The Problem with Control - Counselling Newsletter

Published: 3 Jul 2018

The Control Paradox

Human-beings are addicted to control. One reason for this is that we have such very large and sophisticated brains. Our ‘big brains’ have allowed us to exert an amazing degree of control over our environment. For example, consider the downtown area of any major city. Virtually everything you see there is a testament to our ability to control and shape our surroundings. It's not surprising, therefore, that one of our first instincts when confronted with an unwelcome experience is to somehow try to control that experience. This ‘control instinct’ pops up automatically and without our even noticing it all the time. In most cases, it works very well. If you spill a glass of water, you exert control by wiping it up. If you find that you're too warm wearing that jacket, you take it off. Bothered by the glare from the sun? You raise a hand to shield your eyes or put on your sunglasses. In countless ways, every day, all day long, we are exercising control. Our primary operating principle could be summed up as; ‘if you don't like it, get rid of it.’

Control of Thoughts

While control works for us in so many situations, when it comes to controlling our thoughts, control seems to have the opposite of the desired effect. Most people find that the more they want to avoid thinking about something, the more likely they are to think about that very something. In fact, it is only when we decide that ‘I must not think about X’ that we begin to experience thoughts about X as intrusive and pervasive. The stronger the prohibitions against a thought, the more out of our control the thought seems to be. Most of us have experienced this in social situations when we have told ourselves, ‘don't look at the pimple on his nose’ or ‘don't think about that bit of spinach between her teeth.’ Good luck with that! In some cases, when thoughts are especially disturbing and we believe that we absolutely, positively, must not think them, these thoughts can become obsessions.

The CAPS e-newsletter last month features cognitive defusion to step back from unhelpful thoughts provides examples on how to overcome these attempts at control.

Control of Feelings

A similar paradox occurs when we try to control our emotions, such as anxiety. Imagine what would happen if you were interviewing for a job that you wanted very much. The interviewer tells you that a major qualification for this particular job is that you be able to remain calm and relaxed at all times. To test for this, during the interview, you will be hooked up to an ‘anxiety-meter’ that will measure your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, perspiration, and breathing. All of this data will be fed into the machine, which will give a read-out of your anxiety level throughout the interview. What do you think would happen to your anxiety level as you were being hooked up to the machine? What would happen if the interviewer said ‘Oh my! Your anxiety is much too high. You'll have to do better than that!’ Would your anxiety go up or down?

If you're like most people, your anxiety would probably increase the harder you tried to make it decrease. Instead of ‘if you don't like it, get rid of it’, the principle that seems to apply here is, ‘if you try to get rid of it, you're going to have more of it.’ Why is this? Remember that anxiety is the fight-or-flight response. This is the response that helps us to take control of a threatening situation. If the situation that we need to control is anxiety, however, then we are eliciting the very response that we want to get rid of. This is the control paradox.

Letting Go of Control

One technique that can help us let go of control is called, ‘expansion’. Expansion means opening up and making room for painful feelings and sensations. You learn how to drop the struggle with them, give them some breathing space, and let them be there without getting all caught up in them, or overwhelmed by them. The more you can open up, and give them room to move, the easier it is for your feelings to come and go without draining you or holding you back.


For example, scan your body, observing where you feel some moderately uncomfortable emotion (don’t practice this strategy with an intense emotion or if you feel at all unsafe). Let’s say that you report experiencing a huge ball in your stomach. Now just observe the sensation of the ball as if you are a scientist who has never seen anything like it before. Notice the shape, weight, vibration, temperature, pulsation, and other aspects of it. Breathe into the ball, make room for it, allowing it to be there. Even though you don’t like it or want it there, you can accept that it is there, a part of you. Practice observing the ball of uncomfortable emotion, not trying to get rid of it, but just letting the sensation of the ball, and possibly other sensations associated with it to come and go as they please. Acknowledging them, not resisting them, but also not engaging with them. You can practice this strategy by reading Dr Russ Harris’ books like, ‘The Happiness Trap.’

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