The Illusion of Control
Have you ever heard the term “Emotional Intelligence,” or EQ for short?
I’ve been seeing references to EQ pop up a lot recently, especially in articles on psychology and mindfulness. I personally love that society is becoming more conscious of the need for emotional awareness, but I sometimes pause when I read articles claiming that a high EQ allows us to “control” our emotions.
Here’s my take on the whole idea of control: Humans have spent thousands of years trying to control the things around them – including each other – and we fail every time.
I’d like to use an example from our physical world to illustrate my point…
During the past several years there have been many references to “thousand-year events” – usually floods – when speaking of natural disasters. All too often, I hear about levees or other flood “control” systems failing because they simply can’t hold back the volume of water coming through. I hear those news reports and I often wonder if anyone pauses to think that our “flood control systems” aren’t really designed to “control” floods as much as to redirect water away from areas deemed important to us.
Sit with that thought for a moment (or several). We humans have a long history of moving into areas that have experienced natural cycles of floods for tens of thousands, perhaps even millions of years. We arrive and then we completely alter the landscape to make it suitable for our vision of how things “should” be.
Our systems work brilliantly when we first erect them. We pat ourselves on our backs and congratulate ourselves for our ingenuity… until Mother Nature comes along and reasserts herself.
Hurricanes like Katrina or Harvey remind us – tragically – that our efforts at “controlling” nature amount to very little.
If we were truly honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we’ve never been able to control the floods that inevitably come in very natural cycles. We may be able to redirect them with our levees and delay them with our dams, but we’re never really in control.
However, the illusion of control doesn’t just apply to our physical world. That illusion holds true with our efforts to control ourselves or each other.
At the risk of reinforcing a cliché, every single one of us knows that whenever we tell someone, “you can’t do that,” it’s practically an invitation to do the very thing we don’t want someone to do.
Here’s a thought very few of us consider when we say, “don’t do that…”
Each of us feels resistance and resentment every time someone else comes along and tries to tell us what we can or can’t do. So why do we forget how we feel when we try to do the same thing to other people?
Bottom line, the desire to control anything says more about us than it does about the things (or people) we’re trying to control.
The need to control our thoughts, our habits, our diets, the people in our lives, people who are different than us, our environment, or whatever else it is we want to control is a symptom of something else.
The “need to control” is indication that we’re looking outside of ourselves to feel good about our lives. There’s no way to sugar-coat this, so I’ll just say it; control is an illusion.
We can’t control anything. And if we’re looking outside of ourselves to feel good, we’ll keep searching for the rest of our lives.
HOWEVER… there is a way we can work in harmony with everything and feel good about it.
The simple act of awareness is often enough.
I started this reflection by talking about emotional intelligence. EQ is often misunderstood because we use the language of control to describe it. I will therefore be very blunt and say that EQ doesn’t help you control anything. It does, however, help you to be aware.
Awareness of our feelings in any given moment does something powerful. It gives us the ability to “go with the flow.” And when we go with the flow, we’re able to follow the natural twists and turns in the landscapes of our lives without resistance.
Here’s another benefit to going with the flow: Rather than trying to force ourselves into narrow channels that inevitably collapse and cause lots of pain and suffering, working harmoniously with what’s going on gives us the power to shape our lives in ways we never could have dreamed of.
You can see examples of harmonious being in the natural landscapes that awe and inspire us. Those landscapes have indeed been shaped, carved, and created – but not by controlling them. They were created by allowing natural processes to simply unfold and do their thing.
Allowing ourselves and the people around us to simply BE and “do our thing” is the easiest, most effective, and powerful way to live harmonious and joyous lives.
Remember that the next time you feel the urge to control something.
About the Author
Appio Hunter is an author, speaker, spiritual guide, and self-described champion for living joyously. He is best known for his work facilitating conversations about the aspects of joyous living with groups around the world.
Appio is driven by a passion to show people how they can be authentic and experience community, connection, and alignment every day by applying the Tenets of Joy to their lives. He is also co-host of the Real Men Feel podcast along with his good friend Andy Grant.