In this blog I look at the role of control in our wellbeing and talk about my model of the things we can control with a practical example of how this might be used to support mental health.
Is control good for us?
Most of us like to feel in control. It helps us feel safe and ordered. Ryan and Deci (2000) highlight autonomy as a key psychological need (along with competence and relatedness, see my previous blog on Self Determination Theory for more detail). The fulfilment of this need for autonomy is associated with good mental health and improved motivation, whereas when it is blocked, motivation and wellbeing decrease. Autonomy involves the idea that we are in control of our actions, we are free from pressure from others and we have the ability to make our own choices. When we have this sense of this control, we feel authentic which boosts eudaimonic wellbeing. Many types of psychopathology stem from people seeking control in maladaptive ways when it is blocked in important areas of their lives. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders can be extreme examples of this.
How much control do we really have?
So a sense of autonomy is good for us. But how realistic is this in everyday life? Often external circumstances can’t easily be changed and we certainly can’t control other people’s attitudes and behaviour, although we can sometimes influence them by how we act.
Actually even our own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are also not as much under our control as we might like to think. For example, if I tell you not to think of a white bear, what pops into your head? A white bear! Likewise we can’t just erase specific memories because we want to, or make ourselves feel a certain way about people or things just because we feel we should (telling someone to calm down hardly ever works!). Trying to hang on to control of thoughts, feelings and situations too rigidly or unrealistically can lead to us feeling stressed and struggling with or avoiding the associated difficult emotions. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) this is known as “The control agenda” and is a key element of many mental health problems. (See my previous blog on ACT).
Unfortunately, Western culture in particular presents an image of autonomy as linked to achievement and success. We tend to feel we should be in control of things and that this is a, or even the only, route to happiness. In fact research shows we overestimate our ability to control outcomes for ourselves and this holds across culture and gender even though the way in which we exercise control may vary. For example, in collectivist cultures people have more optimism about positive outcomes through cooperative Vs individualistic action. This pattern also tends to be found for women vs men across cultures but in all cases people are still subject to what is known as the “the control illusion” (Yamaguchi et al.2005). That is, believing we have more influence over positive outcomes than we actually do. This optimistic bias could be seen as helpful in an evolutionary sense, it stops us giving up when things are hard and thus maximises our chances of survival with the opposite stance of pessimism and helplessness being associated with depression or anxious avoidance (which can be adaptive in certain circumstances but often isn’t).
However, if we believe we should be able to impact outcomes more than we actually can, inappropriate expectations could lead to frustration and disappointment. If these difficult emotions are not managed correctly we could again be on the road to mental ill health.
As is often the way in psychology, it’s all about balance. So understanding what we can and can’t control and knowing when to persist and when and how to “learn and let go” is key.
What can we control?
If you search on any web browser you can find extensive lists of the things you can and can’t control. Psychological advice suggests you focus on the things you can control. In my experience, what you can control boils down to the following five things. Everything else can at best only be influenced.
Having failed to find a suitable acronym, I call this the 2 I, 3A model and as ACT practitioners can see it is firmly rooted in the core ACT processes of psychological flexibility.
What we can control is:
- Intention: Knowing what really matters to us (our values) and how we want to treat ourselves, others and the world is something we are free to decide. Setting your intention for the particular context you find yourself in by asking “What is the most important thing to me in this situation?” is within your control. How things actually work out may not be, but your intention is your own.
- Attention: Where we focus our attention makes a huge difference to how we feel and function. When we become too future focused we can become anxious about uncertain outcomes. When we focus too much on past problems we can become mired in regret. The balance between unhelpful rumination and carefully thinking through a problem can be quite small. However, monitoring how much of our time and attention we are prepared to give to an issue and when it is healthy to switch to focus on something else is within our control. In addition, the choice to engage our attention with things we know that nurture us is also free to all. The form this takes will be different for everyone (perhaps walking in nature, chatting to a friend, reading a book, playing football, listening to music, appreciating your cup of coffee etc)
- Interpretation: How we choose to frame what happens to us can really impact our experience. For example, “did my friend really ignore me or were they just distracted and didn’t see me?”. How you interpret the situation is a choice, sometimes even irrespective of “the truth” if that exists. This leads to another “I” question, “Is there another more helpful way of looking at this?” This links to perspective in terms of time, place and person (see more in my blog on perspective).
- Acceptance: Being willing to allow the difficult emotions that come with things not going our way and to be present rather than falling into “the control agenda” of experiential avoidance is within our control (links back to attention). Life is inevitably hard at times and acknowledging and making room for suffering rather than denying it is a choice. Our ability to manage painful emotions is something we can learn and seek support with. When we can’t control outcomes we can manage our feelings in a realistic and kind way.
- Action: Our body can take action even if we are not feeling at our best or struggling with difficult thoughts or emotions. Even if you are angry with someone you care about you can still choose to act lovingly towards them. Acting in line with our true values is not only something we can choose to do, it supports our wellbeing when we do it.
To try and help illustrate how this might be helpful, here’s an example from my own life. I recently went on holiday to France with my family. The weather was not great and certainly not as warm as usual. I found myself starting to get stuck ruminating on this and feel really annoyed and resentful that “my one holiday a year was being ruined”. I was struggling to control something that can’t be controlled, the weather. So I looked at what I could control.
First of all I acknowledged this futile struggle and the impact it was having on me (attention). Checking the weather forecast 10 times a day and being annoyed when it hadn’t changed was just making me feel worse. I worked on accepting and allowing the feelings of frustration and disappointment to be there in my body rather than fighting them. I looked at my interpretation of the situation and the unhelpful thoughts that went with this. What did having a good holiday actually mean? Sure sitting in the sun could be part of that (and I was rigidly holding onto this expectation despite reality) but it wasn’t all that being on holiday meant to me. Holiday for me is also about rest, reading, connecting with my family, enjoying food and being in a beautiful, peaceful place surrounded by nature. I also considered that as half of Europe was struggling with serious fires my issues were pretty minor. So I set my intention to engage in what really mattered to me in this situation. I could still spend time with my family talking, playing games, going for days out, watching movies etc rather than focusing on obsessing about the weather. I could still swim which I love doing (even though it wasn’t really hot enough to sit and dry off afterwards). I could still enjoy the quiet and beauty of my surroundings, sit in the hammock and watch the birds (while wearing a jumper). I could still read all the wonderful books I’d brought with me rather than scrolling through social media (just because I was inside where there was Wifi).
So I turned all these intentions into action and carried them out. It was not always easy to act on my intentions, my disgruntled thoughts and emotions hijacked me at times. This process is not a magic wand; it requires mindful attention and constant revisiting the mental processes until you break out of your unhelpful cycle. Would it have been nice if the weather was better? Yes. Was my holiday ruined? No it wasn’t, I still had a lovely time by focusing on and engaging in the things I could control and letting go of those unhelpful expectations that were getting me stuck.
I hope this small example helps you understand more about how the idea of control can help and hinder our mental health and what we can do to address this.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
Yamaguchi, S., Gelfand, M., Ohashi, M. M., & Zemba, Y. (2005). The cultural psychology of control: Illusions of personal versus collective control in the United States and Japan. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 36(6), 750-761.
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