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Relax, Nothing Is Under Control

Four things that help you let go when there is nothing you can do.

Key points

  • Neuroscience has established that there is no thinker hidden in the brain.
  • Craving control results from vulnerability and a highly capable brain that produces illusions.
  • Some things need to be unlearned in the age of anxiety and harmful societal norms.

Everybody wants to have at least a modicum of control. Indeed, it can be highly traumatic when we suddenly lose power over our bodies or when circumstances change drastically. Even good change can cause us to feel disoriented. We are creatures of habit and do best when things are relatively predictable. If we become tossed up too much on the high sea of life, even the best of us will become seasick. In fact, nearly all creatures get motion-sick eventually, even fish!

Humans especially crave control or at least the illusion of control. This is so even though we are the masters of fire, have complex tools to our disposal, and can build incredibly safe shelters for ourselves.

However, we are also the most dependent creature. Some may hit adulthood when 40. Seriously, our maturation process is very long and complex, not only because things are changing so rapidly in modern times, but because life is messy. Transitions have always been hard, including for previous generations. 1 Things can and often do go wrong at crossroads. Shall we take the road less traveled? If so, what should we pack? It is wise to be ready, equipped, and hold on tight to our walking sticks.

But there is another reason why humans crave control: we have a brain that says that control is within our reach and a society that insists that this reaching for control makes us better and happier. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Make your own luck! Hold onto the memories! Be a go-getter! It is up to you!

Much good comes from taking control of what we can change, whether or not we overrate our degrees of freedom. Even though we might overlook the element of luck and accidental encounters, believing in our self-efficacy propels us into action where we would otherwise be petrified or unmotivated. But there comes a point of diminishing returns.

In fact, if we believe ourselves to be overly responsible, we become restless, worried, and unable to live in the moment. In some people, an exaggerated sense of control causes guilt and shame; in others, arrogance and boastfulness (See “ 5 Ways to Deal with Someone Who Never Stops Bragging ”). Our happiness is at stake if we cannot find within us the humility to admit that we do not have everything under control. To invite sanity into our lives, it might even be best to break entirely through the illusion of control. Maybe you find yourself needing a dose of reality as your experience is no longer grounded. If you long to unclench your fist and tap into a sense of basic trust, you might want to contemplate any of the following:

Things work without you: Your liver works without you having to be aware of its workings, just as other organs. You sweat when it is hot, not when you make a conscious decision. Your brain releases neurotransmitters and hormones into your bloodstream when it wants to. No permission needs to be given. In fact, your brain works like a liver (See “Your Brain Is Like a Liver” ). While some might feel squeamish about the body’s workings, many more will find it comforting.

Go for a walk through the forest: It is healing to walk through nature for a number of reasons. We move amidst a living and breathing entity. We smell the juices of the trees. The blues of the sky and the greens of the plants calm us naturally and unconsciously. There is nothing for us to do; everything is messy but perfectly in place. We accept nature’s messiness. The vacuum cleaner does not come to mind. The only thing to do is to walk and stare at the picture that engulfs us.

Notice how you do not know the end of your next thought: When you close your eyes and observe your thoughts, it will eventually occur to you that your thoughts pop up when they want to. They seem to come as if from nowhere. Do you think you are the thinker? Think again, but more calmly. Thoughts arise, and there is no telling how they meander, where they take you, and how they end. As you relax and observe with good enough attention, you might even notice that there is no separate thinker, thinking, and thought. It is but one experience. As you look at your thinking, you discover popcorn thoughts. Enjoy the show!

Admit that you have not chosen your family or DNA: It can be both, a relief and an insult that you are heavily influenced by your genetic material and early conditioning. Regardless, by admitting that you are not entirely in control of the messages that your body produces, you relieve yourself of the expectation that you can be completely in charge. Nobody has that much control. It is not your fault that you have inclinations and associations. This does not relieve you of all responsibility, but of the crazy thought of your omnipotence. We are limited. And as we all share this truth, we can relax and entrust ourselves to God or to existence.

Letting go of the illusion of control is a big part of happiness, as in “being fully engaged in life.” Let yourself feel as part of the ocean instead of as the little boat that is trying to make it through the never-ending waves of life.

© 2021 Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D. All rights reserved.


1) Julie Beck (2016). When Are You Really an Adult: In an age when the line between childhood and adulthood is blurrier than ever, what is it that makes people grown up? The Atlantic.