The Control Illusion
Are You Certain?
What Is The Point?
“I am sad, this is normal, I am human.”
These are my thoughts when I catch myself slumping into a bad mood.
The struggle is a natural part of life.
Material loss, loss of identity, or even the loss of a loved one may instigate these adverse feelings.
Or possibly you find yourself feeling down for no particular reason at all.
Life spirals out of your control, and a sense of hopelessness kicks in.
I might mope around, thinking, "why me, why does it always happen to me?".
Emotions of sadness, anxiety and possibly depression start to bubble up from the deep dark crevices of our minds.
Everything seems uncertain.
It is then that one might ask, "what is the point?"
A Human Dilemma
Humans have a need for certainty and control.
Some more than others.
For me, I hate being the passenger. Even when my wife and I went on a tandem bicycle, I could not sit on the back seat, without steering the bike.
I tried mind over matter, but when I wasn't in control, I could not focus and let's just say it didn't end well.
Our need for a sense of control is almost laughable if you think about it.
For one, absolute certainty is ultimately an illusion.
The number of variables contained within any choice or situation can guarantee only a probable outcome and nothing is certain.
So much is unknown, and even the things we know are unknown because they are not well organised and centralised.
On top of our personal instability, our universe is so fragile that any disaster could wipe us out before knowing what hit us.
Tomorrow is not promised, and there are six million reasons why we may not wake up tomorrow.
Your Perception is Your Reality
I know this is all sounding dark, but where there is darkness, there is light.
The paradox is that even though there are an infinite amount of outcomes, you get to choose your area of focus.
We could spend all our time worrying about a volcanic eruption, or we could go out and appreciate the mountain ranges that resulted from the catastrophes.
Have you ever looked at someone and thought, I wonder what life would look like from their perspective?
The way they think will physically change them and alter the decisions they make.
People wear many of their life choices and this gives us a glimpse of the power of perception. They may see the world very differently and that’s one of the reasons that they dress, act, and talk differently to you.
Taking Control - Action or Reaction
The feeling of meaninglessness is exasperated when we feel uncertain, or we lack control.
When you identify that you are feeling this way, change your narrative by taking one of these two options:
Action - Focus on an area of control that you can affect the outcome and then take action.
Reaction - Create a sense of control by changing your perspective.
If we cannot change the input by taking action, we can change our perception to alter our reaction.
Your perception is the meaning that you prescribe to an event. This can restore your sanity if you are able to change the story you tell yourself.
The Circle of Control
The Journal of Family Psychology published a study that measured perceived control and its effect on the mental health of new parents.
They suggested that "individuals' sense of control was a significant predictor of mental health outcomes for mothers and fathers during the first year of parenthood."
The "results demonstrated that a sense of control served a protective function for mental health outcomes."
This suggests that a clear perception of control, even if it is imaginary, will benefit your mental health.
A commonly recognised conceptual model based on this thinking, titled "the circle of control," recognises the importance of a sense of control.
Popularised by Stephen Covey, this concept explores three spheres:
Circle of Concern – the wide range of worries we might have about a topic.
Circle of Influence – narrowing the first circle into those worries we can do something about directly or indirectly.
Circle of Control – an even smaller circle represents the things we can directly do something about.
Human beings can choose where they focus their energy and attention.
If we focus on the concerns outside our influence and control, we risk increasing our stress and falling into the space of accusing, blaming, and victimisation.
How To Regain Control
We spend so much time dedicating focus to things we cannot influence.
What if we could shift our thinking to manufacture a sense of control?
We can all improve our sense of control, and here are some practical tips to achieve it:
Fewer rules are better.
I will never forget what one of my primary school teachers told me during our first lessons. She said, "many teachers have lots of rules", and she was right. Most of us expected her to go into a lengthy conversation about what we should do. On the contrary, she said, "well, I have one rule, and that is Respect" she wrote the word "Respect" on the whiteboard that is now permanently etched into my mind. The rule was practical and clearly encompassed many elements. Having fewer rules is effective because it will simplify your expectations.
Focus on Inputs rather than outputs.
In a work environment, it's easy to identify jobs where inputs=outputs. The trade is usually, hours worked = wage. However, in some jobs like a sales role, the output is not necessarily correlated to the input. You can work extremely hard and still get poor results because the final outcome is not within your control. If we spend too much time thinking about our expectations (output), we feel a lack of control. However, our actions (inputs) are something that we can control, like creating great content or choosing to focus on elements within our control.
Define your ideal outcomes to develop your absolute personal certainty.
It is powerful to establish a vision for our outcomes and results. But we have to let go of controlling exactly how that looks because life has a roundabout way of giving us what we desire. Knowing your outcome with certainty will help to steer you in the right direction. Use your vision as a guide for your decisions, helping you stay flexible and focus your energy.
Control Your Self.
If you don't take control, you will end up a slave to the agenda of others.
Whenever you feel lost, and life seems against you, utilise your sense of control as a tool.
You can change your action, or you can change your reaction.
That might mean making a difficult choice, and if you can't change it, you can change your perception.
In reality, our world is full of uncertainty, so it's up to you to decide what you will focus on and where you will dedicate your energy.
Train your mind to create a sense of certainty to target your ideal outcomes. Then proactively focus on the inputs that will guide you with confidence.
Will you spend more time within your circle of control, or will you let other people’s reactions control you?
Next time you feel a sense of meaninglessness, and your life purpose seems to be waining, remember, in the words of Audre Lorde, "If you can't change reality, change your perceptions of it.