Wanting to be in control is perfectly normal – but sometimes, it just doesn’t work
The truth is that we are all in the same boat. Most of the things that you do – think about the future when you could be experiencing now, losing connection with the present, trying not to think about thoughts and emotions that trouble us – are all things that I do at times. Almost everyone does.
We all get caught up in the same agenda. We live in a society where we are convincingly sold a myth that we should feel good all thew time – we get this from all angles. And everyone likes to feel good – no-one likes to feel bad. So we try to get rid of unpleasant feelings. And we keep on doing it, even though it doesn’t work in the long run and we often end up struggling and suffering as a result.
There are a few reasons as to why we do this:
- We buy into the myth that humans are naturally happy and we should feel great most of the time
- Because when we do try to control our thoughts and feelings in the short-term, quite often it actually works. So we try this as a long-term strategy too.
- We think that this works for other people, so we must be doing it wrong. If we keep on trying, we will get it right, like everyone else seems to.
- And this is the main reason above all – this is the way our mind has developed to solve problems. The essence of a problem is that it is something we don’t want. And a solution means to avoid it, or get rid of it. In the physical world, that works really well. Stray dog trying to steal your picnic? Get rid of it: shoo it away, or throw a stick at it. Crap weather? Well, you can’t get rid of that, but you can avoid it – stay indoors, or wear protective clothing. Dry ground, no good for farming? You can choose to plant elsewhere, or get rid of it by irrigation. So, our mind is like a problem-solving machine which is great for the external world, and it is very good at it. So if it is very good at the material world, it is only natural that our mind tries to do the same with our internal world – the world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories and urges. What we learn is that what we try in the external world only works in our internal world in the short-term, if at all. And often, even if it does work, we end up creating a lot of pain and struggle for ourselves in the process.
Do you think you can control what happens in your internal world? Completely?
- Take a second and remember how you navigated to this web page today. Done that? Ok, now delete that memory. Wipe your history. Just get rid of it.
How did you get on? Try another one.
- Imagine that I have recruited you to a completely unethical experiment where I have wired you up to a lie detector. This detector will detect the tiniest bit of anxiety in your body. You can’t kid it at all. Even the teensiest hint of anxiety, and the bells will sound. And in this experiment, you’re not allowed to feel even a mere hint of anxiety. And if you do, I’ll pull the lever and you will be electrocuted. What would happen?
You can’t control what you feel. Not completely. Ask yourself, why are you continuing the struggle?
Dr Sarb Johal is the Director of Equanimity Limited and Associate Professor of Disaster Mental Health at Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research. He spends quite a lot of his work time providing advice to the Ministry of Social Development and CERA on aspects of recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes. When not working, Sarb spends a bit of his time writing and running, though not at the same time. He has completed numerous half-marathons, 4 international marathons and 1 ultra-marathon from 2010-2012. He is a certified Leader in Running Fitness, and is also training to be a Personal Trainer.
You can read more of his thoughts on health, wellbeing and mental fitness at completecoach.wordpress.com