As a child, I suffered because of the decisions the adults would make. At least, that’s what I believed for a long time. It seemed unfair to me to not have veto power in the key moments that defined us as a family, and I was looking forward to the day when I would detach myself from the will of my elders.
I counted the days until my independence, believing that when I grew up, things would settle down, because they would be the way I decided.
The need for control made me sensitive to people’s attempts to guide me towards one path or another. I love the feeling of freedom of choice and, no matter how malleable I am about small things, when it comes to defining situations, I live with the full conviction that no one can guide me better than I do.
I’m not the only one. The need to have control is generally valid. We see it in children, who scream if they are reduced to simple executors of the instructions received; in teenagers, who are in the process of discovering their potential; and in adults, who do not like to be taken by surprise.
The power to influence the course of events
No matter how small and insignificant our contribution, it is comforting to know that we have the power to influence the course of events, especially those in which we play the protagonists. Sometimes it’s vital. An experiment conducted in a senior centre showed that being given a choice prolongs life: in the experiment, the elderly who were allowed to choose which plants to care for in their rooms and which movies to watch lived longer than those who were not allowed to choose.
Thus, the need for control is legitimate because it fulfils two major functions, both with a direct impact on our well-being: it supports the belief that we can change circumstances according to our preferences, and strengthens the feeling of independence.
Taken to the extreme, however, the need for control can give rise to a refusal to act outside the boundaries of predictability (fuelling the fear of the unpredictable), or can build what we call an illusion of control—the belief that we can influence reality to a greater extent than we actually can.
Some studies show that, unlike people who are deeply rooted in reality, those who let themselves be guided by the illusion of control are more prone to violating certain boundaries and taking uncalculated risks. They may be more inclined to irrationally engage in gambling, may resort to superstitious behaviours such as wearing lucky charms to influence the outcome of a negotiation, or may act based on magical thinking, for example invoking the power of thought for a favourable change of circumstances.
The need for control: The adherents of an extreme
According to forbes.com people intoxicated with the illusion of control and concerned with its daily exercise have several common features:
– they prefer to work individually, and not in a team, a principle they follow beyond the boundaries of the workplace because they seek to meet their own needs and achieve their own personal goals;
– they consider themselves 100% responsible for their success and they do not recognize the presence of external factors in the recipe for success, considering themselves to be the only ones responsible for efficiently “mixing the ingredients”;
– they invest a lot of time, energy, or ideas in trying to persuade others to change because they consider themselves vectors of change, often wanting to exercise control over people as well, not just circumstances;
– they fail to maintain close relationships with others because they express an exacerbated rigidity, which leaves no room for compromise;
– they spend a great deal of energy trying to prevent the occurrence of bad things and overestimate their role in creating situations;
– at work, they prefer not to delegate tasks because they risk losing control over their monitoring;
– they do not show tolerance towards people who make mistakes because they are convinced that achieving success depends on the individual. Control ‘freaks’ tend to harshly condemn the mistakes of others, interpreting them as proof of mediocrity.
Idealism versus eternal hopelessness
Beyond all these aspects, there are also situations in which the illusion of control has beneficial effects, making us immune to hopelessness. For example, if the extreme realism that is often found among people suffering from depression deeply inhibits motivation, the idealism of people convinced that they are at the helm of events is a powerful enough motor that takes them where they want to go.
The idea is supported by research that associates lack of willpower with lack of personal development, showing that people who are not used to exercising their will to achieve important goals are more vulnerable to depression and helplessness, and over time, risk developing dysfunctional behaviours such as learned helplessness.
Based on the concept studied and popularized in the 1960s by the American psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, the theory of learned helplessness starts from the hypothesis that not only animals but also humans learn to react by repeated exposure to situations in which their actions cannot change the circumstances they find themselves in.
The best-known experiment used as an argument in favour of this theory sought to observe the reactions of subjects deprived of the power of control in a given context: placed in a room invaded by disturbing noises, participants were invited to perform a series of intellectual tasks that required a lot of attention and concentration. Some of them could stop the noises by pressing a saving button, while the others couldn’t because the button was inactive. After a while, those faced with disturbing stimuli gave up trying to stop them, and they got used to both the state of helplessness and the high degree of difficulty of the proposed task.
What we are left with when reality gets out of hand
Speaking of instrumenting the need for control, Viktor Frankl, renowned psychiatrist, doctor of neurology and philosophy, founder of the third Viennese school of psychotherapy and, above all, someone who was deeply familiar with human pain (survivor of four Nazi concentration camps) included in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the following truth:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Even though it comes from a man familiar with suffering, and even with death, the statement makes it seem effortless, as if it were talking about a superpower available to anyone. In reality, solving problems by changing our perspective towards them involves a difficult process of repeated failures and successes, few of which actually help us gather the strength we need to regain control.
The fact that such performances are difficult does not, however, invalidate their veracity. The examples of those who stand firm despite their difficulties (as is the case with Frankl) show that people have the freedom to choose how they react to suffering and displeasure, even when the only option seems to be to give up.
Frankl’s experience teaches us how important it is to take the initiative when change is in our hands and to take responsibility for our actions, accepting their consequences—but also their inevitable limits. Nowadays, the pandemic we are living through offers us a similar lesson, proving that what is left for us when reality gets out of control is the choice of how we relate to change.
In other words, all we can control is our reaction to everything we can’t control.
And we can’t control a lot of things, from the little things that upset us every day (traffic, weather conditions, the opinions of others), to the real existential problems (diseases, trials, losses). What we can do in the midst of suffering is to accept it along with the array of overwhelming emotions that accompany it, to strengthen our minds by taking care of our bodies, and to seek the support of wise people, without ignoring the fact that the healing process is unique and doesn’t always replicate the experiences of others.
Regaining the freedom to be confident
The path we have to take in order to stress less over things that are beyond our control contains several indicators that guide us to:
- Separate what we can control from what we cannot control;
- Identify our fears;
- Focus on the ability to influence things for the better;
- Distinguish between rumination and real problem solving;
- Have a stress management plan;
- Express positive thoughts of gratitude or self-encouragement.
What we must not do in trying to overcome unfortunate events that are beyond our control, is to give credibility to the myths that undermine our freedom to be confident in the future:
Myth no. 1 – Pain subsides faster if we ignore it
In reality, pain is amplified if we treat it as if it does not exist. Problem-solving involves actively working on our states of emotional discomfort, not ignoring them.
Myth no. 2 – We must be strong in the face of loss
Feelings of sadness, fear, despair or self-isolation are natural reactions to loss. People who cry are not weak, just as how those who are hiding problems from their loved ones are not protecting them. In any case, expressing real feelings is the first step to healing.
Myth no. 3 – Suffering must last a year
Associated with those who mourn the passing of a loved one (the grieving period), the myth also applies to other situations for which the collective opinion allocates a certain time limit for recovery and healing. In reality, healing differs from person to person, as does the time required.
Myth no. 4 – If we move on with our lives, it means that we’ve brushed off our loss
Often, people judge the behaviour of peers facing loss, expecting to see tears, despair, and other signs of suffering that indicate the extent of the dramatic situation they find themselves in. However, the authenticity of pain has nothing to do with purely demonstrative behaviours, and the resumption of life as it was before the loss can be helpful in the context of our emotional rebalancing.
In the end, all we have to do is ask, like the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in The Serenity Prayer did, for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.