How we relentlessly pursue control–and continually disappoint ourselves
My granddaughter is five years old (“almost six,” she would tell you), and being an opinionated, outspoken 5-year-old, she has high standards for Santa Claus. When she visited him at the mall, she tugged on her parents’ coats: “Is this the real Santa?… Or one of Santa’s helpers supporting him during Santa’s busiest season?… Or just an imposter in a costume?” And on Christmas Eve, as we rolled out cookies and sprinkled food for the reindeer on the front porch, she had to know: “Do the reindeer eat cookies too… or just carrots? How can we be sure that Santa will see the cookies? What if Santa’s gluten-free?”
She wants to be certain; knowing the outcome will make her feel comfortable and secure. She wants to know when he’s coming (“Before midnight, or after midnight?”), which direction he’ll be coming from (we tracked him on an app for hours in advance), and of course, if he’s delivering the presents she’s explicitly asked for in her letter. With expectations this high, Santa Claus has a lot to live up to.
I too have a high set of standards—not for Santa, but for myself and the world around me. You and I haven’t met, but my guess is that you hold a set of standards that aren’t so different. Here’s a handful of them that come to mind:
- To feel physically and psychologically comfortable
- To feel safe in the world
- To spend my time and energy on tasks and relationships I enjoy
- To feel confident in my decisions
- To avoid mistakes whenever possible
- To experience a sense of success
- To feel satisfied and content in my moment-to-moment experiences
These goals live inside me—and they likely live inside you as well. They’re a core part of our psychological makeup. Here’s the problem: If we’re not paying close attention, we adopt these goals as expectations. Realistically, we can never accomplish these goals on a consistent basis; the universe will always fail to line up according to our wishes. So, when we invest in these standards, we end up disappointing ourselves more often than not.
Certainty and Comfort
Of all these standards, two seem primary to us all: certainty and comfort. Maintaining a sense of confidence and comfort will make our lives more satisfying (or so we think). Knowing what’s coming next will make us more comfortable.
By establishing these priorities, we inevitably create an enemy of any doubt or distress that arises. When we want to feel secure and confident, and we start feeling insecure, then we respond accordingly: We feel an urge to get rid of it. When we are doubtful, we rapidly act to remove it—because doubt breeds the distress of not knowing. We’re overcome by a familiar sensation: “I don’t want this.” We develop a low tolerance for losing, being in conflict, being misunderstood, or feeling confused. We don’t want to have to cook dinner when we’re tired, or pull a muscle during exercise, or lie in bed sick.
I definitely fit into this tribe. I don’t want to feel insecure financially, or worry about an undiagnosed condition, or sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I want security. I want to feel at ease and know what’s coming next. Who wouldn’t want that? So, we are all, I think, consciously motivated and unconsciously driven to seek the comfort of certainty.
These desires will always be sitting inside of us, tugging at us, beckoning to us just as Homer’s sirens called out to Odysseus, tempting him with the promise of comfort and certainty: “Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens.”
And these desires can quickly transform into demands. Seek control now. Find comfort now. Doubt and distress are unwelcome. Don’t let them in. Instead, seek the relief of certainty. I have developed deep respect for their permanent presence and their powerful influence over my decisions.
So, I surrender to the fact that I will never get rid of these desires—and I suggest that you do the same. Just like me, you’re forever going to want to feel safe and certain and comfortably in control. Your unconscious will seek to eliminate any negative thoughts and feelings. Moment by moment, it monitors for doubt and discomfort and periodically sends you a message: “Inner disturbance detected. Remove at once.” You feel the urge to eliminate that doubt because your unconscious wants it gone. “I am experiencing something unpleasant. Unpleasant experiences should be eliminated.” That goal is built right into your psyche.
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If we aren’t sure and we need to be, it generates worry:
Am I 100% positive that I didn’t make a mistake?
Am I sure my children are safe right now?
Am I certain yet that buying this house is better than renting?
When our desire for comfort, confidence, and security turns into a requirement, it will drive a great deal of our worries, fears, self-criticisms, and disappointments.
Why? Because, as my granddaughter is gradually learning, the world (Santa included) does not always comply with our wishes. We cannot live our lives while simultaneously maintaining a sense of comfort and certainty as well as requiring some assurance of the outcome. It simply doesn’t work that way. Having those expectations disrupts our ability to solve problems and stifles our intellectual and emotional growth. When we seek out guarantees that don’t exist, then we will always back away from decisions, back away from action, and move farther and farther away from a truly satisfying life.
It’s ironic, I know, and it even seems counterintuitive, but it’s true: By seeking control, we lose control. It’s time to give up control. It’s time to give up our relentless pursuit of comfort and certainty. We have better things to do with our lives.
Further reading: “Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry,” HCI Books, 2016.