The Illusion of Control

October 27, 2008 at 5:12 am 3 comments

The Illusion of Control – Lauren Kennedy

Control. We all want to be in control. Even those of us that are completely out of control, long to achieve it.

Control. Just the thought of it make us feel safer. We like the power and security that we feel when we have it.

We admire individuals who are stoic, in control of their emotions, their speech even and firm, their attitude resolute and definite. And we assume that the words they speak are wiser, their opinions more reliable, and their influence is more dependable.

Control. We want to control other people’s opinions, thoughts, beliefs and actions.
We equate control with self discipline, determination, effectiveness and character. We think it will give us power, respect and self confidence.

Control. From the moment we are born we are admonished to control our anger, control our thoughts, control our tongue, our feelings, our attention. We are judged by how well we control our kids, our composure, our life.

Control. We think it is the solution for our problems and the answer for uncertainty. So we try to control nature, other creatures, other people and other countries.

Control. We think that with enough force we can control the terrorist,  protect our borders from immigrants, eliminate drug addiction, change others’ beliefs, and make it to the top of the heap.

Control. We believe that through control, we can stave off aging, keep our children safe from emotional and physical pain, subdue mother nature, defend ourselves from the unexpected and ensure that our lives proceed according to our own script.

Control. We use our control in an effort to repress our feelings, silence our conscious and ignore that small voice within that could save us from ourselves.

We Love It

Humans have longed to be in control from the beginning.  We craved it. We weren’t satisfied with living care free in paradise. We wanted the  control, too.  So we par took of the forbidden fruit, (there were no apples in the middle east). From the first, we thought we could manage things better than God or the Universe. And we have tried to improve and tightened our methods of control ever since, with dismal results for the environment and our fellow creatures.

Since we first picked up a big stick and discovered we could intimidate, we have used force to control. Now, reacting to our own fear and outrage, we snatch people off the street and hold them without due process, have armed border patrol to keep out the scourge of foreigners, (forgetting that we all are foreigner except the Native Americans.

Control by Intimidation

We have nuclear weapons to intimidate other countries from aggressive action toward us . And they have nuclear weapons to protect themselves from us. We are developing biological weapons as are other countries.  The  viruses that we devoted years to successfully treat, cure and prevent with antibiotics and vaccines, we are now altering genetically to resist those same  vaccines and antibiotics.

These viruses and new ones that we are developing can be set loose on some countries’ citizens because the policies are impeding corporate profits or the current political ambitions.  Our own fears of vulnerability prompt us to react before considering the disastrous results of our actions or from pausing to consider other options. I guess one could argue that mass extermination of some offending country by biological agents is preferable to blowing up the planet.

Control to Avoid Fear and Insecurity

And since we haven’t yet discovered how to control time, we are at least controlling the effects of time on our bodies. We spend millions on resculpting our bodies. Liposuction, building muscles, hair growth, hair removal. We cut off fat, sagging skin and wrinkles. Then we add the appearance of additional flesh on our lips, chest and behinds. We go to great lengths and even greater expense to control our bodies appearance in order to control our image, which in turn controls others’ opinions and judgments.

We over protect our children, making them  ill prepared to cope with life on life’s terms. We do their school papers to ensure they are at the top of the class. We deny any issues or behavioral problems they may have to avoid others’ judging them or us. Or perhaps so we won’t judge them. We rescue them from the consequences of their actions to avoid pain, theirs and ours.

Then we manipulate, shame, threaten, and exhort them to conform to the lifestyle, beliefs, companions and profession that we consider to be the best for them. Never mind what they want. Never taking a moment to reflect on our true motives for our self centered behavior. We want to avoid the pain of them failing or suffering, avoid the inconvenience of emotionally supporting them through the mistakes. More often, we are afraid of how their choices will reflect on us, or we want to live a unfulfilled dream vicariously through them.

