Need for Control and Certainty

“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”

John A. Shedd

When you have anxiety, control becomes very important. To feel safe, you control whatever happens around you. If you absolutely must feel safe, then it becomes necessary to monitor and micromanage everything. Without control, your sense of threat quickly escalates, and you may do whatever’s necessary to win back control, even if it’s completely irrational or emotionally overwrought.

Feeling that things are out of control feels very dangerous for people with anxiety. Cognitively, you may obsessively monitor possible sources of threat, imagine what could go wrong, and develop plans for every possible contingency. Emotionally, you may react by trying to avoid or escape, pushing people away or pulling them close, crying, yelling, walling out others, or even going into complete denial.

The Need for Certainty

Associated with the need for control is the need for certainty. Where there is no certainty, there is no control. In extreme cases, this need is so strong that whenever anything is predicted, the person automatically asks “How sure am I? Am I one hundred percent sure?” There are almost always uncontrolled variables in life, so it’s nearly impossible to be absolutely certain about anything. So then they start looking for anything and everything that might go wrong. Since there are no guarantees, everything seems fraught with risk. Any amount of uncertainty is equated with catastrophe.

When they are involved in something that’s actively unfolding, they monitor and analyze every possible indicator as a means forecasting which way things will go. To the extent that the situation is ambiguous, that is, when there are too many unknowns to make a prediction with any confidence, then the situation is interpreted as highly threatening. Catastrophes hide in ambiguity.

Irrational Beliefs About Control

Complicating the picture is the fact that people often have irrational beliefs about control. For example, you may believe that control is either something you have or something you don’t. You may believe that you have absolutely no control, or alternately, that you have much more control than you really do. You may also have superstitious beliefs about what signals indicate you have control and what signals indicate you don’t.

In fact, you control almost nothing external to your own self. That which cannot be completely controlled must be managed, and anything which is managed may blow up out of control.

Epictetus’ Dichotomy of Control

Epictetus was born into slavery, was crippled by his master, and died in poverty. Yet, he also became one of the world’s most famous Stoic philosophers.

Epictetus popularized what is called the Stoic “Dichotomy of Control.” The concept is very easy to understand and very hard to practice. The dichotomy states that some things are within our power and others are not. According to Epictetus, “Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and…whatever is in our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and…whatever is not of our own doing.” Those things within are power are said to be “internals,” while those things outside of our control are said to be “externals.”

According to Stoicism, much misery is generated by trying to control externals, that is, by trying to control that which cannot be controlled. When we try to control that which cannot be controlled, the result is disappointment and futility.

You might object to the word “control” as used by Epictetus. You might argue that you do control you body, your property, and your reputation. In fact, you have may have steered events toward some good outcome many times, but you do not strictly control the outcome. Hence, your body may develop illness, despite your devotion to a healthy lifestyle. A natural disaster destroy your property. Your reputation may be ruined by falsehoods. Any office you may occupy may be stolen from you by corruption. You may be more successful than not, but do not fall into the trap of overestimating the extent of your own power. Success with externals simply represents simply the cooperation of random events, which have not derailed your plans…yet.

According to the Stoics, emotional regulation involves respecting the “dichotomy of control.” Our opinions, motivations, desires, aversions, and actions, these “internals” are within our control. Everything else is outside our control. We control nothing of what happens in the world, and nothing of what happens in the mind of another human being. So much more is outside of our control and power than is within our control and power. What we control is actually very little. Because we do succeed in guiding events to a good outcome part of the time, we come to believe that we have much more control than we actually do, an illusion of control.

What are the implications for our conduct?

First, an effort to control that which cannot be controlled is practically the definition of anxiety. Anxiety is about the perception of threat. Externals are always under threat, precisely because they are externals. As such, we must learn to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot control. We must give up our illusions and understand that with enough time and randomness, all externals will succumb to some uncontrollable and possibly catastrophic event. This leads to the first exercise in this section, which asks you to distinguish between what you can and cannot control in your own life. As you make your list, remember to include as within your control only what you actually determine.