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Control is an Illusion

How do we satiate our need for control in a prolonged crisis?

We have a basic human need for stability, predictability, certainty, and consistency. Looking back over the last two years, all four of those things have been removed from most of our daily lives due to the pandemic. Our minds use control as a way to find a balance in these four things so as to remove fear and take us out of fight/flight/freeze.

Through my own battle with chronic illness years ago, I had to realize that I had never had control over my health. Having good health gave me a false sense of control. When all four of those qualities leave, our minds have to come to terms with the loss of control and that it was never really there to begin with.

In the movie “Days of Thunder” in the 90s, Nichole Kidman plays a doctor who has treated racecar driver Cole played by Tom Cruise. She says “Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what's gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with 40 other infantile egomaniacs.”

This is the phrase I heard echo in my mind as I tried to resolve my own loss of control over my health a decade ago. It is the phrase I keep hearing time and again during this pandemic. If you refer to Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can see that when we are in times of uncertainty, our physiological needs and safety needs are put at risk. We revert back to these areas to shore up that certainty before we can move back up the pyramid to comfort, feel loved, have self esteem and become all that we need to be.

What can we do when we feel this tension and struggle for control? What do we do when we can’t see around corners to shore up this deep seated need for safety? We must resolve this to be able to move back to higher versions of ourselves.

Self care – This should be a daily practice, but in busy times when things are stable, we just keep moving forward. In uncertainty, self care is paramount to our survival. Our mental selves need the slow down and comfort. We have to go inward to find the comfort our minds need; our resolve, our resilience, our history, our beliefs can. We must comfort ourselves from within. In a world where we are always looking outward for assurance and protection, this is a new practice. I am in charge of me and how I feel and how I react to the stimuli around me.

Perspective – In a downtown area of a city, if you needed to see around a corner, you could go up to the roof and look down. Looking long in our minds can have this same affect. If we look at 5 years from now or 10 years from now mentally, how can that shift the uncertainty I feel today? Can I begin to see more of the whole tapestry that’s being woven versus just these threads that seem to be unravelling? Just like in viewing a waterlily painting by Monet, I must step back to enjoy it and see the big picture.

If I go to the roof and look long, I can also look back. Those who have history and experience can look at the data points, the struggles and triumphs of life from the roof so that the noise and trials of the street level are not as constricting. Remind yourself of a crisis that has been overcome.

Ownership – In uncertain times of prolonged crisis, it can help our need to control by assessing what is mine. What things in my world and life can I impact by my decisions alone. In essence, asking myself what can I control? I can control how much I sleep. I can control what I eat, how long I work, how I treat others, how I treat myself. I can control how much I smile or laugh in a day, how much time I dedicate to friends and relationship and how much to Netflix. Realizing I haven’t loss complete control over everything can settle the mind and give back safety and reassurance.

Letting Go – For some of us, these two years were our first experience at “losing control” over large sectors of our lives. After being reminded of the things I do have control over that affect my safety and well being, doing a visual or actual exercise over the things I cannot tells my mind it has permission to stop looking for danger continually. This is the long standing beauty of the Serenity Prayer - God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Try this visual exercise to release:

Close your eyes and tighten your fists in front of you palms up. Imagine all the things in your life that you cannot control but feel anxiety about being held tightly in your grip. Take a deep breath and open your fists exposing your palms to the ceiling. Take another deep breath and imagine those things floating or falling out of your palms. Allow yourself to know that you were never in control of them in the first place, they are not your responsibility. Repeat this visualization each time you feel anxiety return and the need for control.

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