Stress Causes: Trying To Control The Wrong Things

by Doc Orman, M.D.


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In my first post this week, I talked about how mistaken ideas about control can cause us to experience stress.  I also talked about how much we need to, and want to, be in control over both our internal and external worlds. 

Also, we have many mistaken ideas about what we should be able to control…and what we can’t.  Either one of these major types of mistakes can lead to stress, but for today, I’m going to focus only on our common tendency to try to control the wrong things.

Our Mistaken Ideas Are Usually Unconscious

I don’t want to give you the impression that we have lots of conscious thoughts and ideas about what we can or can’t control (except when we hear ourselves saying or thinking that we “can’t do this…” or “can’t control that…”)  Much of the time, our assumptions about control are unconscious, meaning they reside in the background of our thinking and are therefore hidden from our view.

But they do strongly influence and drive our behaviors, nonetheless.  And it is our attempts (i.e., actions) to control things that we aren’t really able to control that mainly gets us into trouble and leads to unnecessary stress.

Things We Have No Business Trying To Control

What are some of the things that we commonly try to control…but shouldn’t?

Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is our external circumstances.  There are some things about our external world that we may be able to control, at least to some degree.  You can choose the neighborhood where you live, for example (at least many people can).  You can choose who you voluntarily decide to spend your time with.  You can choose the type of work you do or the career you want to pursue.  You can choose to maintain your car on a regular basis and change the engine oil every 3000 miles, to keep it in good working order.

But you cannot control the weather or avoid certain disasters when they strike.  You may not be able to pull up roots and move to a different neighborhood.  You cannot always control who you will be standing next to in the checkout line at your local grocery store (especially if that person gets in line behind you, once you’ve selected the checkout row you want).  And you may not always be able to control the people you have to work with or the customers you may need to serve.

The second big arena is our mistaken ideas about being able to control other people.  Most people discover, early on, that it’s extremely difficult to make other people behave in ways that you like, especially if they are not already prone to do so.  But this still doesn’t keep us from automatically (i.e. reflexively) still giving this low-probability strategy a try.

Also, when we see people behaving very, very badly, or if we clearly see them heading for preventable trouble, our control instincts become heightened, and we may automatically go into action, despite knowing from experience that our chances of success are small.

And the more we seem to care very deeply about other people, the more we are driven to want to change or control them, for their best interests, as well as for our own.

Trying To Solve Other People’s Problems

Another insidious way our mistaken ideas about control can cause us to experience stress is when we repeatedly take on the job of solving other people’s problems.  Even those of us who are professionally trained to do this, and who make our livings doing so, can easily fall into this trap of taking on certain types of problems that are truly not our responsibility (nor agency) to solve.

The other thing we fail to realize, even when we might be successful in certain instances, is that solving other people’s problems robs them of all the benefits of having to figure out how to solve important problems on their own, and it also makes them even more dependent upon us in the future, when additional problems appear.

What Other Examples Can You Think Of?

These are just a few examples of where we try to control things that we truly can’t control.  What other examples can you easily think of?  What lessons about trying to control the wrong things have you learned in your own life?

Please feel free to share you examples, and expand upon this dialogue, by leaving a comment below.

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