Controlling Our Fears

And we control our feelings. We are afraid of being discounted if we are emotional, seen as weak if we admit to fear or insecurity, or considered dangerous and unpredictable if we say we are angry. We don’t seem to realize that feelings don’t control our behavior. Denying or discounting our feelings, plus our assumptions, attitude and perceptions, influence our actions much more intensely.

We have convinced ourselves that control is the answer. And if it doesn’t work, it just means we must find better and more ways to control’

Wrong Answer

But we have been misinformed.  Or perhaps we have just chosen to bury our heads in the sand.

Control isn’t about self discipline, self respect, or determination. It doesn’t solve our problems or neutralize nature. It doesn’t keep us safe or make our lives better. It doesn’t help or protect others or ourselves. Control does not eliminate our feelings but increases their negative affect on our behavior. It doesn’t give us the peace of mind or security that we seek. And it is an illusion that we choose to believe so we can claim surprise, martyrdom, and righteous suffering when things fall down on us.

Control is the result of fear and arrogance.

Arrogance — Our right to dominate, eliminate or abuse any person, creature or the earth without guilt or consequence

Fear – Afraid of not getting what we want, keeping what we have. Afraid of how we will be regarded, afraid of being misused, afraid of loosing control, afraid of failing or succeeding, afraid we can’t cope, afraid of our feelings, afraid of living.

To be clear, control is using any methods that are aggressive, manipulative, dishonest, misleading, intimidating, exhorting, belittling, disrespectful, arrogant and dominating.

Control may bring a temporary illusion of power, as long as we can maintain the status quo. But we will be constantly scrambling to ensure that nothing changes. We will have to be alert to any possible threat to our control: unplanned changes, persons with ideas different from ours, new discoveries that may compromise our power or any other unforeseen situation.

Choose Empowerment not Control

But everything changes. True power is the result of personal empowerment, efficacy, integrity, and acceptance, which has nothing to do with control.

Does control engender respect? No, only fear, outward obedience, and eventually retaliation. We may grab a few thing that we want by control. But we will inevitably want more. So our area of control must increase more and more. Plus we must maintain our control of the things we grabbed up in the first place. No wonder we are stressed.

We Control because We are Afraid

The idea that by controlling our feelings and our surroundings, we can avoid is pain is the biggest lie of all. Bottom line, we control because we are afraid.

Control never resolves the source of our fears. Instead it tries to eliminate them. But our fears reside inside us. When we use control to get what we want, the resistance, equal and opposite in  force will end up controlling us.   And the greater the  suppression or control, the bigger the eminent eruption.

Controlling or resisting our feelings doesn’t make them go away. Neither is it helpful to allow our feelings to control us. But if we try to control, resist, deny, or repress our feelings, they will end up controlling our attitude and behavior. When we manage and explore our emotions, we will then be less likely to react and better able to choose our responses and behaviors. We will be aware of our true motives and intentions.  And we experience more peace of mind.

Control is restrictive, limiting and potentially destructive. It enslaves rather than empowers. It is an unending scramble to control the ever changing flow of life and bend it to our will.

Control is Reactive, Not Proactive

Control demonstrates a lack of imagination, cooperation and self-trust. Control arises from the need to be right, to have things one’s own way and to have power and influence over others. But control is restrictive, limiting and potentially destructive. It enslaves rather than empowers.

Instead of controlling our environment or nature, we must learn to manage it. We may have to change the way we build, where we build, how we get energy, how we manage surplus and lack. We may have to change our mindset to support a better for all approach rather than more and more and more for a few.

We may have to accept that life is about change and growth. It is about our own growth through meeting the unexpected challenges with grace and cooperation instead of fear and domination.

We may have learn to respect and honor character and integrity  rather than image and power.

We may, as the most evolved species, have to take up our responsibility as guardian of the earth and all its creatures, instead of viewing our dominance as  permission to take what we want, destroy what is in our way, ignore the suffering and needs of lower life forms, and dismiss the less powerful populace as insignificant.

We say we value freedom. But control and freedom are mutually exclusive.

For everything that we try to control, there is a more creative and effective method for approaching and resolving the issue.

But so often we choose control instead.

