'Mission Control...' - Looking At What We Can And Cannot Control.

As one of the more common themes I see coming up in sessions revolves around the concept of control, I thought it would be good to address this in the blog. Our perceptions of control (or lack of) can lead to anxious and depressive symptoms if they are misinformed, or we believe we should be able to control events that are simply impossible to control. It is important to be mindful of the fact that there are many things that we simply cannot control, and this isn’t totally a bad thing.

If we think about some basic scenarios such as submitting an important project/assessment, preparing to tell someone something they may not want to hear, or being stuck in a traffic jam late for work, I’m sure we have all felt the sense of anxiety, frustration or fear attached to at least one of these at some stage. We can prepare ourselves as thoroughly as possible, yet the moment we hand the project in, begin the conversation, or realise we are not going to make work on time, our feelings can turn anxious very quickly. This can be exacerbated or appear earlier especially if the situation is deemed more important than usual. But generally, we will feel a little less anxious in preparation as this is the period in which we have most control.

But when our preparation time is over due to deadlines or time, we start to relinquish that control and it can become a source of great distress. We are now unable to control the marks we get, how someone will react to what we say or the consequences we may face for missing that important meeting. We can enter a state of anxiety caused by rumination simply trying to think of every possible outcome and how we may be able to respond to it that helps us save face.

If we think about this, our distress is caused by our attempts to control future events, events that we could not possibly predict due to the many billions of possible events that could happen in-between that we could not possibly know. We are also trying to predict the mood states and the environment of others that may be involved as well as have an in-depth knowledge of their inner-selves and how they perceive things under different moods and environments.

Thinking like this, we really do expect ourselves to know a fair bit of intimate, trivial and subjective information, right? We also expect to know this information about everyone and everything without ever having learned it.

Acknowledgement of this is one way to alleviate the anxiety that can build-up, anxiety that we do not really need in our lives. We can’t possibly know this information so any future scenario we think of or try to control the outcome of is merely guesswork. So the chances of something extremely positive happening are the same as any negative scenario we may ruminate on.

Artists especially can experience this as the value or validation of what they produce is generally provided by external sources, such as fans, judging panels etc. The artist is in control whilst the artwork is being created, but on release to the world, they know they cannot control how the work is perceived. This is one subconscious factor that can lead to blocks or procrastination as the delay this causes can help the artist keep control of the project for longer and hence, keep the anxiety of release at bay for longer. This can obviously become more distressful to the artist as anxiety may then build due to the procrastination and not being productive. Now, negative feelings become a part of not just the release, but the process.

Our want to control future events can also lead to us experiencing ‘stuck-points’. We may reach a point in our lives where we are stuck between a few paths or feel we cannot see a path. Yet we understand that a choice needs to be made and for some, that choice and action may be an easy process but for others, it may not be so clear.

A ‘stuck-point’ can occur when we overthink and ruminate on our options, the possible outcomes and what they may mean to our future. We hope that by running this through our heads, things may become clearer to us and lead to the exact information we need to make the right decision for ourselves. But this can very often have the opposite effect as we get stuck in thinking about the possible scenarios and outcomes, and not the actual solution.

Again, the element that is generally missing that we keep trying to unearth through this thinking is ‘How do I control the future?’ We can think of all the elements and scenarios, yet we are unable to determine if this is the right decision as we cannot control the outcome. This thinking can become circular and to protect ourselves from anxiety, it becomes a subconscious way we avoid actually making a decision that can help us move forward.

To help avoid falling into this thinking, it is crucial to remember that there are things we simply cannot control. These include – the past, situations based on random events/chance (lotto numbers, weather), and other people’s actions/reactions to name a few. We may have some influence on our future through career planning or goal setting. But the results can vary due to the us relying on many future elements and events also falling into place, many of which we cannot control.

As mentioned earlier, this may not be a totally bad thing as it highlights that our energy, effort and time is best spent on the things we can control in the present, which lightens our burden immensely. We can control our preparation to help put us in a position to achieve the best outcomes, we can control our actions and reactions to events, we can control the choices we make, and we can control the attitude with which we approach our lives.

The key is to remind yourself in situations that you simply cannot control that if you think something dreadfully bad may happen, that there is also an equal chance that something exceptionally good may be the result. We don’t know. But our past experience will generally tell us that the majority of minor worries turn out better than we expect or have no significant impact on us.

Take care


If you feel you may be experiencing a stuck-point or are in need of extra support, appointments at AHRLEE Counselling can be made by calling 0481 291 132

Note: The writer acknowledges that all blog content may not and is not intended to suit every person in every situation.

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