“We need to strive for a world where people control what is important to themselves while minimising their controlling of others.” – Richard Marken
Sometimes, our clients describe themselves (or their spouse, boss, parent, sibling) as “controlling”. The word controlling is meant as a criticism. However, some fascinating research into Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) by Richard Marken and Tim Carey shows that we are all “controlling”. In fact, our feelings of wellbeing significantly depend on us feeling in control. We can’t stop controlling because, paradoxically, it is as essential to our existence as breathing. Both our bodies and minds like to return to homeostasis – a word which means maintaining or returning to a state of optimum balance.
Our tagline at NBP is “Your Life In Control” because we realise no one likes feeling “out of control” or out of balance, whether that’s anxiety, despair, anger or confusion. A good psychologist supports people to take control of their controllables (yes, I just made that word up!) and to stop trying to manage and control the rest. Remember the Serenity Prayer?
Being human is a very paradoxical business! While we all need a sense of control, our controlling nature can get us into trouble. Just like when we drive a car, we need to stay in control of everyday life in order to keep things we care about moving in the right direction. However, this natural tendency used incorrectly is the very reason we end up losing control. This happens when we try to change or control other people, AND when we try to control parts of ourselves not under our direct control, such as automatic thoughts and fight-flight-freeze feelings.
The more we strive to control things out of our control, the more out of control we feel!
Scrambling for this kind of control, we lose control. You get the paradox!
So how do we do better? First, we need to understand and accept both our own and other people’s controlling natures. It’s survival. And anything trying to help us survive is never bad. It’s just ineffective and costly when it goes awry. When you or someone else is being “overly controlling” it helps to see that it’s likely due to feeling very out of control. Can you acknowledge this? Can you say: “I see this is stressful and confusing to me / for you” to offer some recognition of it? Empathy often helps us to relax.
Second, identify what is controllable. Improve your cognitive skills to gain clarity by applying intelligent questions to your thinking:
- What do I know for sure? What don’t I know for sure? Maybe I don’t know what I don’t know!
- What can I do? What are my options? Who can I turn to for support?
- Do I need to act right away? Is it truly urgent? Can it wait?
- What is most important to me here? What do I truly care about? What do I really want to achieve?
Asking ourselves good questions can help us get clear on our options: on what we can and cannot control. It can help us get back to homeostasis and restore our perspective on life.
Life is to be lived, not controlled. Like a surfer in the waves, we need to respond to life, not stress ourselves out trying to manage and control it all.
As Steve Maraboli says: “Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.”