What we mean when we talk about control, part 1: Outside, inside

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

Steve speaking:)

Today I’m unpacking an important idea, one crucial to control addicts.  To everybody, in other words. 

But it’s a slippery idea, hard to nail down.  So I’ll need more than one post to do it.   How many, I don’t know yet.

Feedback and questions welcome while I’m unpacking.

Part 1: Outside, inside

Once upon a time the elderly residents of a nursing home were divided into two groups. 

Group A was given houseplants and told to decide where to place the plants in their rooms and when and how much to water them.  Group B was given houseplants and told the nursing staff would care for them.

Eighteen months later researchers compared the groups and found the plant-tending Group A members to be healthier, more cheerful, more active and more alert.  They also found that less than half as many A group members had died.

Citing this study as evidence of the importance of control, its author later wrote,

Perceiving control apparently is crucial not only to one’s psychological well-being but to one’s physical health as well. 

The belief in personal control may be essential to one’s sense of competence and is basic to human functioning.

When one’s belief in control is threatened, the result is severely incapacitating. 

                  (Ellen J. Langer, The Psychology of Control, 1983).

All this came to mind the other day while I was explaining the idea of control addiction to a new client named Lennie.

“Addiction?” Lennie said.  “That makes no sense.  Addiction’s a sickness.  You have to give up an addiction to be healthy.  But control is a necessity.  You can’t live without control.”

Lennie’s wife Alice is alcoholic.  And like most spouses of addicts, he suffers from what might be called boundary confusion.  He’s not sure where his life ends and hers begins.

When Alice has a bad day, so does he.  He’s concluded that to protect himself he has no choice but to try to control Alice’s addiction and its consequences.  So he begs her to stop drinking, threatens divorce, hides her booze, lies to her boss about why she missed work, lies to their kids about why she passed out on the sofa, and so on.

He’s as addicted to controlling as Alice is to drinking.

But what Lennie said makes sense, right?   Isn’t control a necessity?  Doesn’t the nursing home study prove that?

Not really.

Notice what Langer actually wrote:

Perceiving control apparently is crucial….

The belief in personal control…

When one’s belief in control is threatened….

We’re talking here about two things, not one. 

One outside, one inside. 

Actual control, versus a sense of control.

They’re not the same thing, as I pointed out in a post I wrote last year about power:

Imagine your rich uncle dies suddenly and leaves you control of his multinational corporation. You wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bux, Inc.

You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire, buy and sell, build plants or close them, approve product lines, mount advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.

How do you feel?

Actual control is what you’d have here.  But a sense of control?  I doubt it.

One’s an objective reality; one’s a subjective experience.  Actual control means the ability to dictate or transform external circumstances — make people, place and things behave as we like.  Sense of control means  feeling competent, grounded, secure and calm inside — in control of one’s internal state. 

Put another way:  actual control describes something we achieve out in the world, while sense of control describes something we achieve in our heads.

“So what?” you ask.  “Why is this distinction important?”

Because actual control and sense of control are achieved by quite different methods.

Because chasing one makes you healthy, while chasing the other makes you sick.

And because one’s a lot easier to come by than the other.

(To be continued.)

* * *

Want more?

Langer is a famous psychologist poised to get much more famous, but not in the ways most researchers do.

She is best known for two things: her concept of mindlessness — the idea that much of what we believe to be rational thought is in fact just our brains on autopilot — and her concept of mindfulness, the idea that simply paying attention to our everyday lives can make us happier and healthier.

And now a movie about her life is in development with Jennifer Aniston signed on to star as Langer.

~ From “Mind Power” by Drake Bennett, Boston Globe, February 10, 2010.

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4 responses to “What we mean when we talk about control, part 1: Outside, inside

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