Control, Where is it always possible?


Resilience is the ability to cope well with difficulties and to bounce back from setbacks.While some people are naturally more resilient than others, resiliency can also be intentionally developed.

Control - Where is it always possible?

Having a sense of control is a critical part of responding resiliently. Humans tend not to like the feeling of being blown around by the winds of chance (I suppose there may be a few who like this!). Years ago dogs were placed in an experimental situation where they learned to jump across to the other side of the room in order to stop a slight shock. Other dogs were yoked to this first group of dogs, that is, they received the same shock and cessation of shock as the dog they were yoked to, but had no control over the shock. The yoked dogs were one of many experimental groups who showed "learned helplessness". If we feel things happen to us in our world that are beyond our control, and we continue to collect evidence that this is so, then we learn to feel helpless. When we feel helpless to change our situation, we are very unlikely to problem solve as needed in order to respond resiliently to an adversity - why problem solve when we have no control?

More mild examples of what I have just described are often detected in statements such as the following: "What good will (insert certain type of action here) do, nothing ever changes in this place." "It doesn't matter what you say to the boss, he/she never really pays attention." "Why should I care, or work any harder, it's never appreciated around here." I dare to suggest that almost all of us have felt or said some version of this at some point; or at least heard someone we know say something like this! Regaining a sense of control is an important step in increasing our level of resilience. And there is one area of control for which this is relatively easy.

There are situations and people that we cannot control, and sometimes cannot even influence (although I recommend conceding this only after a focused and concerted effort). While we may know ourselves to be stubborn and inflexible, we still do have more control over ourselves than things outside ourselves. And one area in particular where we have control is in how we respond to any given situation or person. We may not be able to change an adversity into a less challenging situation, but we can control our response to adversity (or any situation). When faced with a very tough situation that you wish were different, ask yourself: If I cannot avoid it, change it, or make it go away, what if I changed my response to it?

Changing our responses is one of those things that is easier said than done. And, a first step is to become more of an observer of your reaction. Notice the thoughts running through your head. Notice the emotions you feel. And notice any particular stress or ache in your body. Next stretch your curiosity muscle. Ask yourself: What can I learn about my reactions to difficulties? In what other ways might I understand this situation? In what other possible ways might I deal with this? Suppose your boss blows up again instead of reading the e-mail through to the end - you might say to yourself: "There he goes again, ready to blow a gasket, doesn't mean I have to blow a gasket with him." Or if your teen leaves the kitchen a mess once again, and you don't feel like yelling once again, you can tell your teen in a very calm voice: "The next time this happens you will lose (fill in blank) privilege", and then do it. Or, suppose a driver cuts you off once again, practice deep breathing, or go work out when you finish your day.

We can get angry, or not. We can get frustrated that the situation/person is the way it is, or not. (A useful visual here is getting frustrated that a cat likes to climb.) We almost always have control over our response to something, particularly with a little practice. Focus on what can be influenced, rather than what cannot be influenced. Work toward regaining a sense of control by controlling your response, as an important step toward increasing resilience.

Carolyn S. Tal, PhD; Psychologist and Consultant

Working with individuals and partners in developing resilience and related issues.