Control freak or just human? Covid, chaos and our need for control

The need to be in control is one of our most basic human instincts. From our instinctive reflex to grab on if we feel we’re falling to the need to influence the world around us, we have a drive for control - and a discomfort with situations or environments where our control is limited or reduced. Control helps us to feel safe, reducing the risk of pain or negative outcomes for us and those we love. It may influence our significance where we see we can have influence over our surroundings or decisions. And it increases feelings of efficacy or achievement, where we know we’ve done something that has produced a certain outcome. 

Control is also a huge factor in wellbeing. Feeling out of control, or like there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances or situation, is directly linked with the combination of feelings and experiences we collectively call ‘despair’, and a powerful trigger for mental health challenge, low mood, depression and even the overwhelming feelings associated with suicidal thoughts. 

The Bible offers an interesting perspective on our need for control. Right back at the very start of Genesis, we read that before creation the world was without form, a swirling mass of chaos that amounted to nothing. Into this God speaks and brings order, creativity and beauty. He separates meaningful absolutes from the messy swirl of pre-creation: light and dark, land and sea - and as a result, life becomes possible: plants, trees, fish, birds and animals. And God creates human beings - and almost straight away issues a clear instruction to them: their role is to rule over this beautiful creation: to ‘subdue’ (as many translations put it) it - to keep this balance of order over chaos, creative beauty over mess.  And so an instinct for control is God given, to all of us as humans. We’re all designed as control freaks - though how strongly that expressed certainly varies from one person to the next! It is what we were made to do: to bring influence and have agency. No wonder we find it so hard when it feels like that is lost, and we see chaos bubbling back up - whether that’s in our sock drawer or in wider world issues!

To a large extent though, control is an illusion: we live as though we can control the things that really matter, and keep ourselves and those we love safe. But this last year has stolen our control away in so many of those areas so we have not always been able to even decide when we leave the house, where we can and can’t go, whether or not we want to send our kids to school. And whilst pandemic has produced some unusual examples of things outside of our control, the reality is that a lot of significant things are much less under out control than we would like. Our health, jobs, financial stability: many of the things that matter most to us are actually significantly  influenced by outside events.  

So how DO we manage when things are going on that are outside of our control? 

1 - Accept and manage negative emotions

First and foremost what you’re likely to face is an emotional challenge. Emotions are your brain’s way of making sure you pay attention to something which might be significant - and areas you are not in control are likely to generate feelings like anxiety (what is going to happen? What if it’s bad?), frustration (I can’t BELIEVE this is happening! It’s not FAIR!) and the energy sapping loss of motivation and gloom that accompanies despair (what’s the point? Whatever I do things seem to go wrong.). 

Be wary of instincts to suppress or avoid facing those difficult emotions. Keeping busy or throwing yourself into what are called ‘displacement activities’ - things which help suppress or control negative emotions - might be a short term help, or even part of a mixed response approach to tricky times - but they are unlikely to be a positive long term solution, especially if they are the ONLY thing you know to do. In fact, such things can become part of very powerful but negative emotional patterns as we desperately try to manage our feelings whilst not resolving the underlying problem. Classic examples would be addictions - alcohol, drugs, nicotine - anything that lifts mood or feels like it helps deaden those emotions for a moment - or mental health conditions like eating disorders or self harm, temporarily or artificially increasing a sense of control or mastery over your own body to counteract feeling out of control elsewhere - or other behavioural patterns which can become problematic: workaholism or obsessive exercise as sources of escape or alternative areas you CAN control to balance the things you feel like you can’t.

How do we deal with emotions more positively? Largely it is about finding spaces and places you can process and face them - ideally though not exclusively not on your own. So whilst long walks, or journalling, or thinking things through alone might help, far more powerful are moments you can share: with others - think chatting it through with friends, allowing yourself a good howl with a best mate, sharing in a professional safe space with a therapist or counselling - or with God - prayer, the security and practical of liturgy or mindful moments of contemplation (check out our Peace Practices for some great examples of how to do this). 

2 - Challenge Helplessness

It’s uncomfortable but true: we can’t influence everything - but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. And what is called “learned helplessness” is a powerful influence in the more painful experience of feeling out of control - not just the experience of things as outside of your influence, but a more general sense of being forced into the role of being the victim ofnegative outside forces or consequences. 