Even the animals learn that control doesn’t work.

Have you ever tried swimming after a ball in the ocean. The harder you swim the faster it floats away. Even the shark swimming to catch a bird floating on the surf realizes that swimming faster doesn’t work and learns to come up from underneath for the catch instead.

We all want to experience freedom, happiness and a sense of belonging and importance. And to a large extent, we have the innate ability to create a life that fulfills those desires.

Can we do it?

The real question is do we want to. We have proven time and again that we can do whatever we set our minds to do. So if we do not, it can only be because we do not care enough to change.

Life is about growth and change. Control allows for neither. Things that do not change, eventually die out. Control is a losing game.

But we can learn to manage the resources of the earth, and manage how and where we live on the earth. We can manage the crops in resourceful ways and irradiate hunger. We can manage our wildlife that is our heritage and our future, giving it the dignity, respect and freedom it deserves.

Acknowledge Our Responsibility

We must embrace our role as protector of the earth and its species. We possess tools more powerful and effective than control: intelligence, imagination passion, empowerment, courage and on good days compassion. With them we can accomplish true growth, better technologies and have the life we desire while still respecting the rights of the earth, its creatures and our fellow humans.

Are We Insane?

We have tried using control for thousands of years. It hasn’t been satisfactory for those being controlled: the earth, its creatures or other humans. And by most measures it has succeeded in resulting in happier, less fearful, more compassionate, wiser, or more enlightened controllers. Can we really expect that doing the same thing will produce different results? That is the definition of insanity.

We consider ourselves the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Will we continue to avoid our responsibilities, blinded by our insanity? We do so at our own peril.

We can choose our future course. We can learn to manage instead of control, to have respect and tolerance rather than to dominant. We can realize that fulfillment and satisfaction is the result of experiencing life rather than controlling it.

Only then will we truly have personal power and experience true freedom.

The choice is ours.

Entry filed under: Mind Over Matter. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. obnocto  |  December 7, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Hi Lauren,
    I’m researching the psychological effects of having personal power right now and have recently completed a thorough review of the scientific literature and I can say that what those effects are is an open question at this point. Also, while the effects of power over others is mostly negative, they are not all negative–for the person with the power, at least. You might be interested in a couple of journal articles: Van Dijke and Poppe’s 2006 “Striving for personal power as a basis for social power dynamics,” and Keltner and colleagues 2003 review article, “Power, approach, and inhibition.”

    • 2. laurenpkennedy  |  December 7, 2008 at 9:49 pm

      Hi Obnocto,
      Thanks for your comment and the reading suggestions. I will certainly check them out.

      I am certainly a supporter of personal empowerment. But that is not the same as control. Empowerment requires self efficacy, self trust, integrity, honest intentions, courage of ones convictions and leadership rather than control.

      Power at the expense or detriment of another is not personal power, it is power over, force or control. Control tries to manipulate the outcomes to their benefit, and rationalizes any unscrupulous actions they deemed necessary to achieve the result they desired.

      Personal Power will make choices based on their values, priorities, information, and benefit for all and then allow the outcome to unfold. And then make choices on the new situation.

      Control isn’t dependent on personal power. Fear produces the need to control, and often dis empowerment does the same.

      Everyone needs to develop a sense of personal empowerment. True personal power allows one to manage rather than control, cooperate rather than defeat, use creative solutions rather than force and manipulation, because they do not need to dominate to have a sense of importance, nor do they fear that they can not cope if the outcome isn’t what they want.

      Control and power can often appear similar. But it is the intention and integrity of the individual that will point to the differences.

      However, I look forward to reading the books you mentioned. I have often modified, revised, changed or validate my views because of reading something new.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.


  • 3. obnocto  |  December 8, 2008 at 1:02 am

    Hi Lauren,
    Just so you don’t go looking in bookstores for them, the readings I recommended are journal articles, not books. I can’t remember which journals off the top of my head, but they are social psychology journals. You should be able to find versions of them on google scholar. If not, let me know and I’ll email you copies.



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