Who controls what?

The behaviour associated with the human desire to control feature seems central to a number of human problems. The relationship between control and the human tendency to discount may be important to research. 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 great book on hypnosis entitled Trancework (well worth looking out). I heard him speak in London many moons ago and he went on record with the US National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) 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.”

So let me do my bit to personalize this view-point more as I can adapt it to the art of small, safe experimentation.  It’s a point I make in my own way 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 ourselves, and to discover what is do-able. It is more easy to feel deterred or defeated by small failures.

Control to combat negative bias

The negative bias that us humans tend to carry around can generate ‘small defeats’. Even so, the defeat 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 so control appears a useful and tempting 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.

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 the desire to change.  The immediacy of our distress can be lost, even if one was defined what the goal is in the first place.

Change the content. What allows somebody to go through the pain of a divorce? Now, even when somebody is crystal clear this relationship cannot continue, divorce is still painful. What allows someone to suffer the distress of the divorce is the deeply held belief that when it’s all over, they’ll be better off. And if you don’t have that belief, then it’s just pain.

Managing 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 he;p keep the decision-making up front – instead of the feelings of the moment. I think that’s a really important skillset to be able to develop.

Some leads to consider

The scenic route

Signposts on the scenic route

Controlling behaviour in the home



Reggie Perrin’s grandson

Kipling, and his poem, IF

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