capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

The Chaotic Fallacy We Call Control

The Chaotic Fallacy We Call Control

Control is a word we throw around loosely, though the complexity of its meaning remains largely misunderstood.

The serenity prayer, a beautiful mantra frequently used in Twelve Steps philosophy, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference sums this epic human struggle vividly.

We cannot control other people. Yet, everyday, I work with clients who express how much they wish their partner/child/employer/mother/father would change. We cannot control whether the sky collapses tomorrow or whether we even wake up in the morning. And, of course, everyday, I work with people who express rage at the external circumstances of life: at the weather, the traffic, the lady who cut in front of them at the grocery store.

We can influence and possibly increase the statistical likelihood of something occurring, but hanging onto ultimate control is the equivalent of hanging onto an imaginary fairy godmother who promises to grant our three magical wishes.

As a compassionate therapist, I always empathize and validate any feelings my clients exhibit. Feelings are simply the reactions and impulses to the stimuli occurring within or around us. They need to be heard and explored and appreciated. But, beyond the validation and empathy, beyond the recognition of the pain the client is experiencing, if an individual wants to heal, he or she must examine how to cope with these feelings.

Coping, by and large, is an extensive term, as it refers to the behavioral component of managing feelings. In other words, what are we actually doing about the feelings we are experiencing? How are we managing what we DO have control over while interpreting what we DO NOT have control over.

For example, my teenage client cannot change her alcoholic mother. She can change her way of interpreting the situation, her types of dialogue with her mother, and the closeness she wants to share. But she cannot ultimately determine whether or not her mother chooses to drink. Likewise, my client with severe depression cannot change his unmotivated adult son. He can change his image of who he wants his son to be, the type of relationship they maintain, and the thoughts he has regarding ambition and achievement. My injured client cannot change the status of her physical condition. She can change her mindset, alter her lifestyle and goals, and reorient her functioning.

Will they be better off? Possibly. There are no absolutes and no guarantees.

But, if they continue to look outside of themselves for relief or comfort, if they continue focusing and stressing over the factors they cannot control, the prognosis for feeling better is much, much worse.

Throughout life, we are constantly facing the crossroads of resistance and acceptance. There is no “right or wrong” path, but the two paths make for very different experiences and outcomes. Resistance breeds anger and resentment. It is the act of fighting against nature, and it creates tension and pressure. Resistance originates from fear and hatred. Acceptance, on the other hand, hosts peace and freedom. It is the act of moving with nature, and it creates liberation and relief. Acceptance originates from love and courage.

Interestingly enough, both paths expend the same amount of energy. We think acceptance is harder, but that is only because we often confuse acceptance with quitting, ignoring, or settling. Acceptance is none of those. Acceptance is the simple surrendering to what is. 

But, the choice is yours. You don’t have to accept at thing. The universe really doesn’t care. It will still move the way it needs to. Acceptance just makes your journey through it a bit easier.

We fear what we cannot control. When we can let go of the notion that the world owes us anything, when we can let go of the fears that we will be hurt or that we will fail or that something will ruin our lives, we are granted with a delicious and exhilarating freedom.

The more people can accept their limits of control, the happier they tend to be. They are less rigid with themselves, and subsequently, they are less likely to hold onto anger, blame, or resentment. They are more likely to practice gratitude and self-love.

The pain is going to be there. It is the cost of being a human. I frequently ask clients, who told you that you deserve to add suffering on top of your tremendous pain? I direct this to the people who internalize stress and discomfort, who victimize themselves, who clutch unknowingly onto their misery, who complain and isolate themselves, who can only believe in themes of utter hopelessness, uselessness, and worthlessness.

As humans, we will all struggle. And we will all experience highs and lows, twists and turns. We will hurt ourselves far worse than we will ever hurt anyone else. But, the true grittiness of healing and those true mental breakthroughs of understanding and harmony happen when we seek to find peace with one’s self, peace with the surrounding world, and peace with whatever is happening right here, right now. 

Acceptance is energy: it is telling ourselves and the universe that we have chosen to let go of what has not, cannot, and will not ever be in our hands. It is just a reminder that each of us is just one mortal spec in the universe.

Life, and all its complexities, will affect people at different intervals with different intensities, but nobody is immune to the topsy-turvy journey of this emotional roller coaster.

It must be accepted. The messiness, the pain, the mistakes and the letdowns–they are part of the recipe of life. And they will sting when they happen, but they will only continue to injure us the longer we hold onto them. We all know that we can never have the past back. Likewise, we all know that the future is never guaranteed. And yet, like a pendulum, both constantly influence our every movement and step throughout this universe. Just because we do not control them does not mean they are not defining or worthwhile. They are just not in our power in this moment.  

The less we depend on “control,” the less we depend on the extremities of an unstable universe to provide the lives we want. Likewise, the more we accept life as it is, the more we accept these ebbs and flows with grace and gratitude.