Who controls what?

The behaviour associated with the common human desire to control seems central to a number of human problems.

Our search for meaning can add to those problems when we hold on to our ‘control’ strategies for dear life – to protect and sustain the meaning we make. The story I tell about the aliens responding to the arrival of Voyager – in a Star Trek episode – illustrates my point. They decided the flimsy satellite needed much protection if it was to stay in ‘control’ long enough to get back home! This action may well tell us more about that alien culture than the Voyager, itself.

The relationship between control and the human tendency to discount may be important to research. It is not easy to step back and accept that I need to explore something I do not know!

This topic can be considered alongside some of the obstacles that make small, safe experiments falter.

It is an issue highlighted by Kipling, in his poem, IF, as he raised questions about our ability to know the difference between do-able and less doable things.

Michael Yapko, an American researcher and practitioner, wrote a book on hypnosis entitled Trancework (well worth looking out). I heard him speak in London many moons ago and he went on record more recently, saying:

helping people tolerate distress [can] make a distinction between what’s controllable and what’s not. When people aren’t good at making that discrimination, they will attempt to control things they can’t. Or, vice versa – they don’t try and control things that they could. Again, this is one component of the decision-making process and one pathway into distress

Yapko, M through the US National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM)

So let me adapt his view-point to the art of small, safe experimentation.  It’s a point I make throughout this website.

It is easier to want to do it for other people, rather than myself. It is not so easy to design a small, safe experiment for myself, and to discover what is do-able BY ME.

It is more easy to feel deterred or defeated by small failures.

Control to combat negative bias

The negative bias that most humans carry around can generate ‘small defeats’. Even so, those defeats can offer some insight. There is most often something a little bit different that can be done next time if we have the confidence to seek it out.

So this page focuses on the disadvantages of:

* wanting to control all and everything,

* wanting to feel good all the time,

* to give meaning to all, and everything.

…. in order to identify some of the antidotes that exist to look our controlling tendencies in the eye.

Some practical responses

There can be distress as we live with change. Control may be a first line of defence.

One first experiment is to just notice that tendency, if it is around for you. Tolerating that daunting experience can be helped by Body Scanning. Using the Subject Unit of Discomfort ( the SUD measure) is likely to help us notice changes in the intensity of our feelings. One aim of therapy is to feel a reduction on the intensity and frequency of experiencing uncontrolled feelings.

Once the thoughts, feelings and sensations have been just noticed, it may be possible to start work on goal-setting. Our goals can go out of the window sharpish in the face of discomfort generated by any desire to change.  The immediacy and strength of our distress can be lost, even if one was defined what the goal is in the first place.

Is it possible to change the content of our goals? To do so may require us to:

Manage our compartmentalisation

Now, there’s another skill we use to tolerate distress: compartmentalization. The ability to compartmentalize, to separate out elements of our experiences enables me to set aside a trauma, hurts of the past and the consequences of past actions or decisions.

So again, if I’m going to focus you on the goal instead of the feelings, I’m going to remind you to find your goal and to shine a spotlight on the goal. With luck, this may see strong negative feelings diminish and recede into the background. That’s a better way to build tolerance of distress.

It’s an approach that uses your goal as the frame of reference. This may help keep the decision-making up front – instead of the feelings of the moment. Odd thing for a therapist to say!

I think that’s a really important skill-set to be able to develop.

Some other leads to consider

The scenic route

Signposts on the scenic route

Controlling behaviour in the home



Reggie Perrin’s grandson