Why controlling everything makes you unhappy

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On New Year’s Day, 2020, our Facebook feeds were flooded with promising “New year, new me” posts with endless lists of goals and resolutions.


These start-of-the-year shenanigans aren’t new, except that we were also welcoming a new decade, making it more momentous for many.


“Follow my passions”, “get that promotion”, “finally hit the gym”, “start my own business”, the 2020 bucket lists went on, and everyone was determined to tick off every item, because who the hell can stop them?


Covid-19, apparently.


We’ve all seen it: businesses either had to shut down or lay off half their employees. We were all put in quarantine, ruining travel plans for some, academic plans for others, and entire livelihoods for many.


Needless to say, the prolonged restrictions took a toll on people’s mental health. Despite the guidelines being implemented for everyone’s health and safety, anti-lockdown protests started as an outcry for “freedom”.


Nevermind the science behind face masks and social distancing - with Facebook comments and Youtube videos as their sources, people argued that not infecting others with the virus should be a choice (unlike smoking in enclosed public spaces, right?). 


Adding fuel to the fire, new conspiracy theories surfaced and spread almost as fast as the virus itself, giving flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers a run for their money.


The onslaught of Covid-19 was so sudden and the world was left clueless about all the hows and whys. Was it a man-made virus? Do we blame bat soup consumers? Well, it seemed no further evidence was needed when someone decided that 5G technology had something (or everything) to do with it.


Desperate for answers, many believed it, just as they believed that quarantine was the government’s ploy to control our freedom.


And not only did they believe these theories. People were angry, people were rioting, people were demanding freedom, ignoring all evidence that proved them wrong.


No, I’m not here to shame conspiracy theorists and misinformed protesters. In fact, I’m here to tell you that all their misplaced anger, passion, and misinformation are very human reactions.


When our sense of control is stripped away from us, we tend to lose control of ourselves.


And that’s because this sense of control is a deep, very human need.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow designed a five-tier hierarchy of needs, wherein needs at the lower tiers must be satisfied first (i.e. basic needs) before meeting the needs higher in the pyramid.


From bottom to top, these needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation, as depicted in the image below:



To explain more clearly, you can’t fulfil your needs for achievements and rewards (esteem needs), for example, if you don’t have food or water, which you need for you to survive and for your body to function properly (physiological needs).


So where does control come into the picture?


Looking at the hierarchy, the lower we go down the pyramid, more control is involved, making control a very basic need.


So it’s not hard to imagine what happens when control is taken away from us: it results in disorder and destruction - like how a few BLM protests have asserted their demand for equal rights through violence.


This same effect is what we see in the questionable protests for freedom against Covid restrictions.


Many people feel that they are denied control over the physiological need of air by having to wear face masks. They also believe that they’ve lost control over what they can eat, given the restrictions to go out of their homes and buy food.


The lockdown also denied us of several psychological needs like meeting up with friends and loved ones, excelling at our jobs (or having jobs at all), and allowing us to focus on our hobbies and passions for self-fulfilment.


Without a sense of control over most of our human needs, people impulsively react and find ways to get back that sense of control. 


And more often than not, that means standing up against the very people who’ve taken this control from them (e.g. the government).

Why do we need a sense of control?

Truth is, it isn’t exactly control itself that we need, it’s the sense of control.


In reality, there is always someone or something external to us that is in control of our needs, whether that’s our parents, authorities, or even huge corporations that distribute some of our most basic needs.


So it’s the sense of control that we need, because let’s face it, this sense of control makes us feel as if we have our life together and get to act on our own terms.


To name a few, here are some reasons why having a sense of control is important to all of us:

  • Our sense of control equates to our sense of freedom. As highly intelligent beings, we value our free will and our ability to decide for ourselves. 
  • Control comes with certainty. Uncertainty leads to anxiety. With a sense of control, we don’t have to think too much about maybes and what-ifs, because we feel we already know the outcome.
  • We understand how things work. Control over something gives us a better understanding of it and how we can use it to improve our lives. It also helps us understand that in many ways, people and things are consistent.
  • We get things done. If we feel like we have control over time, money, and other resources, we can complete outstanding to-dos on our list.


