Some things we have complete control over.  Others we have none.  Most of the time, the amount of control we actually have isn’t what’s most important, it’s our perception of control that counts.
  A toddler’s need for empowerment might be satisfied by toppling a tower of blocks or reinventing banana purée as face cream. Hospital patients can bolster their resilience to treatment by having control over such simple things as caring for a plant or setting their own visiting hours. Our perception of how much control we have in our lives directly effects both our physical health and mental equilibrium. Stripped of it we’re left susceptible to depression and catastrophizing.

“Who cares about chemistry, physics, and all that natural stuff?  Rust’s really all about me!”

It’s the rare individual who’s never given the finger to bad weather or some other “cause” of their “really crummy day”. But blame games come at a cost.  A couple of years ago I saw a car license plate that’s stuck with me: IH8RUST.  “I hate rust”.  Sure, the inevitable collapse of automotive products into heaps of rust can seem like a real shame – so long as you don’t make your living running an auto body shop.  Still, taking that extra step of making it personal casts you squarely in the role of powerless victim. While waving your fist at the sky may feel good for the moment, in the end you lose three times over:

  • first, in feeding your sense of powerlessness (doesn’t it also suck that we can’t spontaneously fly or reverse time?);
  • secondly, in failing to develop appreciation for your real spheres of influence (like maintaining anti-rust treatments for starters);
  • and thirdly, in blinding yourself to the staggering debt of gratitude we all owe to the phenomena of water and steel doing what comes naturally (take a minute to consider the likelihood of life actually existing on earth if it were otherwise).

That said, the benefits and liabilities we can attribute to our perception of control don’t correspond easily to any sort of “reality/illusion” quotient. A cancer patient given a 10% chance of survival certainly could be considered a realist in giving up on remission, even though research has shown time and again that this kind of acceptance reduces chances of recovery even further.  Anyone who’s witnessed the beating of daunting odds will tell you there’s an aspect of personal determination that can completely pop the suggestion that our perceptions serve us best when they correspond to “reality”.

A few years ago I coached a woman undergoing cancer treatment.  She was facing exactly that 10% chance of survival.  “The doctors”, she told me repeatedly throughout her treatment, “are wrong.  I am going to beat this.” Over the following year there were many times when I though she was wearing the proverbial rose-tinted glasses. In retrospect, she was sporting welding goggles.  Her resolve was white hot.  Sure, she still experienced moments of intense fear.  These, it turned out, always happened at transitional points between treatments when next appointments or steps were left unclear. Recognizing these episodes as instances of a perceived loss of control was sufficient for this woman to bridge her anxiety and snap her welding glasses back in place.  And the results?  A year later there was not a trace of cancer found in her body – and its been that way now for 4 years.

The next time you catch yourself waving a fist at the sky, take a minute to find one thing, however small, you truly believe you can control in the situation.  It might just change your life.

For more on the value of focusing on small changes, check out Call Me “Trim Tab”.