The Illusion of Control

Extract from the Happiness Trap, by Dr. Russ Harris

The human mind has given us an enormous advantage as a species. It enables us to make plans, invent things, coordinate actions, analyse problems, share knowledge, learn from our experiences and imagine new futures.

The clothes on your body, the shoes on your feet, the watch on your wrist, the chair beneath you, the roof over your head, the book in your hands — none of these things would exist but for the ingenuity of the human mind.

The mind enables us to shape the world around us and conform it to our wishes, to provide ourselves with warmth, shelter, food, water, protection, sanitation and medicine. Not surprisingly, this amazing ability to control our environment gives us high expectations of control in other arenas as well.

Now, in the material world, control strategies generally work well. If we don’t like something, we figure out how to avoid it or get rid of it, and then we do so. A wolf outside your door? Get rid of  it! Throw rocks at it, or spears, or shoot it. Snow, rain or hail?

Well you can’t get rid of those things, but you can avoid them by hiding in a cave, or building a shelter. Dry, arid ground? You can get rid of it by irrigation and fertilisation, or you can avoid it by moving to a better location.

But what about our internal world? I’m talking here about thoughts, memories, emotions, urges, mental images and physical sensations. Can we simply avoid or get rid of the ones we don’t like?

In the outer world, we can do so fairly easily, so shouldn’t it be the same with our inner world? Here’s a little experiment. As you keep reading this paragraph, try not to think about ice cream. Don’t think about the colour or the texture or the taste of it. Don’t think about how it tastes on a hot summer’s day.

Don’t think about how good it feels as it melts inside your mouth. Don’t think about how you have to keep licking around the edges to stop it from dripping on your  fingers.

How’d you do?

Exactly! You couldn’t stop thinking about ice cream. Here’s another little experiment. Recall something that happened in the past week. Any memory will do, whether it’s a conversation you had, a movie you watched or a meal you ate. Got one? Good.

Now try to get rid of it. Totally obliterate it from your memory so it can never come back to you, ever again. How did you go? If you think you succeeded, just check again and see if you can still remember it.

Now, tune in to your mouth. Notice how your tongue feels. Run it over your teeth, your gums, your cheeks and the roof of your mouth. Now try to get rid of those sensations. Try to turn your mouth totally numb, as if you just had a shot of  novocaine from the dentist. Were you able to forget the sensations?

Now consider this hypothetical scenario for a moment. Suppose someone put a loaded gun to your head and told you that you must not feel afraid; that if you should feel even the slightest trace of anxiety, they will shoot you.

Could you stop yourself feeling anxious in this situation, even though your life depended on it?

(Sure you could try to act calm, but could you truly feel it?)

Okay, one last experiment. Stare at the star below then see if you can stop yourself from thinking for 60 seconds.

That’s all you have to do. For 60 seconds, prevent any thoughts whatsoever from coming into your mind — especially any thoughts about the star!

Hopefully by now you’re getting the point that thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and memories are just not that easy to control. It’s not that you have no control over these things; it’s just that you have much less control than you thought.

Let’s face it, if these things were that easy to control, wouldn’t we all just live in perpetual bliss? Of course, there are a few self-help gurus who claim to live in such a state all the time. Such people often get really rich, their books sell by the million and they attract huge followings of people desperate for ‘the answer’.

My guess is that many readers of this book will have already gone down that path and been sadly disappointed.

Can We Get Rid of Difficult Thoughts and Feelings?

In a word: yes!

It’s not hard for most of us to get rid of unwanted thoughts & feelings … as long as they’re relatively mild.

When we’re a little bit anxious, a little bit angry, a little bit sad, it’s usually quite easy to ignore those difficult feelings, or distract ourselves from them, or think positively, or do a relaxation technique – and make ourselves feel better as a result.

But the more intense and painful our difficult thoughts & feelings, the harder it becomes to do this.

For example, if we’re mildly upset about something, and we eat some yummy food, chocolate or chips or ice-cream or whatever it is that tickles your taste buds, most of us will find that the tasty food successfully distracts us from our unpleasant feelings and makes us feel better.

But if we’re EXTREMELY upset about something, and we use this very same distraction strategy, we’re likely to fail; most of us will find we can barely taste that food in our mouth, that there’s little or no real pleasure in it, and it doesn’t help us escape those difficult feelings.

Likewise, if we’re a bit worried or anxious about something that’s not a major threat or a significant risk, then thinking logically and rationally about it, i.e.

  1. Carefully assessing the facts and calculating the real risks or
  2. Doing a simple relaxation technique, e.g. some slow breathing

will for most of us rapidly lower our anxiety, help us calm down, and enable us to stop worrying.

But if we’re EXTREMELY anxious about something that truly is a major threat or a very real and significant risk, these types of strategies just won’t work.

Example 1

For example, if you are going into hospital for major surgery for a life-threatening condition, how likely is it that a bit of positive thinking, relaxation, or distraction is going to get rid of your anxiety?

For sure, you may get a bit of short term relief from such methods, but how long would it last before the anxiety returns?

Example 2

For another example, consider: if someone you love very much were dying; could you stop yourself from feeling sad, angry or scared?

For most human beings, there are only two ways you could realistically do this.

  1. One way, would be to completely numb yourself with drugs or alcohol.
  2. The other way would be to completely cut off from your own emotions; this is technically called “dissociation”, and usually gives rise to an unpleasant sense of numbness, emptiness or hollowness.

The Take-Home Message

When our problems and challenges are minor, and our painful emotions are mild, it’s often quite easy to avoid, distract, escape from or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings.

But the bigger our challenges, and the more intense our emotions, the less our ability to do this.

And that’s why we can all benefit from making the effort to learn mindfulness, acceptance and self-compassion skills.

When we have these skills, we can respond more flexibly to our painful thoughts and feelings.

We can open up and make room for them. Instead of fighting against them, we can make peace with them.

We can let them flow through us without a struggle, allowing them to freely come and stay and go in their own good time.

Of course, such skills don’t come naturally or easily. It takes genuine effort to develop them.

But if we want to invest our precious time and energy in doing the sorts of things that make life meaningful, instead of wasting it in futile struggles with our feelings, then learning these skills is well worth the effort.