- The dichotomy of control is one of the most helpful Stoic ideas.
- It consists of two distinct ideas: controlling the controllable and letting go of everything else.
- Analysing positive examples of its use sheds further light on how to interpret the dichotomy of control and its benefits.
"Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions." –Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1
What is the dichotomy of control?
The Roman Stoic Epictetus introduces the dichotomy of control at the very beginning of his Enchiridion (Handbook). The Stoics thought that there were really only two things we had direct control over, namely our voluntary actions and how we think about things. Everything else—such as our bodily sensations, the past, what other people think about us, and the outcome of our actions—is outside our direct control. The crucial point is that we should adopt a totally different attitude to things, depending on whether they are in our control or not. We need to focus on “controlling the controllables” and cultivate an attitude of detachment from everything else.
Why the dichotomy of control matters
Epictetus is typically forthright about our likely fate if we fail to make this distinction.
“You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men.” –Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1
Recent research backs up the value of the dichotomy of control. During Stoic Week 2022, over 2,000 participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with two statements relating to the different parts of the dichotomy of control (namely “I control the controllables” and “I let go of things that I can’t control"). They also filled in questionnaires measuring their life satisfaction, flourishing, and emotions. Both parts of the dichotomy of control were found to have significant positive correlations with all parts of well-being. Of note, “controlling the controllables” had an extremely high correlation with flourishing (.51) whilst “letting go of things I cannot control” had a particularly significant association with the balance of positive over negative emotions (.47).
The dichotomy of control in practice
When I asked people to describe situations where Stoicism had helped them for my book 365 Ways to be More Stoic, over a quarter of respondents cited the dichotomy of control. Analysing four key success stories sheds light on how to put the dichotomy of control into practice.
- Megan, who suffers from interview nerves, was worrying about a crucial interview the next day (entry 27 in 365 Ways to Be More Stoic).
- Relaxing in a bar, Walter was spat on by a drunk (entry 230).
- Shane found himself experiencing bouts of anxiety and ruminative thinking after workplace bullying (entry 261).
- Jay, a young man in prison for drug dealing, heard a talk about Stoicism (entry 357).
Before proceeding further, you might like to consider your answers to these two questions about each case.
a) How could the dichotomy of control help each of these four protagonists?
b) What future adversity did they most likely avert by using the dichotomy of control?
- Megan managed her nerves by reminding herself that whilst she couldn’t control the interviewers or their questions, she could control how she prepared. “This served me well in the interview and I got the job.” Had she spent the evening worrying about things outside her control, she would most likely have been much less prepared and a lot more anxious.
- Walter knew that whilst he couldn’t teach virtue to a drunk man, he could control his response to being spat on. He achieved this by relabelling the spit as “dirty water, just dirty water.” He went home, took a shower, and congratulated himself on avoiding a pointless fight.
- Shane learned that although he couldn’t control initial, automatic negative thoughts about the bullying, he could, with practice, learn to monitor them and let go of things not under his control. He described this as building “let it go” psychological muscle.
- Jay realized that whilst he couldn’t control the past, including his upbringing or his incarceration, he could choose what to do with the rest of his life. Embracing Stoicism gave him a new purpose. Jay became a mentor to young offenders, to help them avoid making the mistakes he had made.
What precisely is under our direct control and what is not
These four success stories underline the importance of being clear about exactly what is and is not under your control.
Not directly under your control are the past (Shane and Jay), other people (Shane, Megan, and Walter), our automatic physiological responses, and negative thoughts (Walter and Shane).
Under your direct control is your response to the flight and fight response and to automatic negative thoughts, what you do in the here and now (Megan), and what you do in the future (Jay).
The dichotomy of control and common mental health problems
Epictetus famously asserted that people are disturbed not by events but by their judgments about events (Enchiridion, 5), an insight that inspired Beck and Ellis to develop modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
What happens when you add the dichotomy of control to this insight?
- We cannot control events (the past, other people, bodily sensations, initial automatic thoughts).
- We can control our judgments and our responses to events.
- People are disturbed not by events so much as by their judgments about them.
Could it be that we do have control over being disturbed by events if only we focus on our judgments rather than on trying to change the events?
Stoic scholar John Sellars puts it this way: “(Epictetus) thinks that much of human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when in fact we don’t” (Sellars, 2019).
- Worry and general anxiety happen when we overthink aspects of the future that we cannot directly control.
- Depression is strongly linked to rumination, which involves overthinking about the past, which we cannot control.
- Social anxiety is exacerbated by worrying too much about what other people think about you.
- Anger and frustration are increased when we assume we can control people.
Of course, CBT has developed some very specific models and protocols for helping people overcome many disorders (such as the Clarke and Wells model, 1995, for social anxiety) and based on the current evidence, these should be the first point of call for practitioners. However, I believe there is a good case for research on the relationship between the dichotomy of control and common mental health disorders. There is already plenty of evidence that embracing the dichotomy of control can help with resilience, flourishing, and life satisfaction.
Clark, D. M., Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. In R. Heimberg, M. Liebowitz, D. A. Hope, & F. R. Schneier (Eds.), Social phobia: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
Epictetus, Enchiridion, translated by Elizabeth Carter (1750)
LeBon, T (2022) Report on Stoic Week 2022 ( https://modernstoicism.com/report-on-stoic-week-2022-by-tim-lebon/)
Lebon, T. (2022) 365 Ways to be More Stoic London: John Murray Press.
Sellars, J (2019) Lessons in Stoicism: Penguin
Pigliucci, M. (2020) The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life : Penguin