How much control do we have over our lives? It’s somewhat of a million dollar question, isn’t it? Some people claim that it is all written in the stars and that everything turns out as it is meant to be. Others proclaim that it’s all in our minds, or that it is all good. Everyone has their own take on the subject. Today I want to talk about control because our attitude towards it has an impact on our emotional wellbeing.
The term adaptive functioning stands for our ability to handle the demands of life; how well we adjust to situations. Perceived control describes the level of influence we consider ourselves to have in manipulating or directing outcomes. According to Suzanne Thompson, adaptive functioning is an important aspect of positive psychology, because it allows us to “maintain emotional wellbeing despite setbacks, major trauma, and the ups and downs of ordinary life”.1 Perceived control, Thompson points out, is of consequence because it allows individuals to find a meaningful existence despite being in a difficult situation. Perceived control affects our ability to cope. It can have an astonishing impact on our capacity to maintain a sense of control, even when, objectively viewed, our circumstances seem to leave us with limited options.2
Right now my life has somewhat spiralled out of control. As I was moaning to my daughter this morning, I currently have no home, no money and no boyfriend. Of late I have had to make some big decisions, and one is yet to work out in my favour. It is a strange feeling, this admission that I can do no more toward achieving my desired outcomes than to hope and pray. I have always upheld hoping and praying as genuinely powerful tools for making positive progress in life. Now I am learning to live almost exclusively by them.
Thompson writes that the desire to have control over our lives is a basic human motivation, which guides many of our social behaviours, emotions, motives and perceptions. Having a sense of control helps us to gather whatever we need to survive and prosper, to look for solutions, take action, persist and avoid other stressful situations. Plus we have a decided preference for feeling in control.3
And yet we over-estimate the control we have. Most of us, and most of the time. Thompson notes that personal control is all about our perception of how we can act in our environment to achieve the outcomes we desire. We judge this ability according to intention and connection: If we can connect our actions to an intended outcome we will have a strong sense of control. Because there is a lot of leeway in the relative possibility that due to our input an event will occur, it is very easy to overestimate our level of control. Thompson points out that our habitual ways of relating to our mental processes of perception, judgment and reasoning commonly bias us toward overestimating the control we actually do have.4
In Blog Post 35 I wrote that a good dose of realism supports resilience. It is important that when we are suffering from an adverse event, we maintain a clear perception of what can be controlled, expected and achieved in order to maintain our self-confidence and our sense of self-worth.5 It’s quite interesting to put the two findings on control together, however: Do we need to be realistic when suffering from misfortunes because we could (falsely) perceive to have caused them? And when good things happen, do we wrongly take credit for these outcomes, yet these wrong claims are beneficial for our psychological wellbeing? Is overestimating our level of control in good times helpful for us? Yet in bad times do we need to become more realistic in terms of what can be achieved and aim to nurture our sense of control? It seems so! Maybe this is more of a million dollar puzzle than a million dollar question.
Thompson establishes three ways in which people enhance their sense of control. They do this by putting emphasis on their intentions and connecting outcomes. (Bear with me, I will explain what this means.) The first approach people use to nurture or regain their perceived control is to make progress toward goals. Importantly, if they cannot work toward their regular goals because these are no longer attainable, they will find new, alternate goals to pursue which they can achieve. This flexibility in terms of goals is very helpful when our circumstances change beyond our control. It allows us to replace a now nonfeasible goal with a new goal that can bring us a sense of progress and satisfaction.6 For example, if we suddenly found ourselves in a wheelchair, the planned marathon would no longer be realistic, but playing wheelchair basketball might be.
Another way to regain control is to identify and cultivate the areas in our lives where personal control is available.7 And there is plenty in my little life where I can take action and get desired results: I can still write this blog; hang out with my friends and have fun; appreciate my comforts and feel grateful; and exercise and meditate so that I stay hopeful and positive.
The third way to maintain a sense of control is to practice acceptance. Remember that this a strategy of secondary control, i.e. an approach which has to do with the way we relate, perceive and judge the events in our lives. According to Thompson, acceptance can be practiced in a variety of ways, including actively looking for meaning and benefits in one’s situation. This, Thompson writes, “increases a sense of control because it helps people feel less like helpless victims and reduces the discrepancy between desired and achieved outcomes”.8 By deciding to accept our circumstances, unsolvable problems and challenges, we regain control because we decide to stand above them.
I know that I have not answered the million dollar question. But I do hope that you, like me, will take a setback as an opportunity to reconsider the assumptions we have made about life. That you, like me, will see undesired circumstances as a prompt to grow stronger and more humble; and to more keenly look out for opportunities in which we can work toward positive outcomes. Let us aim to accept life as it presents itself, yet never give up trying to live it as best as we can. Life might be unfathomable, random or unpredictable, but let this not discourage us from exercising the control we do have.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016