Ultimately, having a sense of control also gives us a sense of:

  • power, because we have the knowledge and the freedom to get what we need; and 
  • peace, because the certainty and the ability to better predict what will happen reduces the risks we take and prepares us mentally for the outcomes of our actions, whether good or bad.


So if having a sense of control is this essential to our needs as human beings, what can we do when we feel that this is taken away from us?

Let go of control

Obviously, the answer isn’t to let your emotions get the better of you.


Yeah, you need that sense of control, and yeah, without it you’ll feel uneasy or angry. But that doesn’t mean you have to cause any trouble just to get it back.


The answer is simpler than you think: it’s not about getting control back, it’s about letting it go.


As mentioned earlier, the reality is that we don’t have true control over most things, but we only realise it when it involves our basic needs, or when we’re made conscious of it (e.g. through the media).


The moment we let go of control, our anxieties subside, our stress fades, and we welcome peace in our minds again.


But of course, the art of letting go takes time to learn and is easier said than done. So, here are three tips on how to change your mindset and allow yourself to let go of control:

1. Do your research on the issues at hand.

Social media affects most of us more than we want to admit. And with how flexible these networks are, most of us get our daily dose of news from Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. 


On these websites, it doesn’t take long for any controversial news to become viral. We see one side of the puzzle, and based on the few minutes we’ve spent watching the video and reading a bunch of comments, we form our opinions.


These opinions are influenced by what we call “cognitive bias”, which Verywell Mind defines as “a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them and affects the decisions and judgments that they make.”


In other words, cognitive bias happens when we try to understand a new piece of information by fitting it in the context of what we’ve already known, experienced, or believed beforehand.


That’s why a person can be quick to judge a certain topic they know so little of.


The way that Covid-related conspiracy theories and outrage spread like wildfire is mostly a product of these biases. They let their fear cloud their judgment.


The result? Issues get blown out of proportion. People feel more victimised than they should be. And we end up with things like riots and its online counterpart, “cancel culture”.


Don’t believe everything you see on the internet. Just because something is getting all the attention and hype, doesn’t mean it’s true. The internet is the biggest, most accessible library - it’s your responsibility to educate yourself to inform your opinions.

2. Assess whether it impacts you on a day-to-day basis.

There’s a lot of bad news going on around the world at any given point in time, and there’s so little of it that we can control.


So before you let your emotions get the better of you, take a step back and ask yourself, “Does this really affect the way I live?”


What people tend to forget is that fear practically means “False Evidence Appearing Real”. Our need for control normally stems from the fear of losing what we have (or the opportunity to have more).


So when it seems like control is being taken away from you, start questioning your fears. More often than not, you’ll realise that you’ve been panicking or raging over something that won’t affect you. 


Assess if the issue concerns your hierarchy of needs. Once it’s outside of that, you can let go.


This in no way means that you should be apathetic towards everyone else’s struggles, but with the peace of mind that letting go will give you, you’ll have a clearer mind in helping them in the ways that you can, limited as they are.

3. Understand that not everything is up to you.


Letting go of control means accepting that things don’t need to go your way in order to have a good outcome.


To accept that, you need to understand that all of us as human beings are limited in what we can do. There are just too many external factors that greatly affect us in the most unexpected times. 


The pandemic, for instance, caused millions to lose their jobs. Letting go means understanding that it’s not your fault if you were laid off even if you were performing well. 


Fixating on blaming yourself or forcing yourself to fix something that is out of your hands will just stress you out and waste your time. Circumstances will not always agree with you and your plans no matter how well-thought-out they are, and that’s just a fact of life.


So rather than worrying over the things you can’t control, focus on what you can instead. Redirect your sense of control. Detach yourself from certain outcomes. Accept that some things will always be out of your hands.


Philanthropist Tony Robbins once said, “Do you want to change your life? Control the only thing you can control: The meaning you give something.”


By educating ourselves on controversial issues, choosing our battles, and understanding that things won’t always go our way, we form a mindset that allows us to let go of control.


Ironic as it sounds, letting go gives us everything that a sense of control also gives: peace of mind, clarity, and freedom.


“You must learn to let go. Release the stress. You were never in control anyway.” - Steve Maraboli, American writer.


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