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Control: None, Some, or Total?


Psychology texts and social media posts often discuss control: our authority, power, or influence over events, behaviors, situations, or people. The serenity prayer is one of the most widely known acknowledgements of our struggles with control (with beautiful versions sung by musicians, such Chad Warren and Jesse Powers). In this Christian prayer, the supplicant prays for the wisdom understand what they can and can’t control, the power to accept that which they can’t control, and the courage to change that which they can.


With magical thinking, we believe that our actions, if only perfect enough, can control that which is outside our control: someone’s response or behaviors. Magical thinking, also referred to as codependency, leads to personal pain and dysfunctional relationships. Learning to distinguish what is within our control, and what is not, is extremely important work. It is the cornerstone of many addiction support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and has guided countless people in their sobriety journeys. Buddhism states that our suffering is caused not by events outside our control, but by our response to those events, particularly our ruminations about those events. Cognitive behavior therapy utilizes mindfulness to help people recognize and challenge their cognitive distortions, and learn to control what they can control: their thoughts that perpetuate or escalate emotional responses to events outside their control.


It is hard to figure out what is and is not within our control. This may be because control is not a binary—it is not ‘all or nothing.’ According to philosopher William Irvine, there are three levels of control:

1) That which we have no control over

2) That which we have influence over—we have some control, but not complete control

3) That which we have total control over

We have no control over tomorrow’s weather (#1). But, as climate change research is making starkly evident, human activity has influenced weather patterns (#2). And, assuming an available umbrella, we have total control over if we take said umbrella with us when we go out (#3).


It turns out that most of the really important stuff falls into #2: things we have some, but not total, control over. Relationships reside in #2. Our behaviors influence other people’s behaviors—but, we do not have total control over their behaviors. If I smile at someone, I am more likely to be smiled at in response, than if I stick my tongue out at them or flip them the bird. We learn that smiling will earn social reinforcement—and, I am highly motivated to receive interpersonal signs of approval. Most of us can never get too much approval and kindness.


However, we have all experienced a time when we were friendly to someone, and they responded with indifference or a rebuke. How we interpret their negative response is a #3: totally within our control. We can’t (directly) control our emotional response—those are based on our implicit memories (see post from July 14th, 2022)—but how we respond to our emotions is on us. On my best days, I might think, “They must be having a really bad day. I hope they are okay.” On an average day, I am prone to think, “They seem grouchy.” And, if I am already feeling vulnerable and insecure, I may jump to my implicit fears and think, “They don’t like me. There must be something wrong with me.”


It’s valuable to recognize that much of what matters to us resides in #2, things over which we have influence, but not total control. It explains why we fall prey to magical thinking—blaming ourselves for things that we can’t control. Feeling responsible for negative events over which we only have partial control causes a lot of our suffering—and distracts us from maximizing the control we do have. It often feels safer to blame ourselves than acknowledge that we are helpless to realize the outcomes we desperately want—that we may believe (sometimes rightfully) our lives depend upon. This cognitive fallacy originates in childhood, and it is a sign of maturation to understand that we have limited control. However, the chaos of many people’s families of origin, and the rapidly changing societies in which we all engage, make us feel so out of control that we cling to magical thinking, even as it literally poisons us. Sometimes termed compulsively responsible, assuming responsibility for what we can’t control leads to chronic stress, which increases the probability of cancer, heart disease, and drug abuse, to name a few of the impacts.


And, so, paradoxically, the key to enhancing our agency and to having the most possible influence in our relationships, lies in focusing on #3: those things that are completely within our control. To help ourselves stay focused on what is within our control, it is often useful to assume that #2’s are actually #1’s—to assume that we have no control over others, even if in actuality we have partial control. Although I have some impact on my beloved’s foul humor, it will be detrimental to focus primarily on them and their mood. If I do, I will devolve into magical thoughts such as, “How do I make this go away? How do I get them to be happy?” Instead, if I acknowledge, “Okay, they’re grumpy and that’s a trigger for me to spiral into my insecurities. What do I want to do to take care of myself?”, I can maintain my equilibrium regardless of how long it takes them to get out of their funk. And, because I am not also in a negative humor, I might put my energy into cooking a nice dinner instead ruminating on all the times l have been treated suboptimally.


Ultimately, when I focus lovingly on myself, compassionately embracing my feelings and thoughts, I can bring my best self to more interactions. And, when I get a scowl in return for a smile, I will be able to attribute it as indicative of their mood, rather than anything about me. Writing about mindful self-compassion, psychologist Kristen Neff states, “Hidden within every moment of anguish lies the potential for contentment.”


It is through practicing self-compassion for myself that I will develop, ultimately, the resources to feel compassion for other people—allowing me to wield the influence I do have in relationships, while accepting that I have only partial control. Acknowledging the limits of our control, while compassionately accepting our magical thinking, provides us with the opportunity to maximize our joy and reduce our stress. Ultimately, this gives me the capacity to feel compassion for—and then act compassionately towards—the scowler. Feeling greater joy in my life and being kinder to others—now, that is true magic!

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