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The Fear of Losing Control

What's behind this fear and how you can overcome it.

One of the most prevalent fears people have is that of losing control. This is the fear that if you don't manage to control the outcome of future events, something terrible will happen. People who are chronic sufferers from such losing-control anxiety keep themselves continuously in a heightened state of stress with only brief, unsatisfying intermissions between fears.

The crux of the problem is the demand for certainty in a world that is always tentative and uncertain. It is precisely this unrealistic demand that creates the anxiety. You think that you must accurately predict and manage the future, not just have some probabilistic and uncertain handle on it.

So, people with losing-control anxiety are perfectionists. They demand perfect certitude—or near perfect certitude—and when they don't get it, they worry and ruminate about it. This is a formula for a rollercoaster ride that never ends—until, of course, you die.

So, the key to controlling your losing-control anxiety is letting go of your demand for certainty—in other words, giving up your unrealistic perfectionism about reality. Facing the inherent and unavoidable uncertainty of the future can indeed seem formidable—if you demand certainty. But letting go of this demand is the key to letting go of your fear. If you don't have to control the outcome; if you do not expect to predict with certainty what is by its nature uncertain; if you do not expect to solve a contradiction; then you are free to relax.

It is this contradiction between the demand for certainty and the reality of uncertainty that will continuously play out again and again without resolution—unless you give up the demand for certainty. It is you who must concede; reality won't ever give up its uncertainty for you.

Existentialists refer to this state of letting go as confronting your angst. It is about accepting responsibility—not for the future, but for the choices you freely make about the future. What is in your power? You have the power to say, "I won't fear the future." You have the power to say, "I won't resign myself to living a life of fear." You always have the power to say, "No more!" to such a life.

What you don't have the power to do is to be omniscient, to have eyes in back of your head, or to see all-knowingly into the future. If you are religious, then recognizing this desire for omniscience should appear to you as blasphemy because you are a mortal feigning godliness. If you are not especially religious, or if you are an atheist or an agnostic, then you are robbing yourself of your earthly happiness—the only opportunity for happiness you may ever have.

This is not to say that you do not bear responsibility for the things that are clearly in your control. But what is in your control and what is not? Stoic thinker Epictetus gave us an answer to this question. He said that mental attitudes such as desires, hopes, wishes, and preferences are generally in your control while external things—including whether you get the approval of others—are not.

You can indeed try to get the approval of others, or to change the course of the future in this or that way. You can also prefer that you succeed, and you can make reasonable judgments about the future. But none of this is identical to accurately predicting or altering the future. There is an indelible gap—and for the person who demands certainty, this gap is felt with deep visceral fear. This fear will not go away even when you are inebriated or tranquilized—for there is always the future, with its uncertainty, which bleeds through the flimsy veneer of all such makeshift, temporary hiding places. Tranquility is not an option unless you let it be.

But don't you have to take reasonable precautions? Don't you have to work within the limits of probability to make rational choices? Don't you have to make choices based on the evidence before you? Yes—this is exactly where your freedom over the future lies. But this does not build a bridge of certitude across the divide between now and then. It is not a time machine that lets you go forward in time, find out the future, and adjust the present to accommodate the future.

But even such a time machine couldn't avoid this gap. Even if you knew the future, you couldn't make your decisions now based on that future without, in turn, potentially changing that future. Let's say your time travel shows you how your marriage ends in divorce forty years down the road. Maybe you decide to divorce your wife in the present day so as to avoid a tragic ending to your marriage forty long years from now. But then you still don't know how things ultimately turn out because you have now changed the present, which will somehow affect the future.

Instead, suppose you discover in your time travels that your marriage works out in the future, so you decide to remain married in the here and now. But then you have still made a decision that could affect the outcome in the future. Do you now avoid going to counseling because you are certain that your marriage will succeed? But in fact, this has become something of which you no longer can be sure, because you have now changed the conditions of that future. Thus, you cannot avoid the inevitability of living in a world of uncertainty—even if you had a time machine!

How do you live in such a world without experiencing losing-control anxiety? You give up demanding certainty. But how do you do that? The answer to this lies in the cultivation of courage. Attaining serenity is possible only if you face the uncertainty of the future with courage. This means refusing to cave to the fear of uncertainty, forcing yourself to walk away from your rumination and worry, and to do something constructive with your life. It means having the courage to accept yourself as inherently flawed—as part of a universe that offers no guarantees, and as a being that lives imperfectly in this imperfect universe.

Courage is not an extreme. It is neither blind fearlessness nor cowardice. It is, as Aristotle says, a mean lying between these excesses. If there is a truck rapidly approaching, it is not courage to fearlessly attempt to cross the road. But if there is no sign of a truck, it is self-defeating to be afraid, even if there are no guarantees that a truck will not suddenly appear. Blind fearlessness will get you killed while cowardice will keep you from living. Either way, you won't get across the proverbial streets of life. In contrast, courage involves looking both ways, making a reasonable—albeit never certain—judgment that you can proceed, and then doing so.

Courage requires practicing this delicate balance, or golden mean, between being too afraid and not being afraid enough. It is only through such practice that you can acquire a habit of moderating your fear, which is exactly what being courageous is. There is no algorithm for calculating this golden mean. But there is, luckily, rational judgment grounded in evidence.

To overcome your fear of losing control, you can:

  • push yourself to act on the evidence, without demanding certainty, or in spite of your fear of the uncertainty
  • make a habit of this—not always and perfectly, but for the most part
  • resign yourself to live by probabilities, not by guarantees
  • accept yourself as an imperfect being who is inherently subject to making mistakes about the future
  • stop worrying and ruminating now, not later

These things really are in your control.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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