The Illusion of Control: Letting Go of Anxiety When We Have a Choice


Control is usually an illusion. Much of it anyway.

I'm 35,000 feet over the Pacific on my way to Maui. I'll finally arrive about 6 hours late because of one airline issue after the next today (not weather). If you're even a semi-frequent flier, you understand the frustration that these delays can cause - especially when they're the kind of mishaps where the airline sends a note of apology and adds 10,000 miles to your mileage bank (I literally got the email as I was re-boarding my flight). In other words, the issues are clearly the airline's fault. The email and mileage gift are actually lovely tokens, in my opinion. But, this isn't a lesson about the behavior of the airlines. It's about the misplaced sense of control of many of the passengers. I used to have an enormously misplaced sense of control when flying and I'm still working on it, so this comes from experience. It's a great metaphor to learn from for all aspects of control in our life.

As I sit in the gate area after deplaning our broken airplane waiting to hear our fate, I can divide the general kinds of behavior into four groups. See which one you might put yourself into.

1. There is the group that instantly goes to the bar and fully surrenders. Many miss the flight because of their bar shenanigans and end up in group four. Read on.

2. Group two is the one that quietly sits, reading and passing the time; waiting patiently for an announcement. They may go ask a clarifying question of the gate agent.

3. Group three looks like the patient folks in group two, but instead they are alertly biding their time, their eyes eagerly darting about, their ears primed for kindred spirits; they do this until another of their group makes a snide comment about the intellectual capacity of every airline employee in the world. Once that happens...all the group threes must shoot a sort of pheromone into the air because they somehow find each other and commiserate about how they would run the airline and how they would keep an extra plane on hand exactly for instances just like this. Imagine a bunch of chickens pecking for feed all at the same time and you have a clear picture of group three. By the way, I have un-proudly found myself in this group at times.

4. The final group is the absolute most fun. They are up there telling the gate agent what body parts should fit where and that they fly so much they should have their own zip code on the airplane. They are demanding to talk to someone higher up, who of course will make an airplane magically appear AND upgrade them for their amazing oratory and debate skills. This is the group, no matter how the situation is resolved...well, they have some hand in it.

Which group do you think will statistically live longer? Which group will feel better about themselves when they have a private moment in which to be honest with themselves about their behavior? Which set of behaviors would you want to model for your children or your very best client if they were there? The answer is very clear to me.

Control is a funny thing and something which our brain seems to crave. Paradoxically, what the brain thinks it can control is actually controlled by us. It's susceptible to the messages we tell it. If we tell ourselves that we have control where we actually don't, we get to be one of the less evolved people in group three or four. The truth of the matter is that we can only have mastery over a very few things. If you're in a situation where you can't be in control, getting some clarification and direction helps to ease that out-of-control feeling and it is a healthy, adaptive approach.

However, in this airline scenario, they aren't going to let you fly the airplane or run the airline, and you can't change the weather. Think about other situations you find yourself in where it feels good to ruminate out loud with others or to "teach people a lesson about how you would do it if you were in control." Well, you're likely not going to be i control if you're only recourse is complaining and blowing off steam (some of which is useful, but don't go overboard!). So, don't look like a big fat jerk to others and at the same time release a gob of the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your system. You're really just hurting yourself in the long run. Hostility, which can rear its ugly head from a sense of being out of control, is the emotion most linked to sudden cardiac arrest (think road rage).

Here's the mushy optimist in me. If we would all acknowledge that the most interesting things happen when things don't happen as we think they should, it would be a sweeter world. When we stop trying to control the things we can't and direct our attention to what we can control, fascinating situations ensue. On my way to Maui in the gate area, I met a cool fellow traveler named Evan who serves the US in the Air Force. We did a teeny tiny bit of group three chatter, but caught ourselves and instead yakked about family and country and interesting twists and turns in life; things that make us feel a little better overall.

At the end of the day, the true test of our character doesn't happen when we already know what to do or when things go well. It happens when we don't know what to do and things fall apart. We are in control of how the experience feels in the long run. That's when control is no longer an illusion, but a useful tool.