why controlling people doesn’t work (and what to do instead)


This week I’m writing you from Nashville where I’m speaking at Amber Housely’s AH Inspired retreat. 

But even though I’m away most of this week, I still have a new Lively Show airing on Thursday with Kate Arends, designer and founder of the popular design blog, Wit and Delight.

In the episode, we talk about the urge to try to control the people closest to us.

Below is a personal story that I share in the podcast which taught me a powerful lesson about why controlling people is pointless (and usually results in the opposite of our desired outcome).


One day while sitting by the lake in Chicago, I had a spiritual a-ha moment.

Though it might sound a little strange, I connected a lot of what I’ve read from spiritual sources to the light-reflected sparkles on Lake Michigan.

Weird? Maybe, but stick with me.

While staring at the water on the horizon, I connected the idea of universality (the idea that we are all separate, yet connected to one another) to the billions of water droplets in the lake.

Technically, there are tons of individual units of water within an otherwise indivisible lake. This is like us as people, too, but we have a hard time recognizing our connection is truly thatclose because our egos want to believe in separateness and specialness.

I’m special. I’m unique. I’m different. These are the echos of our ego and much of modern society.

Though there may be some truth to the uniqueness that our egos desperately cling to, we all are inextricably linked beyond what we comprehend – at least most of the time.

The differences we have are miniscule compared to what we have in common.

It’s like a water droplet saying it’s “so different” because it’s in the harbor, instead of outside the harbor. In reality, water droplets in both parts of the lake are only a few dozen feet apart. They look the same, they have most of the same chemistry, etc.

I also noticed that some parts of the water sparkled, some remained neutral, and some reflected shadows. Just like the photo you see above.

What fascinated me most were the sparkles along the horizon that seemed to glisten like LED lights on a Christmas tree. It was spectacular to watch all of the little bursts of light bounce around the lake.

To me, the sparkling water symbolized the essence of what spiritual teachings mean when they say we need to “be still.”

The glistening patches of water didn’t do anything very different than the darker water patches. They didn’t “force” themselves to sparkle, they simply reflected the light above.

The shining water showed me it was up to us as humans to simply reflect the light, connectedness, and power that is within our intuition or spirit at all times.

We don’t need to go out into the world “forcing” things to happen. 

We simply need to share our light, and in doing so we naturally harness the power within ourselves to live to our fullest potential.

No striving. No ego. Just reflecting the peace and presence that is within ourselves at all times.

For a while, I thought this was the entire lesson the water had to teach me. But a while back I gleaned a new understanding from this water metaphor and how it relates to controlling others.

While Mr. Lively and I took Franklin on a morning walk, we saw a man standing in front of the water sparkles. At first, I thought he was practicing Tai Chi, but I soon realized he was actually practicing his boxing skills.

Seeing this man punching the air in the direction of the water sparkles immediately reminded me of what our egos look like when it they force things to happen without consulting our deeper intuition for advice.

It looked difficult and ultimately pointless. The man by the water, in my water sparkle metaphor, was completely unproductive. He was simply wasting time trying to “make something happen.”

At first, I thought this was the end of the metaphor. But then I got another lesson about that boxer that directly related to my own life.

Though I am well-meaning, I used to have the tendency to try to help people in my personal life (okay, let’s be real, I’m talking about Mr. Lively here) so strongly that it can sometimes border on controlling.

If I have a suggestion that might help him “sparkle” in some area of his life, I can get pushy and/or frustrated when he doesn’t follow my suggestions.

Do I come from a good place? Yes, at least in the beginning.

I truly do want to help him in any possible way that I can, but that doesn’t mean that I can force him to do anything that might help him in some area of his life.

In reality, that boxer punching at the water is what I look like when I’m putting too much emphasis on what I think he should, or shouldn’t do, in some part of his life.

I keep thinking that if I tell him what I think he should do long enough, that he’ll realize I’m right and just do it. But really, I’ve just separated myself from the water by going on land and punching the air.

completely useless action when it comes to making water sparkle in this scenario!

Instead, I would be better off staying in the water and sparkling myself. Sure, I can make suggestions. But more importantly, I need to simply model what I suggest and let him figure out – at his own pace – what is best.

Punching the air to make the water sparkle is as ridiculous as trying to force someone we love to do what we think they should do.


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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Kayli Barth

    I absolutely love this metaphor! I also have a tendency to be a little pushy with my loving suggestions for my partner on how he can achieve his goals. Instead of focusing on other people’s sparkle, I may need to focus on my own. Thanks for the article Jess!

  2. Eliza SJ

    I am so guilty of this! I do this a lot with my boyfriend… It always starts off well meaning, but aren’t we always just so convinced that ‘our way’ will solve the problem? I love your analogy, and I love the idea of just letting go and concentrating on getting our own sparkle on instead of focussing on that of friends or family.

    That being said, I feel like – in my case anyway – I tend to obsess over how helpful ‘my way’ could be for the boyf when things in my own life are jumbled up. I guess it seems easier to fix someone else’s craziness than my own 😉

    1. Jess Lively

      That’s a great point, Eliza! It’s easy to start pointing fingers when we’re the ones that need to look inward. I have a feeling there is some reaction on an egoic level that triggers that reaction within us.

      I guess we must stay vigilant for that sort of thing!

  3. Maya Elious

    This was so great! I have such a bad habit of this sometimes. I’m so passionate about the people I care about doing well that I force my advice on them. Instead of lifting them up, I make them feel insulted. While my intentions are good, the impact is bad. And I wrote a blog post very similar (http://mayaelious.com/the-reason-no-one-cares-about-your-intention/)

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Jacquelyn

    Yep! I definitely need to take your advice. No more punching the air to make the water sparkle!

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