The Illusion of Control

A day of traveling by plane reminded me of the ways in which I believe I have control over things that are clearly beyond my control. I got to the airport and found out my flight was delayed for over an hour and a half.

We finally got on the plane and fifteen minutes out of the Phoenix airport we had to turn back around because the landing gear was stuck. I was scheduled to be in Austin to give a speech at 5:00 p.m. With the delays, my plane might land at 5:00 p.m., if I was lucky.

As I sat waiting to see if I could get rebooked and make it in time (I ended up getting to the ceremony 15 minutes late and still did the speech), I forced myself to breathe. The experience was a potent reminder that I truly don’t control the things around me. All I can control is the way I react to the situation.

I was standing next to a group of people who were telling airplane horror stories and I shared one of my own. I started to get sucked into the negative feelings so I just moved away, put in my earphones, started listening to music, and breathed in and out deeply.

On the airplane I kept checking the time, as if I could somehow control how fast we could get to Austin. My stomach tightened each time I tried to calculate how much longer we would be flying.

I finally stopped myself and told myself to breathe again. I forced myself to be present in the moment and let things just flow. Whatever was going to happen would happen no matter what I did. Struggle was futile.

As a parent, I often convince myself that somehow I can control outcomes for the children in my life. Even as someone committed to treating children with respect and honoring their inner voice and authority, I still hold onto this illusion of control. This illusion has its roots in childhood.

As children, most of us had the experience of the adults around us controlling (or at least trying to control) many aspects of our lives. We were told that when we grew up, we could make the rules. But as long as we were children we had to live by others’ rules.

We grew up believing that there was a time when we would be in charge and in control. By example, we learned to try and control the people around us. Sometimes this need to control was internalized and we became perfectionist, trying to control ourselves.

In my own childhood, I grew up believing that if I did things the right way I could make everyone around me happy, especially my parents. I could eliminate the fighting and yelling by making sure I did all the things I was “supposed” to do. I worked hard to please others in the belief that I could control their outcomes.

The illusion of control creates many challenges for me as a parent. I believe that if I do the right things, the children in my life will always be happy. When they’re not happy, then I’ve messed up.

If I can just fix it, or perhaps, more honestly, fix THEM, everything and everyone will be happy again. This underlying and often unexamined belief that we can control how children feel and behave is harmful to their healthy growth and development.

The illusion of control robs children of their own experiences in life. It robs them of the fundamental right to feel what they feel without judgment from me. It can force them to conform to my expectations to get what they need because they fear that I will judge their feelings.

Rather than accept where they’re at, I try to change them and the outcomes. Just like in the airplane, rather than being present, breathing in and out, and realizing that all I can really control is my own behavior, I struggle to gain control over the situation and them. I need to remember to stop, breathe, and just be present.


Read more about mindfulness….

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