The Paradox of Control

Recently I spoke to someone who was having a rough time with a new job and feeling as though they aren’t successful to the level they believe they should be. A mix between stress of the new job, not feeling as though they are being paid and acknowledged for the work has them in a bad place mentally, especially with the pressure of feeling like they should be more successful for their age. These days more and more people are just not satisfied with something about their life and don’t know how to escape that feeling. What if it’s all based on the amount we feel in control of our life? How much do we really control and why don’t affirmations help?

Controlling Life

Biology and all physical things tend to work in a similar way, there’s an “algorithm” to the design. For instance “Hydrogen bonds” happen to be an important naturally occurring construct that makes water and life that much easier to come by in the world. In physics, we have concepts like gravity and friction all relatively predictable and naturally occurring constructs that again allow for things to exist in the way we currently understand them. These naturally occurring constructs dictate life, so having “control” is a relative term that takes a little more thought.

If I were to ask, do you control the basketball bouncing up and down, we’d say “Sure”. But we don’t control the underlying forces at work to allow the basketball bounce, we instead choose to interact with the ball and the environment. We then make predictions of what we think the ball and the forces around it will do in return. We claim control when we can accurately predict our ability to influence the ball in a way that we desire.

Yet, interacting with a ball is no different than interacting with anything or anyone. If I ask someone to pass me the ball and they do, am I “controlling them” because I accurately predicted the outcome and got them to do what I want? The more successful predictions of influence we have, the more in “control” we may feel, but it’s nevertheless of an illusion of control.

Controlling Ourselves

When it comes to our own thoughts and choices, we often assume that we have full control. However, the same way the basketball is governed by forces, so is our thoughts. We don’t choose to be hungry, we don’t choose whether we get cancer or not, we don’t choose the vast amount of characteristics established before we were born. Why do we react as babies to loud noise? Why can we recognize colors, shapes and objects at all? There are a large amount of predisposing conditions that we operate on top of, all doing the real controlling.

If we look at a construct such as addiction, we can see how it feeds into our day to day life as well. If we happen to be addicted to say buttered croissants, then everything in our bones will tell us we need those croissants. If we drive by a bakery, or a restaurant that sells them, if we walk by them in the grocery store, if we normally hang with a certain friend when we eat them, all these situations will remind us how much we need those croissants. Addiction is a perfect example of how fickle our control is over ourselves, when we cannot fight urges without significant thought, effort and possible physiological side effects.

Every choice we make is backed by our predisposing physiology, our subjective experiences and the environment around us. So many factors that all interact the same way a basketball interacts with the floor. It’s no wonder we feel out of control sometimes, as if we’re just along for the ride.

Easy Way Out

However, if we go too far down the “we don’t really control anything” path, we have to realize that that doesn’t alleviate us from being accountable for everything we’re involved in. So before we give up fighting the urge or giving up on controlling situations, let’s go back to our basketball as an example. The reason we feel we can control the ball is because we can both predict and influence the outcome to our liking. When it comes to being in control of ourselves, we have to first feel as though we can predict the outcome of our choices and second feel as though we have enough influence over the outcome to get what we want.

Our definition highlights a peculiar situation however. Predicting outcomes is ultimately a guess, an estimation with a likelihood or probability of manifesting. The better we are at predicting outcomes, the better we’ll be able to also influence the outcome. If we continuously predict that the ball will bounce a lot higher than it actually does, we would limit our ability to influence the outcome (we wouldn’t dribble well). So to account for our errors or mistakes in predictions, we’d try to bounce the ball, get feedback, try again, get feedback, over and over again we’ll try until we can make accurate predictions.

Yet on the other hand, we could keep our predictions simple and just assume that we won’t have much of an ability to do anything about it. We’ll be right and we’ll stay unable to influence the ball. With one single thought, our ability to influence the ball plummets since we’re not dedicating any though towards trying to determine exactly how much we can or can’t do.

Self Fulfilling Prophecies and Affirmations

As the cliche goes, if we don’t think we can, we can’t. It’s not because we need to believe “we’re smart”, or [enter random positive affirmation]. The reason is because we are making a prediction that sets the stage for how we interact. We have to make a prediction to interact and we have to interact to change our prediction. If we believe that we’re stupid that’s the equivalent of believing we can’t bounce the basketball. Until we actually interact, we’ll be right and be stupid or unable to bounce the basketball.

However, the reason positive affirmations sometimes suck is because concepts like the belief that we’re smart isn’t enough to fix anything. We also need to establish and predict useful desired outcomes or goals and then actually achieve them. If we think we’re smart, we need an associated goal and then we need to achieve that goal.

Bottom Line

The dynamic that we’ve been referring to with respect to prediction and ability to influence is likely what psychologists in some circles call “Self Efficacy”. When we have a strong self efficacy the balance between our predictions and what we establish as goals motivate us to continue forward and achieve.

Without the balance, confidence alone doesn’t necessarily work. We can be confident, but make horrible predictions. Affirmations can fail for the same reasons, we can tell ourselves we are great, we are smart, but if we aren’t actually smart and can’t achieve the outcomes we desire, we won’t be motivated to continue forward.

However, in reality to truly navigate life we need all the main “self” type traits in combination: Self Esteem (knowing our worth), Self Control (managing our thoughts and emotions), Self Awareness (understanding ourselves and our motivations), Self Reflection (introspecting) and as we’ve discussed Self Efficacy (achieving desired outcomes based on our predictions)

So let’s recap:

1. Confidence, affirmations, self esteem, etc all are great traits, but if we don’t feel as though we are in “control” of our lives, they will not be enough.

2. We don’t really have full control over anything in life, we influence it by making predictions about our desired outcomes.

3. To increase our control we need to constantly increase our ability to accurately make predictions for desired outcomes and subsequently achieve them.

The paradox of control is that to have control, we cannot be in control.



Latest posts