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The Illusion of Control


Well, since my last post about life went over so well, I thought I’d post about the most common illusion found among mankind, the illusion that we have control over our lives and the lives of others. Please remember, I’m writing about lessons I’ve garnered from living through the hell of psychotherapy. These lessons may or may not pertain to your situation. I’m no expert, only someone who has come a long way from her early days of doom and gloom thinking to where I am today, living the best I can and striving to help others despite the major handicap of being having been clueless, as we all are at one time or another, about what life is all about. As I stated in a previous post, don’t shoot the messenger. If you don’t like what I say, that’s okay. Don’t get angry, instead consider my words and discard what you feel is irrelevant or wrong. That’s the beauty of being an adult, we can choose what we wish to believe and toss out the rest.


The above statement will probably wrinkle a few eyebrows. I know, we all assume that we can control what happens to us, but do we really? Can we stop the drunk driver cruising down the highway with the destiny of hitting us? Can we turn back time and change our pasts or take back words we have spoken ten minutes ago that caused someone we love pain? The answer to these questions is no. Yes, we could have chosen not to drive down the highway or to keep our mouths closed, but could we have chosen to do so with no knowledge of what was coming later? It’s a paradox is it not?

In so many instances we would have to trap ourselves, sealing ourselves from life, to escape the fact that the unforeseeable happens to us all. Life is full of gambles, yet we as humans bravely face the possibility of failure and death all the time. From the time we are born, to the time we die, we make choices that can take us down the street of happiness or the road to destruction. To believe that we can control every aspect of our lives to the point where we are completely safe is a lie we tell ourselves. It’s a kind of denial to think that we can change and control all events in our future, a common denial we all share.


The fact that we cannot control other’s actions is one that causes a huge amount of frustration. I know it does for me. All my life I’ve lived with or around people who have done things that have angered and frustrated me. I’ll tell you what my therapist told me when I complained about this to her,

“Welcome to the human race.”

There is no way in hell we are going to be pleased or happy with all the people around us all the time, and they will do what they will do. We can cajole, yell, cry, and throw things and tantrums to our hearts content, but unless the other person wants to do what we are asking, it simply will not happen.

I have friends whom I love very much, but who also frustrate the devil out of me because they just can’t see how I know what’s best for them. I mean, I know what they need!

Sound familiar? The fact of the matter is I do not know what they need nor what they can do to help themselves, only they do. No amount of begging or warning will help them if they are not willing to listen. Who made me god over their lives? Who gave me the wisdom to solve their problems? Isn’t it the height of arrogance to believe that, somehow, I know better than they do what is best for them?

It is a truth we are very unwilling to accept as humans that to help others sometimes means letting them fail. We don’t have the correct answers to their problems anyway, so we need to pull back and simply love them. I have a friend who has been making foolish choices and no matter what I say, my words are either deflected or ignored. Finally, I have told her what I needed to say to feel as though I had done all I can do, and I have dropped it. I love her and I will stand beside her as a friend, no matter what, but I refuse to interfere any longer in her life. That is what I can control, you see, my reaction to her choices and my response to her when she fails. That is all I can control, no more, no less.

All of this having been said, let me give a ray of hope. There ARE a few things in life we can control. We can control how we react to what happens to us, and we can control how we respond to the behavior of others.


Although I cannot control what happened to me in my childhood I can choose how I can respond to it. At first, when a person starts dealing with childhood abuse issues, we all are overwhelmed with feelings of grief, anger and shame. That’s normal and natural. However, should I have remained in that mindset for the rest of my life, what would have become of me? No conquering the grief, anger and shame of what happened to me so long ago would have doomed me to never enjoying my life in the here and now. Yes, what I lived through was unfair and should never have happened, but the ball is in my court now. I am in control of what I do with the memories and all the emotions that go along with them. I have decided, thanks to a wonderful therapist, to learn from what I endured and to use this knowledge to propel myself into the future. I have learned to value others because of the horrendous pain I suffered as a child. I have learned that life is precious and not to be squandered. I could go on and on about the valuable teachings I have gleaned from the horrors of my past.


A harder concept to accept is that although we cannot control the actions of others, we can control how we react to them. I cannot change the beliefs and actions of anyone else, they will do what they will do. I, like most other humans, find this extremely vexing. A wonderful way to mitigate the pain from lack of control over other’s lives is to accept other’s decisions as their own, not yours. Yes, we can offer them our opinions and give them the facts, but they must choose their own course of action. Our responsibility is to keep our noses out of their business while still loving them.

My brother is an alcoholic. He struggles every day to remain sober and some days he is unable to do so. In the past, I would become morose and angry at him when he would drink, but recently I have tried something new. I’ve kept my mouth shut and allowed his decision to drink or not to drink be his own. I have discovered that while doing this not only has my stress level dropped significantly, but he has had an easier time staying sober. What I’m saying is that by staying out of his business, I have helped him. Sometimes stepping out of the way and allowing others to make their own decisions is more helpful than trying to force solutions.

An example from how others have tried to help me. I have an addiction to prescription drugs. My brother and many other people have tried down through the years to tell me that I was harming myself, but Mr. Denial kept whispering in my ear, “Those people don’t know what they saying!” while Mr. Addiction told me, “You need those pills to escape reality!” What turned my life around and set me on the road to sobriety was that my brother backed off and stopped trying to warn me about the danger I was in. He allowed me to make my own decisions and didn’t try to dictate to me what I should do. One day, last June, I awoke in the hospital on the dementia wing totally disoriented and afraid. My body had finally rebelled. It was a rude awakening and I finally understood that escaping through the abuse of a substance, no matter how legal, was not what I wanted, not if it was going to cost me my mind. Had Mike kept on insisting that I needed to quit using I may have not been able to make the decision to face life substance free, even after having been hospitalized. An important point I should like to make is that Mike never said I told you so, or even insinuated it in any way. I might have kept on doing what I had been doing before the hospitalization, and ended up losing my mind or my life because of it. I had to conclude and accept my addiction and its consequences on my own. No one else could have saved me.


There are exceptions to these rules. Children and adolescents rely on the adults in their lives to help them control and learn from their behaviors. No, we cannot dictate to them every move they make, but we should always keep in mind to allow them to make their own mistakes but to temper that with good advice and lots of love.



I know some of the things I write about are hard to swallow. Maybe that’s why I write about them. If you don’t agree with me, that’s okay. We can agree to disagree. That’s what adults do. I’m writing these things to share what I have learned, and if I’m wrong, I will wholeheartedly admit it.

I’ll leave you with a quote.

“The world is so unpredictable. Things happen suddenly, unexpectedly. We want to feel we are in control of our own existence. In some ways we are, in some ways we’re not. We are ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence.” Paul Auster

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