What we need to recognise is that our degree of influence and control over our own situation is something we learn. As children, we have very little sense of control or confidence in our own ability - and quite naturally are largely dependent on others. However, as we grow up and develop more of a sense of our own identity we also learn how much we can do. We gradually start to realise we can take some control ourselves and solve some of our own dilemmas - from those little early wins like tying shoelaces or making our own breakfast to bigger things like solving disputes or arguments or working out the solution to a problem. 

For some however, earlier life experiences have not offered this learning opportunity and instead reinforced the sense of helplessness or victimhood. Past experiences of being genuinely helpless or powerless - in childhood for example, or in trauma or crime, may have led your mind to draw powerful and difficult conclusions about the limits of your ability to make things better for yourself - and those can persist way beyond the moment in your life where that was genuinely true, or be reawakened or triggered in the present, making it very hard to take positive actions or make good decisions to care for yourself or relieve difficult circumstances and reinforcing conditions like anxiety or depression.

All of this means that in difficult moments, sometimes we need to remind ourselves, or even start to teach our brains from scratch that we are not totally helpless. And this can take a most basic form, if life is really tough. Many people will have found during the various lockdowns, or when pandemic dealt a tough blow like a bereavement or job loss, that it became hard to take control of even the most simple things. Getting up, getting dressed, eating proper meals - all these things can be thrown when our sense of balance is challenged. Like an emotional vertigo, once the world starts spinning it can be hard to fix our eyes on something solid and get back into control. 

Think about easy wins - things you can do where you will get that sense of order, control and efficacy. It may be really low level: taking a proper shower, getting out of bed, making a cup of tea. Sometimes those first steps lift mood and then move you to a place you can contemplate something else. Level two is about something that influences your environment: can you tidy something or restore order somewhere? Sorting a cupboard or drawer, cleaning the fridge, fixing something that has been bugging you for ages, doing some weeding or ironing, arranging your books in colours or height order - all these things will help you feel less helpless. Or could you complete a craft or activity: needlework, knitting, building lego or working on a puzzle? 

Of course these things don’t change your wider situation. So in those moments you may find yourself thinking ‘what’s the point?’ Maybe you’re even thinking that now, as you read this! But the point is that if we an challenge that baseline sense of helplessness, we can lift mood and motivation and harness the power of the mind in a way that actually switches off some of the most powerful emotions associated with despair. Once you do that, your ability to think clearly and problem solve kicks back in - meaning you might be in a better place to make some good decisions. 

3 -Find areas you CAN influence

This is then perhaps the most difficult stage, depending on your situation. So life has dealt you rubbish - but what can you do about it? This isn’t always easy - and remember, steps 1 and 2 are really important first. We need to remember this, particularly when we’re the ones on the outside: parents, friends, colleagues or bosses to someone hitting a tough situation. It’s so easy to jump to 3 and start to suggest ‘solutions’. But remember - someone needs to feel HEARD first - and they may need to release some of what they are feeling and lift their mood a little before they can even think about positive steps to take. It’s ok to be human - especially when that means feeling thrown or shaken by what life is throwing at you. 

When you do feel able to, and perhaps with helps from someone you feel safe with and close to, start to think about what things there are in your situation that you CAN control. Your mind, especially under pressure, tries to simplify things so that it feels either one thing or another - and the risk is that in chaos it just says ‘everything is out of control’ - when in fact that isn’t true. See if you can tease apart what things you can’t do much about - and where you MIGHT be able to change something. You might want to get two pieces of paper and brainstorm - what can you not control - and are there any things you might be able to influence? 

Finding this hard? Here’s some things to think about: Are there things you can’t totally change but could tweak to make a bit less awful? So you might have to sit an exam you didn’t want to but could you think about how and when, or talk to teachers or tutors about that? If you have to find a new job, you can’t avoid the dreaded application forms - but you can think about how and when you are going to go through them. Secondly think about things which are related, and can run alongside the thing you can’t change… so for example, if you have exams you wish you didn’t have to do, you can think about how you revise or work for them. If someone you love is seriously ill, your heart may ache that you can’t change that - but are there some good things you can plan or bring to them or their situation in the meantime? And thirdly, even in the worst situations there are OTHER things you can bring into your life that are always good - so think about what those are and how to do them. What, and who, lifts your mood? What makes your heart sing? What makes you laugh. Even in the WORST moments, some of those little things can bring some light and life into tough moments. Connect with a friend, plan a lovely hot bath, drink the perfect cup of coffee - and really throw yourself into doing those things as well as possible. 


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