Letting Go of Control in Sobriety

By Deanna deBara 08/18/17

In a nutshell, my need to control everything was holding me back from being happy and enjoying my life just as much as drinking had.

woman meditating next to a plant
While many people equate sobriety with ultimate self control, sometimes it is necessary to relinquish control of certain aspects to fully heal the mind and body.

When I was drinking, saying I was “out of control” was an understatement. Every waking moment of my life was spent drinking, recovering from drinking, or figuring out how to get my next drink. When compared to the lure of the bottle, everything else paled in importance until eventually all the other areas of my life - my relationships, my health, my finances, my sanity - were in shambles.

For most people, active addiction is an out-of-control time. We’re so consumed with substances there isn’t much room for anything else.

But then we get sober, and we have to face the damage caused by our out-of-control debauchery and start picking up the pieces of our broken lives. And let me tell you: it’s not fun. In fact, it can be downright terrifying.

I speak from experience. When I stopped drinking and took a good, hard, sober look at my life, I was horrified. All the important relationships in my life were hanging on by a thread. I had zero dollars and my cell phone would ring off the hook from bill collectors looking for their money. I was thirty pounds overweight, my face pallid and swollen with alcohol bloat, and I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without feeling like I was going to pass out.

Seeing the out-of-control mess I had become was a sobering moment (pun intended). And, now that alcohol was out of the picture, I was determined not to let it happen again. I needed to take back control of my life.

That was almost eight years ago, and today, I can definitely say I’m back in control.

But, at times, I’ve gone a little overboard. I was so afraid of letting myself fall back into my out-of-control ways that I became obsessed with controlling everything around me. I thought if I could control my environment - the people, places, and things that surrounded me - I would be safe.

Now, don’t get me wrong - there’s nothing wrong with trying to regain a semblance of control in sobriety. But I, like many others new to recovery, took it too far. And at certain points, my desperate desire to control things was almost as unhealthy as my desperate desire to drink.

Recognizing the detrimental effect my need for control was having on my life was much harder than it had been when I was drinking. Under the influence, not even I could deny what a complete mess I was. But with my control issues, it was much more insidious. On the surface, it appeared to be working for me; my bills were paid, my business was booming, my life was seemingly moving forward. I was, for all intents and purposes, succeeding in my recovery.

But inside, I was a mess. The need to control my surroundings prevented me from getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing new places. The need to control the people in my life (in a vain attempt to ensure they didn’t hurt me) pushed everyone I loved away. The need to control every last detail of my day-to-day life left me wracked with anxiety when things deviated even slightly from the schedule I created for myself.

In a nutshell, my need to control everything was holding me back from being happy and enjoying my life just as much as drinking had.

Once I realized how damaging all these control issues were to my life, happiness, and sanity, I started taking steps to change them. It’s been an uphill battle, and while I’d be lying if I said I don’t still regularly struggle with the concept of letting go of control and allowing life to happen on life's terms, I’ve definitely come a long way.

While I’ve tried plenty of things to help me deal with all this control stuff, there have been a few practices in particular that have been complete game-changers in helping me to loosen up, go with the flow, and let go of the need to control every last thing in my life:


Meditation has all sorts of benefits, but for me, the biggest has been a greater ability to let go of control. I practice Vipassanna, a form of Buddhist meditation focused on “clear awareness of what is happening as it happens.” Essentially, I bring my awareness to the breath. When my mind wanders, I acknowledge it, and then gently and compassionately bring my attention back to the breath.

This simple practice has completely changed my life. When I first started meditating, I would try to control my mind and would beat myself up when my mind inevitably wandered. Now, when I find myself spinning off into a thought cycle during meditation, I acknowledge it as something that doesn’t need to be controlled and gently refocus my attention.

Learning to let go of needing to control my mind in meditation has translated into letting go of needing to control other aspects of my life. Now, when I notice myself trying to control some person, place, or thing in my life - just like in meditation - I can acknowledge it, let it go, and focus my attention on something else.


Sometimes, my need to control things is so strong it makes me crazy. I worry that if I let go of the need to control a certain situation - like planning every detail of an upcoming trip or making sure that everyone leaves the house on time so I’m not late - everything will fall apart.

In moments like those - when my need to control feels overwhelming - I find writing down all my crazy thoughts in a journal to be super helpful. Just getting the thoughts out of my head and onto the paper helps me look at them objectively and see that the worst case scenario (maybe the trip doesn’t go quite as I’d imagined or we’re a few minutes late) isn’t the end of the world. And even better, it fights that feeling of overwhelm, calms me down, and puts me in a better head space to roll with the punches of the situation.


In the past, my desperate need to control things has led me to do and say things I’m not particularly proud of; the anxiety I get when I feel out of control can make me extremely reactive, and I’ve been told I have a tendency to lash out (guilty as charged).

In moments like these, I find that taking a moment to pause can save me from saying things I’ll regret later. Taking a time out to do some deep breathing (I’m a big fan of the 4-7-8 method) can help bring down my anxiety to the point where I can respond like a rational human being and not a balled-up control freak.

Letting go of control is a daily learning opportunity in my recovery. But as I’ve let go of more control - and saw that the world around me didn’t crumble as a result - I’ve gotten more comfortable letting life unfold however it sees fits. I’ll probably never be what you’d consider a “free spirit” or a “go with the flow” kind of person, but I’m working on it. Progress, not perfection, right?

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