Total control of life is an illusion, but don’t panic!

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Everyone likes to think they control their own lives. That we’re not just tossed about at the whim of unknown forces. But do you really believe you’re in total control of your life? If you do, you believe in an illusion. The belief in total control is a mental trick you play on yourself to lower your anxiety. Otherwise you’d never walk out your front door for fear of the chaos outside.

The illusion of total control

The illusion of being in total control of life may comfort people who want to ensure bad things don’t happen.

However there’s a downside to this belief.

If you think you control everything, you’ll blame yourself if something goes wrong. You’re obviously at fault, because you didn’t predict and prevent the problem happening.

But this is like saying you should be all-seeing and all-powerful. In other words, that you should be like a god, able to control the fate of the world and everyone in it.

And you’re not. No-one is.

No-one has total control of life

It can be hard to accept that you’re not in total control of every aspect of your life.

We’re used to being told that you can decide what happens in your life. That you can create your future to be exactly the way you want it.

But stop and think for a moment.

In reality, how could you control every single thing that happens to you?

For starters, as a child, you couldn’t choose your parents, where you lived or went to school. You probably couldn’t choose what health care you were given, or even what food you ate.

But now you’re an adult, you may believe you can control what happens.

In fact, there are several types of things over which you have absolutely no control.

You can’t change certain aspects of your physical makeup, such as your height, eye colour, or DNA.

In the wider world, you’re helpless to change a lot of things. Take the worldwide economic situation. When it takes a nosedive, can you control the fallout? Could you stop the nosedive in the first place, even if you were a top notch economist?

What about natural catastrophes like earthquakes and tornadoes? Even if we counteract climate change, could you alone stop these disasters happening?

And how can you control the way that other people think or behave? Even if you resort to brainwashing people, some hardy souls will resist.

The best you can do to influence others is to steer them in a helpful direction. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll take your ideas on board. They have the final decision about what they think and do.

So it seems impossible to have total control over every aspect of life.

But does that mean you don’t have any real control over anything that happens?

The illusion of a total lack of control

Some people start to panic at this point. To them, the idea of having no control in many areas of life is a nightmare.

But now they’ve swung from one extreme to the other. They’ve gone from thinking they have total control, to assuming they have little or no control.

And as usual, such black and white thinking isn’t useful.

Neither position – believing in either total control or in a lack of total control – is really realistic.

Should you be worried?

So what would it mean to have a total lack of control over life? In other words, that life was completely random, and you’re at the mercy of fate.

If that were true, you wouldn’t be able to change anything in your life. You’d have to resign yourself to whatever happened.

You’d never be able to predict the future, even for the next five minutes. Random events would keep happening for no apparent reason. And you’d be in a constant state of anxiety, waiting to see what was going to happen next.

Events follow cause and effect

But obviously, life isn’t like that. Events generally follow some form of cause and effect.

That means if you trip down the stairs, you know that you’ll end up in a huddle on the floor. You won’t float off into the sky, or find yourself teaching a class at school.

So life isn’t completely random.

Look at what you can control

So it’s important to look at the middle position between no control and total control in life. You need to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. And during stressful times such as the COVID pandemic, it’s especially important to realise what level of control you have. 

Because in fact, you have partial control over many aspects of life.

You can also influence what happens in various situations to varying degrees. Of course, it’s easier to change some things than others.

But even given financial or other limits, you can still make a lot of choices about your lifestyle. As long as you stay within the law, you can choose your work, your partner, and where and how you live.

In fact, if you’re willing to take the consequences, you can live in whatever way you please. In reality though, if you cause hurt or damage, you’d still be subject to some control by others.

What can you control?

You can make reasonable guesses about what will happen in most aspects of life. And that helps you to make reasonable decisions about the future.

But there’s no guarantee that your predictions will come true. You can only make decisions based on what you know at the time. But you may not understand all the factors that are involved in any one situation. And only some of these may be in your control.

That means events often won’t work out the way you want. Someone else may get the job you wanted, your partner doesn’t want to move house, and you just can’t budge those COVID kilos.

Be aware of possible outcomes 

That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands in despair.

Obstacles will always plant themselves in your way. That’s life. It’s not as if there’s a plot aimed at thwarting you. You may have just overlooked some factors that were out of your control.

For example, in a job interview, you can control the way you present your abilities and experience. But you can’t control how many applicants there are, or whether the interviewers are in a good mood.

So it’s sensible to hope you’ll be hired, and also to be prepared for the fact that someone else may get the job.

In other words, be aware that there are several possible outcomes for any situation. And the fewer factors you control, the less likely it is that you’ll get exactly what you want.

Choose a growth mindset

But even if things don’t work out as you want, you can still choose to work around or learn from these setbacks.

Whether you do so or not depends on your mindset.

If you have a growth mindset, you believe you can bring about change in your life.

You believe you have some control over many aspects of your life. And you’ll be more willing to make sustained efforts to learn how to improve where you can. Therefore you’ll be more likely to move forward in a positive way from disappointments.

Fixed mindset

If you have a fixed mindset, you don’t believe you can bring about much change in your life. So you probably won’t.

You’ll remain stuck in the same situation, believing you can’t directly control much of what happens to you. You don’t believe you can learn new skills, or to think and act differently.

In other words, whether you have a growth or fixed mindset, it tends to act like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whatever you believe about yourself has a way of coming true. And what you believe about yourself is affected by how much control you think you have in life.

Be flexible and realistic

So don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have total control in life. Or that you’re completely to blame for everything that happens.

But as well, don’t swing to the opposite pole, and think you have very little control either.

You’re an ordinary mortal, who controls some aspects of many things, but not everything. Be flexible and realistic about what you can and can’t do.

Then do what works. Focus all your effort and determination on what you can do to improve your life.

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