What Can You Control?

Sometimes we feel the need to be in control of a situation. Often, we are confident in our own abilities, and doubtful in others’.  But how much control do we actually have?

We have the most control over ourselves. I can decide what time I go to bed, what food I eat, where I live, and the people I choose to surround myself with.

Controlling others is more difficult, but it can still be done. Through persuasiveness, persistence, or even intimidation, we can exert some level of control over our family, friends, neighbors, or community.

There are people who need to feel that they are in control, of themselves or situations around them. It can produce feelings of anxiety or discomfort when people feel they, or things around them, are out of control.

For example, this is one of the primary reasons that people love automobiles. You can leave whenever you want, and go wherever you want. You have the ultimate choice of your entire environment: the music on the radio, the temperature, windows up or down, how fast you go. Even people who don’t like to drive enjoy the flexibility driving affords them.

But how much control do we really have? To return to the car analogy, drivers are at the mercy of a number of factors beyond their control, like traffic congestion, poor road conditions, pedestrians, tolls, and more. Other drivers on the road might cause an accident or a traffic jam, on in general drive unsafely.

Moreover, the flexibility gained by driving creates restrictions in other regards. Cars can be very expensive, with gas, insurance, repairs, parking, tolls, and taxes, in addition to the large cost of the vehicle itself. The loss of financial flexibility when owning a car is considerable. Most people are willing to accept that trade-off, but it is there regardless.

In general, we are often at the mercy of other people, or even of unpredictable events or situations.

Do you feel the need to be in control? What can you control?

Related questions: How much of our thoughts are our own? Where does authority come from? How has luck shaped your life? Free-will or predestination?

2 thoughts on “What Can You Control?”

  1. The following is a slightly redacted version of a September 1, 2016 entry, “Control, Concerns, and Mental Health” from my mental health blog, Prone to Hope, that addresses this question head on:

    Yesterday my therapist asked me to name my concerns. I wasn’t too talkative, feeling very introverted and my mind was hurting, so she started listing things: “Your health, your safety, your family.”

    I chimed in “my wife, my puppy.”

    She wrote those down and kept going, “the prevalence of poverty, the anxiety you experience.”

    I sputtered out, “the Election.”

    She continued, “your future, your financial security.”

    Then she stopped, looked at me for more, and nodded as I stayed silent.

    She drew a circle around those words and wrote, “Concerns” above the circle.

    “Okay Michael. Now tell me what you control.”

    Silence. I tried to think, but nothing came out.

    She wrote “Your behavior” and “Your personal attitude,” drew a circle around it, and wrote “Control” above it.

    I shook my head and said, “Well that’s rather limiting. There’s more.”

    I named several things. She refused to write any of them down. Instead, she said, “You do things (active behaviors along with you personal attitude) to get those things. But all YOU can personally control are behavior and attitude.”

    “For example, you can be concerned about your future and your financial security. You can behave and act in certain ways, like put money in an investment fund or squirrel away money in a mattress. Maybe those things will keep you financially stable. But what if things beyond your control happen? The economy may tank, you could lose your job, and your health could take a serious turn for the worse because of your genetic makeup. BAM, there goes your financial security.

    I kept shaking my head. “Listen. I work for social justice. There are systemic things we can change.”

    She said, “Yes, you do work for social justice and achieve systems’ change. You behave and act like a better world is possible. Thank you!”

    “But as you know, sometimes things like elections, a terrible economy, and leaders’ biases keep the change you want from happening.”

    I was squirming. I thought of retorting more. But I could predict her answers. I also basically believed that: Yes, getting what you want out of life is greatly increased if you work for it. And sometimes, as much as you try, things still don’t work out exactly as you hoped. External factors get in the way and / or impact things a bit. Or worse yet, systems keep you / others down.

    That said:

    • I want love. Love matters to me. So, I should behave in a manner worthy of love. But I can’t guarantee I will always be loved.
    • I want financial security. Financial security matters to me. So, I should keep working and try to be as effective at work as I can be. But I can’t control the economy.
    • I want personal health. So, I should stay away from bad food and should continue exercising, plus many other things. But my genetic makeup really does suck. My efforts for health could be overridden.
    • I want social justice. So, I should keep working for it and giving to causes I believe in. But … (you get the picture).

    In other words, few things get handed to you on a silver platter. You’ve got to work for what matters to you. And you need to do them because they matter to you, not because you are always going to get what you want. In fact, most of the time you won’t get EXACTLY what you want.

    Truth be told, my mind was swirling at this point.

    I’m paraphrasing, but as I got up to leave my therapist said, “Okay, I’ll see you in about a week. But here’s what I want you to think about and do: Think about your motivations, and do what motivates you. If things beyond your control get in the way, be satisfied that you followed your personal compass. Garbage happens. Accept that, but don’t let the garbage consume you. Keep at what matters to you.”

  2. Someone once told me this:
    “You can’t control your thoughts. Sometimes bad, or wrong, or depressing thoughts come into our heads, seemingly from nowhere. Even when we’re doing something good, right or uplifting. So, does that make you a bad person? Absolutely not! Actions determine what kind of a person you are, and you have control over your actions. You can actively push those unhealthy thoughts from your mind and replace them with healthy thoughts. Yes it may, at times, seem like a Sisyphean effort to do so, yet, you CAN do it.
    After all, you can’t stop a bird from landing on your head….but you don’t have to let it make a nest.

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