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Control vs. Influence

We all have the psychology needs for power and control. The perception that we have power and control helps us to feel happy. It is critical our sense of well-being to believe this. When we don’t think that we have control, it can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety…feelings of being trapped or stuck. In psychology, we refer to this as our “locus of control.” People with an “internal locus of control” believe that they can take actions that can affect outcomes. People with an “external locus of control” believe that they cannot really influence outcomes…that external factors (e.g. a boss, the economy, parents) dictate the outcomes.

There is a lot of research to support the idea that when we believe that we are in control of a situation and can affect the outcome, we feel happier. Dr. Marty Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” and conducted numerous studies to show that a belief that we cannot affect an outcome can result in feelings of depression. Think about this in terms of your own life. Have you ever been in a work, school, or a relationship situation in which you had little control? How did it make you feel? Chances are that the perception that “what I do doesn’t matter” or “I can’t make a difference” weighed heavily upon you in such situations. I know that I have very negative feelings in my life in such circumstances.

Now, here is a critical caveat. We can control our own lives. We cannot control other people’s lives. Our attempts to satisfy our psychology needs for power and control run directly into other people’s needs to satisfy their needs for control and power. Other people don’t want to be controlled by us…they want to control themselves. MUCH frustration in life comes from trying to control other people who do not want to be controlled. They get frustrated from trying to be controlled and we get frustrated when they do not submit to our controlling behaviors. This conflict is at the root of the proverbial “power struggle.”

Reflect upon your own life to see if this is true. Have you ever had a boss or instructor that micro-managed? Did it drive you bananas? How about the rebellious teenager or child who does exactly the opposite of what you ask? The harder that you try to coerce, the harder the other person pushes back. Attempts to restrict another person’s freedom often result in that person behaving in rebellious ways to reinstate their freedom/liberty. In the field of social psychology, this is known as “psychological reactance.”

We see this all the time in the world around us. It happens with kids and adults. Very restrictive parenting can result in rebellious teenagers. Ever heard of the “preacher kid” syndrome in which the teen kids of preachers and the ministry have rebellious teens? How about the allure of the “forbidden fruit”? I see the principle of psychological reactance present with my 3-year-old son all of the time. Here’s a specific example: At bedtime, when I pick out his pajamas…even when they are his favorite ones…he will say, “NO! I want to pick them out!” (Of course, I have learned to just let him pick them out now). It’s fascinating to me how, even when I’m “right” (I’m getting his favorite pajamas, they are clean), he will not accept my “right” suggestion just to get his way!

I think back to a friend in high school who would always try to make some fashion statement with the clothes that he wore, his hair style, etc. We would try to tell him not to wear whatever it was, and I think that, objectively, we were often “right” about his fashion missteps. However, the more that we tried to convince him to change to what we thought was right (even if objective information supported our position) he would dig in his heels and flagrantly continue to wear what he wanted, when he wanted. There were many conflicts and lots of frustration over these minor things. Ironically, he would have been more likely to change had we left him alone!

We can influence others, but we can’t control them. It is immensely liberating to us (and to others) when we give up the idea that we can completely control other people. Importantly, our leverage to influence others is directly proportional to how positive our relationship is with them. When we have a close, positive relationship with someone, they are more likely to listen to us. When we are in a lot of conflict with someone, it is much less likely that this person will heed our suggestions. In fact, when we are in a conflictual relationship, it is often the case that the person will do the opposite of what we suggest!

So, for our own happiness, it is essential that we try to control what we can (our actions and thoughts) and give up trying to control others. Our best way to influence others is to develop strong, positive relationships with them. One way to do this is to try to give up trying to control them. I will post some other suggestions on how to form and maintain positive relationships with others.
I have to give credit to Dr. William Glasser and his work, especially his recent book, Choice Theory, for his heavy influence on my views for this post.

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