The illusion of control
Control is a myth
We all want to be in charge of our lives and feel safe. We like to feel we are in charge of our lives and have choices. In other words, we seek to influence others and our surroundings in order to feel safe. Ultimately, it’s all about feeling safe. Most of us have an intolerance to uncertainty and so we engage in “safety behaviours” in a desperate bid to feel safe.
Examples of control
Perhaps you overcheck things in order to feel in control. Do you double-check that you turned the stove off or locked the front door? Another way that you might try to avoid uncertainty is by googling physical symptoms to find out if something is seriously wrong with you healthwise. Others seek reassurance or test their relationships to find out of they are able to feel safe and secure with their loved ones.
Yet more examples of behaviours we engage in to feel in control (eliminate uncertainty):
- Eating disorders – we can choose what we eat and how we treat our bodies.
- Avoidance – if we fear something, avoiding the feared person or situation can help us to feel safe and in control
- Overt manipulation – telling others what they can and can’t do (this behaviour is abusive)
- Overeating – the dopamine hit helps us to feel good emotionally but it is short-lived
- Exercising – fitness and health
- Dieting – health and physical wellbeing
- Saving money – safety regarding financial matters
- Spending hours trying to get that perfect selfie so that we can feel good enough, valued and accepted..and worthy.
- Perfectionism – whatever you do is never good enough..always on to the next thing. Must be better every time.
It’s all about wanting to be in control in order to feel safe. We fear that if we don’t stay on top of things and have as much certainty as possible, our lives will be chaos. We fear what might happen if we don’t keep up the struggle. Yet, the question we need to ask is: are we ever really in control?
When we fight uncertainty, this struggle creates and maintains anxiety – it can lead to OCD, health anxiety, eating disorders, panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety…
Everything that we experience in the world or witness/observe can be explained in terms of control (or lack thereof). When we feel we have no control – we get depressed.
Yet, the truth is no one has full control and uncertainty is a part of life. 100% certainty in life is an impossibility so why do we fight and struggle so hard for something that doesn’t exist?
The need for certainty and control is the ‘old brain’ (the primitive part of the brain that activates automatically when it senses fear) dominating. Letting go = is the frontal lobe taking over – and this results in more insightful behaviour.
The only things we really have control over is our thoughts and responses to the world around us.
Anxiety Disorders due to our pursuit of certainty
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – sudden loss of control
Obsessive-compulsive disorder – when an individual has an excessive need for certainty
Depression – “learned helplessness: – the individual has given up and uncertainty is overwhelming
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – the world is a scary place and individuals with GAD struggle in many different areas of their lives to find certainty. This pursuit of certainty keeps their focus on the need for certainty and they fall head over heels trying to keep the house of cards from falling down. The end result = more anxiety!
Why uncertainty is here to stay
We can’t control nature/climate
We can’t decide when we die (on the majority of cases)
We can’t make other people do exactly what we want
We can’t predict the future
We can’t manage society into the way we want it to be
We can’t stop what Governments do/implement across the world
We can’t have complete certainty over our health (in terms of genetic predisposition, cancer etc)
Pandemics such as Covid-19 have reinforced the fact that there is little that we have control over. No matter how technologically advanced we get, there are forces on this planet far more powerful
So why do we persist in engaging with the struggle? Suicide is the only way to feel ultimate control.
Suicide is a way to reject the struggle in a final permanent gesture. This act goes against our evolutionary patterns. Suicide of course isn’t the answer. Letting go and learning to accept and even embrace uncertainty is the way forward.
Common core beliefs of individuals seeking certainty and control:
“If I am not in control I won’t be safe”
“If I am not in control something bad will happen”
“If I take my eye off the ball I will be unhappy”
“If I am not perfect no one will want/like me”
A lack of control is threatening. We want to be in control, we need to feel powerful, we need to feel competent and successful.When we feel in charge of our future/destiny, we feel safer. This safety really is an illusion though. We want to be in charge of health, in control of our relationships and how we spend our lives
What threatens this pursuit of control:
The world around us – the more the population grows the less individual freedom we have – a threat to our control.
Pandemics (COVID) huge crisis = we all feel less in control
Politicians – they have the ability to affect our freedom and that in turn, affects our sense of control
Other people – their goals and desires may clash with ours – feel less in control
Society – limits and restricts our personal freedoms/choices – in other words, our control.
CONTROL IS A MYTH. Where has this concept come from? Control rather than collaboration?
How do you try to stay in control? Recognise any of these?
Overcompensation – entitlement, acting superior
Perfectionism – trying to be perfect in every way (often comes from low self-esteem).
Procrastination (due to fear of failure)
Trying to be in control leads to procrastination, indecision, fear of failure,
Evolution and certainty
Being in control can be likened to survival of the fittest – controlling and mastering others and the environment improved survival in the past genetically engineered to pursue control
What you can and can’t control – know the difference!
Peace of mind comes from letting go of what you cannot control and that’s most of your environment. We resist this and mistakenly believe we have more control than we do – hence anxiety. Try not to overthink the future. Create short-term and long-term goals but then get back to living. Create a gratitude journal to help you focus on what is good in your life as we all tend to default to fearful “what if” thinking and this encourages anxiety to breed.
How to tolerate uncertainty:
Acceptance – stop resisting the way things are
Learn distress tolerance
Buddhist ways of detachment from physical world
Accepting others as they are – nurturing quality in relationships and with others in general
Push yourself to do things where the outcome is unknown. The more you cope with uncertainty, the more confidence you will have in your ability to deal with life and the unexpected.
I hope this blog post gets you thinking about ways in which you try to find certainty and a sense of control in your life. Think about whether what you do is helpful or whether you are stuck in an unhelpful cycle that maintains your fear and anxiety. It’s a huge burden lifted off your shoulders when you learn to step back and allow life to unfold naturally instead of trying desperately to head trouble off before it arises (and often it will never materialise but you will have days of angst to show for it).
Problem-solving has its place and it’s fine to anticipate problems and then put plans in place but then forget about it. Know what you can control and what you can’t and try to let go of what you have no influence over. You’ll be a lot more content and peaceful.