In my last post, The ABC’s of how BOLD leaders navigate back to (home) school, I got a lot of responses and appreciation from leaders who could relate and appreciated anything that could help them and/or members of their team. In other words, they appreciated having insight that helps influence and direct their own and their people’s behavior.

Whether you are personally juggling children returning to school, or have people on your team or in your organization who are, there is a high level of distraction and difficulty, at the very least, and overwhelm, loss of productivity, inability to move forward and the feeling of barely surviving for many more. While there are significant factors contributing to the difficulties we are facing, our incessant need for control, is playing its part in adding to the dynamic.  

The Mechanics Behind Our Challenging Feelings

When life is interrupted – our kitchen sink stops draining water, our AC blows hot air, our electric dog fence no longer keeps our dogs in our yard, we lose power for a week from a hurricane (all of which happened to me in the last three weeks) – these are “ordinary,” finite challenges that we know we can overcome.  We call upon our surge capacity, which is a collection of adaptive systems – mental and physical – that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters, according to Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota.

Living in a pandemic is different – it is a massive, ongoing disruption in every aspect of life. Never before have we experienced a total shift in every part of our work, family, and personal lives, all at one time, with no end in sight. 

We can no longer engage in parts of our former lives as we did before (work, family, friends, school, exercise, ways we had fun, rejuvenated, connected). Almost everything in our lives has had to change.

We underestimate how severe the adversity is, and that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster,” Dr. Masten says. “It’s important to recognize that it’s normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs, to feel like you’re depleted or experience periods of burnout.

Why High-Achievers are Struggling

Ambiguous loss is also at play: it is any loss that is unclear, uncertain, lacking resolution or life as it used to be. While we are often saying we need to adapt to the “new normal”, we also need to grieve for what we miss. I have heard examples of everything from working in the office, to seeing friends, working in a coffee shop, meeting new people, going to live sports events, music and the movies, dinner with friends, etc. There are things we miss that met needs we may not have realized we had until they are absent. 

One thing I miss is travel. Not the part about being away from my family, the parts that gave me alone time, fun, exploration, not having to make my bed or cook, getting to know people over a drink, inspiration and energy I got working live with teams and speaking at large events. The needs that were obvious, I started meeting in new ways. The one that surprised me – my need for alone time – was something I didn’t realize, and I had to find new ways to get that met in a houseful of extroverts who spend a lot of time together. 

Everything we miss has an underlying need associated with it, and identifying the important needs can help you get them met.

Another interesting point about ambiguous loss: It’s harder for high achievers. The more accustomed you are to solving problems, to getting things done, to having a routine, the harder it will be on you because none of that is possible right now. You get feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and those aren’t good,” according to Pauline Boss, PhD, a family therapist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Every leader I work with is some form of high overachiever, brilliant at problem solving and used to getting things done! Here’s the rub: this situation doesn’t require problem solving, it requires adapting with flexibility (not fixing), and being present with what is versus wishing for what was or what will be. 

What We Love and Hate About Control

Control is, at a basic level, wanting things to go our way. We want to direct other people or events. Like a kid, when we get what we want we are happy, and when we don’t, we often spend a lot of time and energy worrying, complaining or doing something to change the outcome. Sometimes we are aware of this consciously, and much of the time it’s the unconscious internal focus, churn and voice that wants it to be different, often creating unhappiness and exhaustion.

Having control is an illusion that becomes apparent when we don’t have it

Face it. We never actually have (much) control. We often spend time pretending we do and doing our best to get things to go our way. 

My nieces, pictured above, were left alone for only a few minutes and created these “facial works of art”, reminding my sister-in-law how little control she has. While she is a go-with-the-flow leader and mom, she has learned to constantly practice letting go of how she wishes things would be versus how they are.

What we love about control is that we get to be in charge, stay mostly in our comfort zone, when it works we get to have things go exactly as planned and we get to avoid the pain of not getting what we want or having it go as it “should.” (Check out this post on How to Stop “Should’ing” All Over Yourself). 

What we hate about control is that it reduces our innovation, options, risk taking, ability to laugh and often creates chronic, high levels of exhaustion, disappointment, frustration, dissatisfaction, stress and ultimately, unhappiness.

Control is routed in our attachment to a reality other than the current one at play, often connected to unrealistic standards based on giant “should’s”. We focus on how it was in the past or how we envisioned it for the future. We spend no time in the “as is reality” of the present moment. 

So, How Do We Let Go of Control?

  1. ADMIT how you wanted it to be. Recognize your conscious or unconscious vision. I’m dropping off my son at college Saturday, two days before school starts, with severe thunderstorms from a hurricane predicted. College is nothing like my vision of it – somewhere between low security prison and a monastery. It’s not at all how I wanted it to go. I wanted it to be sunny, full of families and students, a welcoming committee with balloons. I can see it in my mind’s eye. This is also relevant to how you want team members to be communicating, your kids to be cleaning their rooms, the vegetables you want everyone to be eating. Notice the standards you have set all around you and how you want others to be fitting into your vision.  
  2. ACKNOWLEDGE the current situation. See it for what it is. Dropping off my son, we are allowed one trip in one cart, with one helper in 30 mins. Got it. My feelings range from disappointment, sadness, fear, anger, resentment and excitement. I can feel the 5-year old in me kicking on the floor about the unfairness. When others aren’t doing what we want them to do we can acknowledge within ourselves how we’re feeling about how it’s going and start to see our (unrealistic) attachment to what is NOT reality.
  3. ALLOW with grace. Accept what you can and cannot change (as the 12-Step program says). Oh yeah, easier said than done. When we give up wanting for something (or someone) to be different than we want, we can sink into what actually is. This is a balance between making requests and influencing what we can (yes, I did request a different day a month ago and was declined). It’s about getting clear realistic expectations about the situation, doing what you can do, and letting go of the rest.  This is the tough part! So I’ll bring my foul-weather gear and make it a great send-off no matter the procedures, the severe thunderstorms and gale force winds – because I choose to make it a great day in spite of my desire to control it to be different.

When life hands you a pandemic, a difficult co-worker, messy kids, a spouse who talks too loudly on conference calls in the room next door, kids who need schooling while you are working full time (or all of the above!) – look at your attachment to how it should be versus how it actually is

See it for what it is and impact what you can. The stress comes at this point here – when your influence hasn’t changed the situation and you want it to be different. That is the time to get present and choose powerfully. You can keep banging your head against that wall, though it’ll keep costing you the price of stress and unhappiness it has been creating or you can let go of your “if only…” and accept what is. One tenet I live my life by is: 

High Involvement, Low Attachment

I love what Glennon Doyle says in Untamed:I think that control might be the opposite of love, because control leaves no room for trust – and maybe love without trust is no love at all. I am beginning to play with the idea that love is trusting that other people Feel, Know, and Imagine, too.”

Ask Yourself:

  • What am I wanting to control that is creating a negative impact on me?
  • What can I realistically do to change it?  
  • How do I need to adjust myself to create 10% more peace, calm, joy or relief?   

Please feel free to reach out to Gisele Garcia Shelley if you’d like to connect about how to apply these learnings, to help members on your team navigate their plans, or to discuss the biggest current challenge you are facing today.

Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in practice,


If you are interested in exploring how to unlock the potential of yourself, your team or the women in your organization , contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.

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