The Common Illusion of Control

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
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The Common Illusion of Control

Debbie Featherstone |
Published by Debbie Featherstone in Discovering Series · Monday 09 Jul 2018
Tags: controlillusion
The Common Illusion of ‘Control’ Part 1                               Date: 9 July 2018
By Debbie Featherstone MSc

Every day, most of us live in or with the illusion that we need, must or have to be in control and only then can we let go and be free of whatever is disturbing/distressing us.

Control is commonly an illusion!

For the most part, when we think about having control, we are thinking about our experiences in everyday life. We want to have control over what happens us, and when we can’t control what happens to us, we imagine worst case scenarios of what will happen. We create a frightening future for ourselves based on the thoughts we have, that make us feel bad, thoughts become beliefs and we feel worse.

We have no control over what happens outside of us; what happens outside of us is what I call ‘external influencing stimuli’ and such stimuli are actions/behaviours or even experiences of others.

The more we condone this illusion by believing it, we live in that life and the more difficult we make life for ourselves. The longer we continue to live in this “fantasy” (that becomes more like a nightmare), the harder life will seem, and we become trapped in our own fantasy nightmare.

Is there anything about “control” that we do have control of?

Absolutely there is! We DO have control over our own reactions and behaviours to external influencing stimuli; but the waters become muddied and the more we experience lack of control, the more we believe we have no control and we don’t even consider there may be aspects of living our lives that we can have control over; rather, we’re overwhelmed by frustration, sometimes anger and often direct this at ourselves. This undermines us and causes us to feel inadequate at best.

What is “control” of external influencing stimuli (actions/behaviours of others)?

Question: What about when we are the “external influencing stimuli” to others or even toward ourselves through our self-talk and self-admonishment - do we have control then?

Answer: When they let us have control over them - yes! And we would be bullies. We bully ourselves with our self-talk that undermines and admonishes us too.

Bullies control others by hurting them or threatening to hurt them unless or until they comply to the bully’s will, meaning :

If you don’t do as I say, I’ll hurt you

Social and societal agreements

We are so used to being compliant within our society at many societal levels (within relationships, family, clubs we belong to, workplaces, communities in general, countries and cultures) compliance has become second nature to most of us living in a modern society. This is a factor why we so easily allow ourselves to become “the bullied” beyond normative societal levels.

We don’t consider compliance within our society to be bullying when
the actions being taken are part of social and other agreements

Examples of social and other agreements:

When we sign up to utility companies, to the local council, to mortgage companies
and banks; when we go shopping, when we put petrol in our cars; we expect
to pay for those services and goods we receive. It is simply how society works and
we are part of society.

What happens when we don’t pay our bills? When we go in to the supermarket,
collect our shopping and walk out without paying? What happens when we fill
our cars up with petrol and drive off without paying? Our actions have broken
society’s rules and we expect to be punished.

We become conditioned to society’s expectations, and if we don’t meet those expectations, we expect to be punished and we usually are. When we feel guilty about our actions against societal expectations, we suffer from feelings of guilt and shame. When we don’t, we are labelled “criminals” if what we did was illegal or maybe a bad debtor when we haven’t paid our bills. As a consequence, we can expect punishment dictated by society.

This is how order is achieved and maintained in society. It is how modern societies function - if they didn’t function this way, there would likely be anarchy.

We might complain - usually through appropriate (society-defined) complaint channels - but ultimately - as members of society – we have to accept the final decision of society’s decision makers.

But if we pay our bills on time, pay for our shopping at the supermarket checkout, pay for our petrol at the kiosk or pump, we feel in control. We are following the rules.

Feeling in control is not the same as being in control.
It depends on what we think, believe and feel we are in control of….

We are “in control” of our finances when we have the money in our account or wallet to pay for goods and services; however:
  • we are NOT in control of what they cost and
  • we do NOT have a choice of whether we pay for them without there being consequences. We will pay either by money or by being punished

Now down to business! The business of what we control and what we don’t!

Thoughts, emotions and behaviours

The “doing” of thoughts, emotions and behaviours are: thinking, feeling and taking action

Thinking something often enough or thinking about something that has powerful influence over us, often reinforced by “external influencing stimuli”, turns into belief.

We are now not feeling and acting due to a thought, but to a belief.

When we have a belief, it becomes “fact” to us and we impose cognitive bias on ourselves. We deride any alternative “fact” or alternative opinion; we treat these with contempt; we ignore or argue against it.

Some definitions of Cognitive Bias:

“A cognitive bias is a bad mental habit. It’s a way of thinking that might be very
common and, on its surface, might even appear rational – but in fact it gets in the
way of logical thinking.”

“Cognitive biases are errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions.”

“[Cognitive bias] exists when someone thinks in a way that can be regarded as
irrational or that goes against good judgement. Cognitive biases are usually a result of either mental shortcuts or heuristics (i.e. techniques that we use to help us make
decisions more quickly) or ‘motivational’ explanations. There are numerous examples
of cognitive bias which have been investigated by behavioural scientists.”

There are many more examples of defining cognitive bias, and many cognitive distortions we employ to feed our bias

Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something
that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce
negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational
and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.”

Back to believing we should be in control

Believing we have or – more to the point - should have control of ‘external influencing stimuli’, employs cognitive bias and cognitive distortions that support our bias, thus we convince ourselves that we are right (even when being right is to our cost, not to our benefit)

However, we simply do NOT have control over actions and behaviours of others

…………. unless we bully them in to submission of course! And most of us
don’t behave in that way fortunately for us and for society as a whole!

BUT, we DO have control over our own thinking, feeling and taking actions when we learn and then use the tools we have at our disposal.

Next time you find yourself thinking to yourself:
  • I don’t have control over this
  • This shouldn’t happen to me
  • I can’t cope with this
  • It’s not fair…..

In fact, when you find yourself thinking anything that makes you feel scared, worried, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed…. the list goes on…. check-in with yourself. Are you expecting the reasonable or the unreasonable? The rational or the irrational? Are you believing you are not in control when realistically, what you believe you should be controlling is an “external influencing stimulus”?


Debbie Featherstone MSc Hearing Therapy | Psychotherapy & CBT Specialist

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