The illusion of control – how it led me to depression and through

The diagnosis felt like a tragedy and a relief at the same time.

Depression.

Me, depressed?

This was definitely a new self-image that I had to get used to.

“I am depressed” I say to myself, and the words feel as awkward on the tongue as if I would be trying on a shirt two sizes too small. I take a deep breath, just as I teach others to do when facing adversity in my mindfulness classes, and it seems to help me open up to the unruly feelings stirring inside. Disappointment, sadness and fear. I feel heavy. At the same time, part of me feels relieved. Relieved to finally be able to put a label on what was happening. I can put myself in this box labelled “depressed”, read all about the illness and work out an action plan for how to deal with it. That is how rational, successful beings approach setbacks, right?

In that moment, balancing at the edge of the cliff, staring into the black, unknown abyss down below, clawing back control following a rational step-by-step approach was all I was craving for.

A few months later, I realise that my belief that there is such a thing as control is one of the greatest illusions ever invented by mankind.

Perhaps you known that convincing feeling that “if I only complete my to-do-list or get that promotion, then I will have control over my life again, and be happy”. Yet, just like the mirage of a beautiful, lush oasis in the middle of a dry and sandy desert when we are moments away from lethal dehydration, as real is the notion that if we only work harder, continue to improve ourselves or become more lovable, then everything will be fine.

This illusion of control is real, absolutely, but the question is, is it true?

Over the past few months, I had been a living proof of how seductive and soothing the idea that I was on the path to full control of my life could be, and therefore I had done everything in my power to find proof that it was true. The overwhelming shifts of becoming a mother, trying to find an avenue to integrate that role with my professional identity, intense work that not only took me far away from home but also consumed me, all in combination with a second pregnancy, had become too much for me to handle. I was everywhere and therefore nowhere, I worked too much and was still consumed by guilt and my body was screaming from neglect. I felt incredibly vulnerable.

As so often when we feel insecure about something, we grasp for one of those self-created images of ourselves that we believe have what it takes to be accepted and loved by the world. When our ego feels scared, we work even harder to fit that ideal, that frame, that image.

For me, it was all about being the perfect mother, the perfect spouse and the perfect colleague, who naturally were on top of things and had everything under control. I believed that as soon as I would have everything under control, people would see that and love me for it.

Without control, I was not worthy of love.

The fear of not being lovable, despite my years of working with emotions such as acceptance and non-judgement in my professional life, still had the power to propel me into a trance of fear and aversion.

Caught in this trance, it was only when I sat there in the clinic and my therapist uttered the word “depressed” that I realised that what I had led myself to believe in the past few months had felt real but hadn’t at all been true. Therefore, it hadn’t served me.

“The only thing that is permanent is impermanence” said the Buddha.

This, I believe, is the truth. We intrinsically know this. As the seasons shift, as the night fades for another day, as natural is the transient nature of our being. So why do so many of us do everything we can to feel in control?

There are surely many aspects to this. My view is that we feel a need to seek control when we approach life from a place of fear, rather than a place of trust. We fear so many things, failure, rejection, pain, death. Yet, ultimately, we will all die. Rather than living a life that prepares us for death by practicing letting go, we do the opposite by collecting material things, building attachment to other people and creating desirable self-images, that we believe are the truth. With so much to lose, we experience immense fear.

What would life be like if we instead truly placed trust in ourselves and the world, without the need for control? How confident would you feel if you trusted that you were enough? How would you look at loss and aversion differently if you believed in the notion that everything that is yours will always be yours, and whatever you lost never belonged to you in the first place?

I am not saying I am fully there yet, but I practice living with those questions and simply accept the uncertainty in every moment of every day. As I place more trust in the belief that I am enough, work becomes more effortless, I find more joy in motherhood and I simply accept it when my body signals rest. I have opened the door to these shadow-sides of myself. I now embrace the fact that I, too, feel scared in the face of unpredictability and uncertainty, but at least I don’t have to be afraid of the fear. This realisation has been, and still remains, one of the most significant challenges of my life. At the same time has also showed me my way out of depression.

 


“I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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