When a storm is brewing around you—family drama, added pressures at work—how do you feel inside?
As explored deeply in our section on Your Storied Life, there is a separation between what happens and our ideas. It is the combination of these that create our lived experience.
So where do our mental states, internal dialogues, and preconceptions sit in that Venn diagram?
You can measure your Mental Independence—along with hundreds of other subfactors in 50+ factors of well-being—in the Assessment Center. Go check it out!
Our Need for Control
A lot comes into play with Mental Independence. And an interesting element to highlight is control. When things don’t go our way, we grasp for control, eliciting an emotional reaction. Life is full of factors that are outside of our control, but present as if they’re part of us: our finances, our love life, even the weather we’re experiencing. However, ultimately, our control begins and ends in our minds.
Let’s consider an example in which control and mental independence come into play: death.Death can be an overwhelming concept, wrought with fear and aversion. On the other hand, reminding oneself that you are going to die someday can be a helpful tool for well-being. Depending on how we frame and relate to death, and how much we expect to control a force like it, our mental experiences can be dramatically different.
In any situation as in death, stemming from a lack of control is Fear, which is highlighted across this site as one of the two foremost hindrances to well-being, is a fundamental and insidious blocker of personal growth.
We can feel fear in the uncertainty and helplessness of grasping for control. Many of these feelings come from needs that were trained upon our brains for survival, and yet—recalling our modern dilemma—here we are with them in the 21st century. Among them, our need for control is sort of a meta need.
Some needs that can be connected to our need for control:
We Have Less Control Than We Think
One way that we assert control over our lives is by attaching to our beliefs and seeking affirmation. We decide an idea is true, then our emotional connection and commitment to it take root, despite the logical merit of the belief itself.2
Many of us seem even more sure about what happens to us after death than we do about simpler questions, like “why is the sky blue?” We grasp for control, wherever we can get it, and it gives us a sense of comfort and certainty. In one fascinating study, participants who were allowed to choose their lottery tickets (rather than being assigned one at random) were less likely to trade their tickets for ones with a higher chance of winning.3
It’s easy to assume…
One way we can be overly controlling is by exhibiting over-confidence. Studies have shown that we are generally more confident than we ought to be about the validity of our opinions and judgments, especially when it comes to complex topics.4
Every day, shortly before nine o’clock, a man with a red hat stands in a square and begins to wave his cap around wildly. After five minutes, he disappears. One day, a policeman comes up to him and asks: “What are you doing?” “I’m keeping the giraffes away.” “But there aren’t any giraffes here.” “Well, I must be doing a good job, then.” – Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly
Reality is chaotic and unpredictable. Despite the ornate show of order that’s presented to us by the human-centered ‘worlds’ of culture and ideology, we are indeed flying on a rock in space around a giant, thermonuclear fireball.
Mental Independence, like so many aspects of Element 3: Perspective—and wisdom generally—is about balance. There is a time and place for control, and growing wiser means learning where and when to look for control. For example, more control can lead to higher well-being in, say, preparing a delicious meal for friends. One must believe that they can prepare the food, organize the people, etc. And people showing a stronger need for control are found to set loftier goals and achieve more.5 So, just as achievement is part of the picture of ‘happiness,’ control is part of the picture too.
And, as a rule of thumb, we could all use more clarity about how and where to expect control over our lives for greater mental independence.
Tips for Growing Mental Independence
When it comes to our need for control, a couple of lines to rarely cross are situations regarding other people and outcomes. Desiring to control others can lead to anger, which in turn heightens our need for control, and can spark rumination and other vicious mental cycles. When we over-control others, we lower our decision-making ability by narrowing our expectations and driving away people who are too different from us. And we make our best decisions when we’re exposed to diverse ideas.6 Check out our sections on Dating, Friendship, and the rest of the Love Cornerstone to learn the artful skills of relationships.
Whenever you catch yourself grasping for control, cross-reference with the ideas of Your Storied Life, 100% Responsibility, and the Creative vs. Reactive Brain. Consider, “What side of ‘the line’ am I on? Am I seeing the world as ‘to me’ and grasping for control? With a more ‘by me’ mindset, where can I exercise control over my own perspective and feelings?”
- Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. Journal of personality and social psychology, 57(4), 681–690. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1241
- Nestler, S. (2010). Belief perseverance: The role of accessible content and accessibility experiences. Social Psychology, 41(1), 35–41. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000006
- Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(2), 311–328. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1991
- Moore, D. A., & Healy, P. J. (2008). The trouble with overconfidence. Psychological Review, 115(2), 502–517. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.115.2.502
- Burger, J. M. (1986). Desire for control and the illusion of control: The effects of familiarity and sequence of outcomes. Journal of Research in Personality, 20(1), 66–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/0092-6566(86)90110-8
- Phillips, K. W., Liljenquist, K. A., & Neale, M. A. (2009). Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(3), 336–350. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167208328062