7 Ways to Free Yourself from the Need to Control

By Katherine Lundgren 10/20/15

Emotional contracts involve the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that one picks up out of a perceived obligation to other people.

How to Break Your Emotional Contracts

As a kid, I constantly assessed the emotional temperature of a room and then used my voice as a human thermostat. I did this unconsciously. I remember watching Saddam Hussein on television when I was in first grade and thinking, “if I could just talk to him, I bet I could sort this whole thing out.”

I never learned the coping strategies necessary to navigate strong negative emotion. Anger, fear and sorrow resulted in explosive scenes throughout my childhood, and I became hypersensitive to these emotions in others. Whenever I encountered them, I tried to change them as quickly as possible.

The great irony to this behavior is that, while I believed myself to be an emotional ventriloquist, what I actually did was absorb others’ feelings, causing me to lose my autonomy. I remember trying to cheer up one friend who was having a hard time. She told me pointedly, “I don’t want to play your little games.” I wasn’t playing games; I was trying to make her feel better! What she was addressing was the manipulative nature of my consolation. Even now, I wince at my memories of attempting to control or avoid others’ negative emotions. There were so many people whose feelings I found unbearable, and I wound up cutting them out of my life. I lost connections that were profoundly important to me, because I didn’t know how to navigate conflict. It was devastating.

It’s called an emotional contract because it feels inescapable, but we do have agency. It can change.

Over time, I have learned to untangle, and ultimately dissolve, the emotional contracts that have kept me from creating and maintaining strong, intimate relationships. My avoidance of conflict has been replaced by a willingness to discuss problems in a candid and loving way. I have nurtured my relationships with my friends and relatives and have found a partner with whom to raise a family. Ultimately, I’ve learned how to stop looking to others as a conduit of personal fulfillment. 

1. Recognize the emotional contracts in your life

Are you afraid to ask someone for clarity on a situation because you think they might be mad at you for asking? Do you hesitate to pursue a goal because you think someone might be disappointed with your decision? Do you obsessively re-evaluate what you’ve said over the course of a conversation based on the person’s facial expression or tone of voice? If so, you have an emotional contract! Sometimes I feel so relieved when I see the situation for what it is.

2. Feel everything

Once the full weight of an emotional contract is acknowledged, the impact can be dizzying. We may have wasted years pursuing something we did not truly enjoy, or we may have limited our ability to relate to others in a way that had potentially damaging consequences for the relationships in our lives today. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s also tempting to act feverishly to set everything right. Be gentle, and move carefully. It will pass. And when it does, you begin to recognize who you truly are from a quiet place within, allowing you to identify what you actually want, and how to draw that into your life.

3. Accept the situation for what it is

This is perhaps the most difficult tool for me to apply. We are trying to break an emotional contract. We want to change something that is completely derailing our lives. Why would we need to accept it? Because I can’t transform a negative situation if my hair is on fire. If I take an action out of fear or anger, I will likely enter more fear- and anger-producing situations. I’ve found that I need to allow the dust to settle before I can act or speak reasonably. Only when I feel calm—when the problem is irritating but not overwhelming—can I communicate in a way that will effectively be heard.

4. Don’t hate, meditate!

For those of us prone to emotional contracts, meditation lessens the grasp that other people hold on us. My emotional contracts are born out of a misunderstanding that has to do with beliefs that I have acquired throughout childhood. They distort my understanding of conflicts in current relationships. By meditating, I am better able to discard old habits and respond more appropriately in my relationships today. Others are more receptive to me as well. Meditation means so much more to me than sitting quietly and witnessing my thoughts. It has profoundly positive consequences for me both psychologically and physically. 

5. Become your own advocate

The beauty in this action is that every little bit counts. Every small gesture you make towards speaking up for yourself spills over into every area of your life. The secret to this tool is to do it in a loving way. Identifying my needs does not mean that I find fault in my partner, employer, or family member. The added challenge is that—as someone who commonly holds emotional contracts—blame is very familiar to me. Sometimes I confuse this familiarity with accuracy. It just feels right, even though it is usually wrong. If I feel self-righteous, it is likely due to my distorting the truth and I won’t be able to handle the problem in a way that leads to a positive resolution. At times, of course, anger is warranted, but it is far more powerful to express this emotion in a gentle, calm way. I can only truly achieve this when I frame my anger in terms of my unmet needs, rather than attributing it to another’s mistake.

6. Surround yourself with supportive people

Create and nurture your own cheerleading squad. You can’t eliminate criticism from your life, but you can create stronger bonds with people who offer support and encouragement. Particularly people who support whatever it is you are currently working on—be it a more fulfilling romantic life or a new profession. This often means making new friends and revealing your intentions, which still might be riddled with your own self-doubt. Sound scary? It’s terrifying! Do it anyway. As people who are prone to emotional contracts, support speaks more softly to us than criticism, so we need to create as many channels for it as possible. No single person will always be available, and no single person will be endlessly supportive. That’s why it’s called a support network. It takes a village.

7. Spend 10 minutes every day committed to something that you love

Especially something that you think would be unpopular with your contract holders. This is the single most important tip. Want to write, to paint, to sing, or to study code? Set a timer. And get to work! At first, it may feel like you’re walking through quicksand. You might feel ridiculous. Tune it out and keep at it. You are capable of far more than you realize, but you have to start with small actions and be diligent. By limiting yourself to 10 minutes, you don’t have to hold yourself to unrealistic standards. You don’t have to quit your job or end that relationship…yet. Just give yourself an opportunity to develop whatever skills you were designed to use. 

Katherine Lundgren is a writer and meditation instructor living in Brooklyn, New York.

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