Being “in control” seems like a good thing. Being “out of control” on the one hand, or “controlling” on the other, not so much. I think there’s some truth here. Psychologically speaking, control is healthy in moderation.

Think of Freud’s classic model of the mind as id-ego-superego. Freud thought that a person’s psychological task in life is to get control of his out-of-control impulses, kind of like you would tame and ride a horse. The id (the out-of-control part of the personality) is like a stallion—with all of its wild impulses, running in every direction. The superego (the controlling part of the personality) is like a bridle—a tool that, if used well, can train and tame the id-stallion so that it can live more effectively in the world. The ego (the in-control part of the personality) is the rider—the one in the driver’s seat, directing life in a capable way.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, puts a great twist on this metaphor by saying that the mind is a little bit like driving a horse and buggy “in which the driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, a disobedient horse (the id) while the driver’s father (the superego) sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he is doing wrong.” I can just picture it!

If we bring the metaphor into the 21st century, life is about trying to drive a car. We want to learn to drive it safely and mindfully—not recklessly (as the stereotypic teenager racing down a mountain road at midnight) nor overcautiously (like the stereotypic little old lady putt-putting at 30 mph on the freeway). If we have the discipline to drive the speed limit, stay in our lane, pay attention, and follow the rules of the road, then we have the chance to really get somewhere in life.

I often say to my patients that the psychological journey is about getting into the driver’s seat of our own lives. For me, that is the best meaning of being “in control.” We take ownership and responsibility for our choices. We embrace our lives as they are and take them where they can go. 

But there are a few cautionary tales. We can’t drive anyone else’s car; we can only drive our own. It is tempting to become so focused on what other people are doing (and usually on what they are doing wrong) that we don’t focus on what we are doing. And because what we are doing is the thing we can influence the most, it is the best place to put our attention.

We also have a responsibility to drive our own car rather than expect someone else to do it for us. It is easy to pass along personal responsibility for our lives by never growing-up. We put pressure on other people to do things for us, things which we could and should do for ourselves. It reminds me of a clever yet profound line from the film, The Descendants, when the father is being hassled to do more for his children and he says, “You should give your children enough that they can do something but not so much that they can do nothing.”  We are lucky if we have parents who help us grow up and do something.

A teacher of mine once said, “You can’t do everything, but you can do something. And the thing you can do, you ought to do.” Do what you can do. These are some pretty good words to live by. 

I often say that peace of mind is one of the most valuable things in life. The path to peace of mind involves taking charge of one’s life, getting into the driver’s seat. Then, the life we build is felt to belong to us. We get to enjoy and feel satisfaction from our achievements, and we get to learn and grow from our failures and disappointments. These experiences nourish the mind. They help us to feel more in control which ultimately helps us feel more capable, more real, and more whole.  

Copyright 2012 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her newly released book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.

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