Pursuing the Excellent Life
July 6, 2022

Taking Control of Your Life

When you have a low sense of personal control, you suffer increased stress, anxiety, depression and negative mood. Your physical health also suffers. In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, Craig discusses the effects of personal control and provides some insights into how to increase your sense of personal control to improve your mental and physical health, and to help you flourish.

The Small Wins Strategy of Change - https://www.livewellandflourish.com/the-power-of-small-things-the-small-wins-strategy-of-change/

Grief and Gratitude - https://www.livewellandflourish.com/grief-and-gratitude/ 

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ 

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:00 

In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, I discuss how taking control of your life can improve your mental and physical well-being, reduce anxiety, depression, and negative moods, and most importantly enhance your flourishing.

Craig 00:23 

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.

Craig 00:44 

Humans are hardwired with a desire for control. In fact, one well-established view contends that the desire for control is the basic motivation for all other motives, emotions, cognitions, and social behaviors. We evolved to derive benefits from a sense of control. Such a sense of control is a useful adaptation because people with a desire for control are more likely to be able to get the resources necessary for survival.

This is why feeling that things are out of control is so harmful to your well-being. At some deep, almost instinctual level, when you feel out of control, you start to doubt your ability to get what you need to survive. This typically isn’t a conscious thought, it’s automatic. You feel out of control, and you start to feel anxious, stressed, depressed, all sorts of negative emotions, which can lead to some bad outcomes.

Craig 01:36 

A strong sense of personal control has a ton of benefits: reduced stress, negative mood, and anxiety; improved physical and mental health, greater ability to cope with stressful life events, and even lower mortality. By the way, all of these have sold empirical evidence supporting them.

What do I mean when I say “personal control?” Your personal control is your perception of your ability to take action to achieve a desired goal. If you want to accomplish some goal, and you believe that your actions are connected to whether or not you gain that goal, you have a high sense of personal control. Of course, the opposite is also true; when you seek some goal, but you don’t see a connection between your action and the achievement of the goal, you have a low sense of personal control.

Let me tell a little story that illustrates what can happen when you feel out of control, and how regaining a sense of control can make things much better.

Craig 02:31  

A few months ago, one of our goats, Ollie, suddenly became lethargic and started noticeably losing weight (which is really bad for a goat). He went downhill so quickly it was shocking. Our fantastic vet came out for a farm call, gave Ollie some steroids and fluids and the boy seemed to improve almost immediately. Then he declined again. Another farm call from the vet, more fluids and another temporary improvement. Ollie ended up having to go to the vet’s large animal facility for regular treatments and observation. He improved, came home, then got sick again. It was awful. Sure, they're just little goats, but we love our crazy boys. Tracy and I were beside ourselves with worry. One day, Ollie looked like he was on his last legs. The vet wasn’t available, and we couldn’t find a trailer to get Ollie to the vet. We just didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been so stressed in years. We were sure Ollie was not going to make it another day. To try to settle myself, I took one of our pups for a walk. On that walk, I had the sudden realization that I had failed to take control of the situation. My exact thought was “Screw this. We’re getting that goat to the vet. I’m done with waiting around for help.” 

Craig 03:51 

So, I walked home, and told Tracy we needed to put Ollie in the back of her small SUV and get him to the vet. Tracy said “Let’s go!” We put Ollie in the back of Tracy’s car. She held him while I drove. We got Ollie to the vet, he recovered and is back to his old self.

Here’s the point. When I decided to take control, the knot in my stomach dissolved, the stress abated and I immediately felt better emotionally and physically. It was like someone had flipped a switch. On later reflection, I realized that I had flipped the switch, the control switch. Even if Ollie had died, I would have known I did what was in my power to help him. Keep this in mind as you listen to the rest of this episode. Some things are in your power and some things are not. To me one of the secrets to a flourishing life is to recognize this distinction and then do what you can and let the rest go. You are not responsible for things that are out of your control, and you shouldn’t waste time and energy on stressing over things you can’t control. Some of you might notice that this is essentially Stoicism, so I can’t really claim to have come up with this “secret” which really isn’t much of a secret I guess.

Craig 05:08 

Here’s the main point. Your feelings of personal control are essential to living a flourishing life. So, to flourish, you need to develop a strong sense of personal control over your life. In the next couple of episodes I’ll talk to you about some ways you can increase your sense of personal control. But first, let’s talk about the benefits of a strong sense of personal control.

I’m going to quote Dr. Suzanne C. Thompson of Pomona College here:

"In almost every life arena, one’s sense of personal control has positive implications for emotional well-being, for the likelihood that action will be taken, for physical health, and for general adaptive functioning."

That’s a pretty impressive list of benefits: emotional well-being, taking action, physical health, adaptive functioning. So, if you can increase your sense of personal control, you’ll feel better, act when you need to, and be more resilient when life gets hard.

Craig 06:06 

I can attest to these benefits personally, as I related in Ollie’s story. When I decided that it was in our control to get him to the vet, I felt better immediately. Instead of waiting around, we took action, and I coped with the situation in an effective way.

Let’s look at that last point in more detail. To do so, it will be helpful to understand a little more about stress. Stress occurs when you encounter a situation that you believe has implications for your well-being. Basically, when you’re in some situation, you first appraise whether that situation has potential implications for your well-being by categorizing the situation as being irrelevant, benign, or stressful. Irrelevant is just what it says, the situation doesn’t matter to your well-being. Benign appraisals mean that you think the situation is going to be beneficial. The third category, stressful, is where things get interesting. When you categorize a situation as stressful, you might think that you’ve already sustained a harm, or you might anticipate future possible harms or gains due to the situation. 

