Confessions of a Relational Control Addict

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

1 John 4:18

When I left for college, I experienced a major friendship shift. The people who had known me during adolescence were replaced with a whole college campus unable to pick me out of a crowd. Intimacy rapidly flipped to isolation and the change was completely disorienting.

I remember navigating that emotion with a lot of anxiety when it came to social interactions. Those early college months carried multiple conversations where I grew certain my desire for a friend was the very thing making it hard to find one. For the next couple of years, managing my fear of loneliness took up a huge amount of space in my head.

Ten years later, I still have moments when I attempt to manage relationships. I can’t always predict when a craving for intimacy will arrive, but the buzzing in my brain and the cheeks that flush red offer familiar indicators. Then, when I find myself sounding way too smart and competent in a social situation, I know it’s official: I’m hiding my vulnerabilities, eager to impress and win a friend.

But “winning” a friend rather than becoming one is a dynamic that never works well.

Last week, I found myself describing some of my relational tactics, discouraged I still struggle here. I explained, “I think I’m like kale. I need someone to massage all the bitter tension out of me so I’m tender and sweet again.”

Back when I was 18, I overcame fear by insisting I had nothing to fear. My anxieties were overreactions. Friends would come. Life would be good.  If I was determined enough and felt calm enough, everything would be fine.

Now life looks different. I have some things to fear. I have data to chart my lack of control. I have scars to prove people can hurt me. Sometimes, I find myself bracing for what can go wrong, not because anything will, but because I know something might. Sometimes, my body feels afraid again. In these moments, it’s important for me to remind myself: fear is not the enemy, nor is fearlessness the objective. Fear is my invitation.

“Show up,” says fear, “and believe in your belovedness.”

As part of my M.Div. program, I meet with a small group of future pastors every week. The four of us share our lives with one another—the struggles, hardships, frustrations and fears. This week, I confessed to our group that sometimes I choose to be impressive with them rather than vulnerable. Sometimes, even in my deep sharing, I present a polished version of my truth without letting people see the real ugliness—places where I’m not very nice and not very logical. This week, I invited the group to start calling my bluff.

Together, these men and woman have come to know me well; they’ve spoken words of tenderness and vision into my life, and they have each invited me to sit with them in their own spaces of pain and hope. I realized this week that these people already sense when I’m acting a little too put together. And their honest experience of me is a gift that I need.

Friendship forming can be a fearful space. I’ve learned my inadequacies can scream loudly here; I’ve learned I’m skilled at managing connection. But when I choose to do that, fear is given free reign in my life. Here, fear drives every move. And I think the only way to transform that fear is to show up inadequate and let those around me choose whether or not they will call me beloved.

That is fear’s invitation, and that is love’s magic.

Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world.  She’s a 28 year old seminary student, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day. For now, she shares her thoughts here.