The enticing illusion of control

We all like to feel like we are in control... but what if all those controls didn't really work? Discover why we need to take a different approach when dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions.

Imagine your brain had its own mixing desk, just like one in a big recording studio with all sorts of fancy knobs, buttons and switches. From this desk you can control absolutely everything.

Grab that worry switch and fade it right down. Hear that annoying repetitive track where your inner voice tells you you’re not good enough? Just use that other button and silence it. Now, see those happiness, joy and love switches? Let’s boost them right up! And do we really want to hear from sadness, frustration and disappointment? I think they are really ruining the party vibe, so why don’t we cut them too? I’m also picking up a few things in the background. There’s some insecurity, some existential angst and some little section of your brain which keeps getting stuck on the five words you know from some awful yet very catchy Taylor Swift song. How about we just drop those out of the mix as well?

Now let’s go down a layer to the subconscious. This dream you keep having where you are doing an impossible maths exam and the time runs out and everyone starts pointing at you because you are naked and no good at maths – how about we edit that? Perhaps instead you could be riding a Pegasus/unicorn while adoring dolphins moonwalk on the water to celebrate your glorious arrival. That would be much better wouldn’t it?

The idea of having a big control panel like this is really, really attractive. We’re humans after all and most of us love to feel in control. But just imagine what would happen if all those fancy knobs, buttons and switches on your personal mixing desk didn’t really work.

You try to silence your inner critic and instead it gets louder. You try to turn down the volume on sadness, frustration and disappointment, but you also end up turning down the volume on happiness, joy and love. You try to get rid of that annoying Taylor Swift chorus but instead it just keeps playing over and over again. You dial in Pegasus/unicorns for your dreams but still you end up horribly exposed and failing a maths exam.

That’s pretty much exactly what happens in real life, so what can you do? The answer is to take a big step back from that malfunctioning mixing desk and stop trying to exert control. All that constant knob-twiddling is an exhausting task and because it never really works the way you want it to, it can also be exceptionally frustrating.

Stepping back and simply observing what is going on in the brain sounds simple, but it’s not easy. Whenever a difficult thought arises, it’s likely you will be very tempted to return to that big mixing desk and start fiddling with the dials again. But remember, this inner thought track doesn’t always have to be some perfect soundscape, with the drummer in perfect time, the horn section in perfect harmony and James Brown screaming “I feel good” over the top.

Every thought is just a thought. It’s not necessarily wise, important, useful or as uplifting as your favourite old-school funk. But you don’t have to get rid of all these ‘imperfect’ thoughts. You don’t have to desperately grab at the dials and try to cut them out.

When you learn mindfulness, what you are really learning is to step back from that big control panel. It probably won’t come very naturally. It takes practise just to observe thoughts and let them come and go. It takes time before you stop thinking of some thoughts as good and other thoughts as bad, dangerous ones that you need to get rid of.

With more practise however, your mind is likely to become quieter. Not all of those thoughts which once seemed urgent and important, will have the same pull on you. And when you are less caught up in all that mind chatter, you may find you are more able to focus on the things that really matter.

Stepping back from the control panel can also help you to handle your emotions far more effectively. Unfortunately, many of us have been taught to fear uncomfortable emotions and we tend to dive for the controls whenever they pop up. We simply don’t want emotions such as sadness, frustration or disappointment ruining our happy mix, so we go to great efforts to try to edit them out.

When you learn how to practise mindfulness with emotions, it may also feel a little uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Instead of trying to turn down the volume of these emotions or get rid of them, you learn to actually take notice of them. You allow yourself to have a natural human response, observe how these emotions feel in your body and bring compassion to yourself. While it’s not what most of us were brought up to do, it is probably one of the most valuable skills you could ever pick up.

Emotions are messengers and just like thoughts, trying to edit them out will only make them more determined for their message to be heard. When you instinctually dive for that dial, you create an avoidance cycle. Those emotions which you are trying so hard to suppress don’t just go away. Instead, they often intensify over time and bring greater emotional and physical distress (psychologists refer to this as the suppression effect).

To deal with this distress (or rather to not deal with it) we typically employ all sorts of avoidance strategies. Again, we grab for the controls and try to replace that uncomfortable feeling with something we find more exciting, more comforting or more desirable. It’s completely understandable that you might prefer cake to sadness, wine to disappointment or online shopping to grief. But if you continually stuff yourself with cake, load up on wine or max out your credit card, your problems will not magically go away. Instead you will have bigger problems, a growing avoidance cycle and more uncomfortable emotions flying your way.

Tailored mindfulness exercises such as “creating space” go beyond the basic mindfulness skills and delve a little deeper – by helping you process and integrate your emotional experiences. With this approach you can hear the messages contained in emotions and understand the underlying values. Rather than grabbing for the controls in a perpetual state of confusion, discomfort and fear, you can do something very different. With this mindful approach, you can compassionately support your mind and body, whilst processing the uncomfortable sensations which accompany your emotions. This stops the suppression effect and ends the avoidance cycle.

This mindful approach has another major benefit over reaching for the controls. Emotions are very hard to dull selectively, so when you try to silence sadness, you may also put a dampener on other emotions like joy. As well as giving you a way to process uncomfortable emotions, mindfulness allows us to experience all those wonderful feel-good emotions in a much richer, fuller way.

While that old mixing desk is comfortable and familiar, the sense of control it provides is actually an illusion. By stepping back from it, you will be making a big life-changing move in the right direction. With practise, you can become far more adept at handling difficult thoughts and far less fearful of uncomfortable emotions. You can become less caught up in all the trivial annoyances, mind chatter and other unhelpful bits and bobs which crowd your mind*. Over time you can become far more resilient and far better equipped to take on any challenge life throws your way!

*with the possible exception of super-catchy pop song choruses – those things are like Velcro for the mind! It’s a little-known fact that the Dalai Lama has had the Britney Spears song Baby One More Time stuck in his head since it was first released in 1999.