I have struggled with the need for control for most of my life.
For a long time, I felt like my life was out of control, out of my hands. Every day, it felt like things happened to me that I didn’t expect or didn’t want. And that filled me with enormous anxiety. So then I tried to control external things — other people, or my physical space. I was trying to get that feeling of control back. But the ways that I was trying to do it never quite accomplished the goal. And that only filled me with more anxiety.
Now I understand that part of the experience of anxiety is an enormous fear of uncertainty. When life isn’t predictable, when we aren’t sure what will happen next (which is pretty much always), we feel powerless in our life. Then we fight for control over external things. As a misdirected coping mechanism to feel like we have some sort of agency.
Because there is often a disconnect. A misunderstanding of what we can control and what is beyond our control. Or what actions and behaviors we can control that will actually give us the results that we want. Instead of creating more anxiety and fear.
It’s a delicate balance. Because a lot of people will tell those of us with this kind of anxiety to just “let go” of control to be happy. To allow life to take us on a roller coaster ride and accept that we have no idea what will happen next.
And while that advice is in the right ballpark, it misses the mark in one key way. The truth is, humans actually do need to feel like they have some level of control in their lives to feel happy. And psychologists have known this for over 50 years.
It is healthy, normal, and necessary to want to feel in control in life
Research around humans’ need to feel in control of their lives is decades old. It started back in 1959 with Robert White. He was the first to suggest that there is a fundamental need to exert some control on the world around us.
As Leotti et alnoted:
If people did not believe they…