift in them and in me. I was able to once again do my best to emulate the non-controlling, all-loving God that I know, to embody that presence to them. They were able to see and experience what it is like to escape the trap of anxiety and control, even if just for a moment, and they knew that they could do it again.

When I think about these sessions, I am reminded that I am always human in all of my beautiful messiness. I bring my training and experience into the therapy room, but I also bring my own brokenness and quirks into the room. I’m also reminded that that’s not a bad thing. I may have never gotten through to the Miller family as an outsider to their anxiety and attempts at control, perhaps it was only as one who had sat in the muck with them that I could help them find the way out.

Isn’t that what Jesus did and still does for and with us? The perfectly non-anxious God took on our anxiety, took on all of the brokenness and quirkiness of being human to show us the way out—the way of the cross rather than control. Perhaps sometimes, in order for our non-anxious presence to mean anything to those whom we walk alongside, it has to be tested. This doesn’t just apply to therapists but to all of us. Perhaps it is only when we risk genuinely entering into one another’s quirky brokenness, taking on one another’s anxiety, when we feel the full weight of it and come out the other side choosing to be present as non-controlling love rather than fearful control that we become the hands and feet of the crucified God in the world.

Taylor Qualls is a Licensed Professional Counselor living in Lee’s Summit Missouri. He earned his Master’s in Counseling from MidAmerica Nazarene University and his Masters in Theological Studies from MidAmerica Nazarene University. He loves hiking, traveling, and is a nerd about the Eastern Church. He is not a good dancer, but that’s never stopped him.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love