The future part is really important. Because the gain or loss might occur in the future, you have the chance to do something about it. Ultimately, the gain or loss depends on your ability to manage the situation and its effects. We call this coping.

Craig 07:32  

I know this is getting kind of complicated, but bear with me just a minute longer. The situation you’re in only partially determines whether it is beneficial or harmful to your well-being. Your ability to cope is equally important. This is the critical point -- you may not be able to change a situation that already exists, but you can control how you react to it. Understanding this is central to effectively dealing with stress.

So, what does this have to do with your sense of personal control? Well, if you think that you cannot manage a situation, you won’t try to cope in a way that will increase the chances of gains or reduce the chances of losses. So, you turn to what psychologists call maladaptive coping, which involves coping that might help relieve stress in the short term, maybe, but it does nothing to change the long-term effects of the stressful situation. 

Venting is a good example. Sure, it can feel good to vent, but venting doesn’t really change things in a way that will help in the future. Contrast this with assistance seeking or asking for help. Seeking help not only helps reduce stress in the short-term, it can also help with the long term effects of the stressful situation. In a future episode, I’ll talk about the various strategies for coping with stress. For now, it’s enough to just understand that there are adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies.

Craig 08:59 

I am covering a lot of ground here, so let me summarize. When you’re in a stressful situation, having a strong sense of personal control leads you to take actions that will not only help reduce the immediate stress, but also will help you avoid the long-term effects of stress.

All of this sounds great, doesn’t it? But, you might wonder, how can you enhance your sense of personal control? This is a simple, but profound question. To me (and others) it comes down to understanding what is under your control and what is not. I’m going to talk more about this in the next episode, but for now I’ll just say that you can always control your opinion, even if you can’t control anything else. Now let’s look at three things you can do this week to increase your sense of personal control.

Craig 09:48 

Before getting into the three things, though, I just want to remind you that I love hearing from listeners. Would you please take a minute or two and let me know what you think of this, or any episode? Or, if you have some ideas for future episodes, I’d love to hear them. The easiest way to do this is use the contact button at livewellandflourish.com . I appreciate it. 

There are three main strategies that people use to maintain a sense of control, even under challenging circumstances -- changing goals, creating new ways to take control, and acceptance of the current situation. I’m going to focus on the first two.

Craig 10:28 

The approach of changing goals is quite interesting. One of the things that can increase your sense of personal control is to actually achieve goals. So, when you’re trying to achieve some big goal, creating interim goals can boost your sense of control. This is part of the logic behind the small wins strategy, which I discussed in an earlier episode. (I’ll put a link in the show notes.) For example, if you want to lose 20 pounds, set a goal to lose 3 pounds a month. Each time you hit that goal, your sense of self control will increase, and you’ll move closer to the overall goal.

So, here’s the first thing you can do this week. Think about some big goal you want to achieve. Take some time to develop interim goals that are easier to achieve -- in other words develop goals that are more clearly under your control. Then focus on achieving the first of these interim goals. Don’t worry about the others, and don’t worry about the big goal. Just focus your efforts on the first smaller goal. Once you hit that goal, move on to the next one. Each time you gain one of these goals, your sense of self-control will increase. You’ll also be moving towards that big goal!

Craig 11:44  

There’s another way you can use goals to your advantage. Set goals that are more completely under your control. Maybe instead of setting a 20 pound weight loss goal, your goal is to reduce your intake of fatty foods. There may be factors beyond your control in losing weight (such as medication you’re on). But the fatty foods you eat is almost certainly well within your control. The neat thing here is that reducing the fat in your diet will probably bring about weight loss, but even if it doesn’t, for most of us cutting the fat will make us healthier. As Epictetus said, “You may be always victorious if you will never enter into any contest where the issue does not wholly depend upon yourself.” In other words, seek goals that are under your control. This week, pick one of your life goals, then change the goal to be something that is more clearly under your control. Maybe you want more friends. That’s not entirely under your control. So, instead of the “more friends” goal, make your goal to be kinder, which is under your control. Of course, you may also find that you make friends by being kinder, which is fantastic, but the goal is simply to practice kindness.

Craig 13:02 

One approach to developing new ways to take control is to consciously think about what you can control and what you cannot. As I said, I’ll go into detail on this in the next episode. For now, I just want you to think about some stressful situation that you’re experiencing. Spend some time to identify three ways you can exert control. This might be changing a goal or developing a new goal -- after all, your personal goals are under your control. Be careful here. Make sure the goal IS under your control. Another approach is to realize that you can change your opinion of a situation, although I’ll admit this can be challenging. Often, shifting your view of a situation can be incredibly freeing. Change your perspective, and you change your world. To hear about one example of this, check out my episode on grief and gratitude, which discusses dealing with grief by recognizing the gratitude you should have for having had someone special in your life. (Again, there will be a link in the show notes.)

I’ll leave you with this quote from Seneca - “It is wrong to live under constraint, but no one is constrained to live under constraint. … On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom.” Remember, you have the power to take control, regardless of your circumstances. Find that control, and you will flourish.

Until next time, be well my friends.

Craig 14:30 

I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflousih.com 

Until next time.