Here's how to focus on the things that you actually can control.
I have struggled with the need for control for most of my life.
For a long time, I felt like my life was out of control, out of my hands. Every day, it felt like things happened to me that I didn’t expect or didn’t want. And that filled me with enormous anxiety. So then I tried to control external things — other people, or my physical space. I was trying to get that feeling of control back. But the ways that I was trying to do it never quite accomplished the goal. And that only filled me with more anxiety.
Now I understand that part of the experience of anxiety is an enormous fear of uncertainty. When life isn’t predictable, when we aren’t sure what will happen next (which is pretty much always), we feel powerless in our life. Then we fight for control over external things. As a misdirected coping mechanism to feel like we have some sort of agency.
Because there is often a disconnect. A misunderstanding of what we can control and what is beyond our control. Or what actions and behaviors we can control that will actually give us the results that we want. Instead of creating more anxiety and fear.
It’s a delicate balance. Because a lot of people will tell those of us with this kind of anxiety to just “let go” of control to be happy. To allow life to take us on a roller coaster ride and accept that we have no idea what will happen next.
And while that advice is in the right ballpark, it misses the mark in one key way. The truth is, humans actually do need to feel like they have some level of control in their lives to feel happy. And psychologists have known this for over 50 years.
It is healthy, normal, and necessary to want to feel in control in life
Research around humans’ need to feel in control of their lives is decades old. It started back in 1959 with Robert White. He was the first to suggest that there is a fundamental need to exert some control on the world around us.
As Leotti et al noted:
If people did not believe they were capable of successfully producing desired results, there would be very little incentive to face even the slightest challenge. Thus, perception of control is likely adaptive for survival.
So, this need to feel control it’s primal, it adaptive to survival. And we need it for mental health and happiness. We need it for physical health. We need it to reach goals. According to a recent article in Frontiers in Neuroscience:
It has long been known that perceived control is a major contributor toward mental and physical health as well as a strong predictor of achievements in life.
On the flip side, as mentioned in an article by Kunzmann, et al:
…a belief in powerful others’ control can be related to high levels of anxiety and depression.
In other words, we need to feel a sense of control over ourselves and our lives. It’s a normal and necessary part of the human experience. And if we believe that others have more power over our life, it creates a lot of anxiety and depression.
We need to focus less on lack of external control and more on the power we have to choose
So here’s the dilemma. The need to feel control is a powerful psychological phenomenon. And we need it for positive outcomes — to be happy and healthy. But we need to feel that control from within. Because feeling like other people are in control of our life, or our fate is out of our hands, only makes life worse. And when we focus on those things, we’re looking in the wrong direction anyway. Because it’s true, we can’t actually control other people or many of the events that happen in life. We’ll never be able to change that.
But we actually have a lot of choices after an unexpected event. When something bad or unexpected happens, we can choose what to do next, how we want to feel about it, and how we want to let it impact our life and wellbeing. We can choose to move past it, move forward, instead of blaming ourselves or others.
When something positive happens, we can choose to celebrate it and enjoy it in the moment. Instead of waiting for the next negative thing outside of our control to happen. We can pick and choose our actions and our reactions to just about everything.
If we focus on the choices we can make for ourselves. If we choose not to see an unexpected outcome as a failure. Then we can redirect that feeling of power, of control, inward. And from there, everything changes.
Don’t resist your need to feel control, direct it in a productive way
In the end, we all need to feel some sort of control. It’s normal, natural and healthy. And again, has a strong correlation with positive outcomes.
So instead of wasting your time telling yourself to “just let go” or shaming yourself for wanting more control. Why not remind yourself of what you do have under your control? You have almost complete control over over so many choices in your life.
You can choose how you respond to events, even if they were unexpected or feel like failures.
You can choose what you want to think and feel about yourself. And about other people.
You can choose how to take care of yourself.
You can choose your own actions.
If you focus on these areas, you will actually control a lot. You will feel the agency that humans so fundamentally need. But you will also direct your need to control into a healthy channel. And away from other people or food or your environment in a way that will ultimately make you feel worse.
In the words of the actor Chris Pine (yes, a surprising source):
The only thing you sometimes have control over is perspective. You don’t have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it.