Original Photo © Michael Cory, khouri on Flickr.
CC BY 2.0
You know that bit in the Simpsons intro where Maggie is steering on a pretend wheel to mimic the driving that Marge is doing?
Our brains would genuinely be happier if we could attach a fake steering wheel to “life” and pretend we were controlling everything that happens to us.
The brain fears a lack of control. It only understands one thing: either WE are in control, or the whole rest of the universe gets to decide our fate!
So the brain constructs a narrative where it controls everything – even if it’s only an illusion, a fake steering wheel the brain has made for itself.
At root, this desire for control is positive. It drives us to make changes and improve our lives. But – like pretty much all positive drives – it comes with a flip side: the brain can refuse to let go of the illusion of control, even when we legitimately don’t have any.
It’s impossible to be in control of everything.
Even if we were to put ourselves in a purpose-built bunker with all of our needs taken care of, we would STILL be reliant on the outside world not busting in with bunker bombs.
(And if we invited anyone else to live in our bunker… there goes our perfectly controlled universe. This person would no doubt DARE to have opinions on what tv shows to watch, what time they get to use the shower, and generally irritating us by being independent entities with their own thoughts and feelings and desires. The scoundrels.)
Learning to accept that we can’t fashion the entire universe to our liking is an important step on the Road To Happiness TM.
But why does this matter? Can’t we just control as much as possible?
Controlling as much as possible is a good thing… IF we stick carefully to the true limits of what is possible.
(Another way of looking at this is that we should take as much responsibility over our own lives as possible… and no more.)
There are two flaws with over-controlling our lives. The obvious one is “trying to control something we can’t”. The less-obvious flaw is trying to control something we shouldn’t.
And an over-controlling brain causes more problems when the right answer to a situation is to do nothing.
Our minds don’t like to admit it, but there are many times that “do nothing” is the correct response:
- Resting/recovering from a depressive episode
- Waiting for someone else to process something before we can have a productive conversation with them about it
- Awaiting the result of a decision
In each of these situations (and in many more), taking action will only make our situation worse.
Our brains need to rest (particularly those with mental health issues exacerbated by chemical imbalances – rest is key!). People making decisions are often irritated by being nagged for an answer (sometimes a gentle nudge is the right way, sometimes patience). Opening the oven while baking can screw up the process.
But that desire from our brains to CONTROL ALL THE THINGS means that they wrongly believe that doing nothing means giving up control.
And so we fidget impatiently… and oftentimes end up taking action that we shouldn’t.
When we feel the urge to ACT, perhaps it would help to remember:
Resting is a legitimate positive choice. Doing nothing is a legitimate positive choice.
Not taking action is an action. (There’s a bit of logic in there somewhere.)
Allowing ourselves to believe this frees us up to enjoy resting, to allow space for the rest of the universe to do what it does, and to stop ourselves from making things worse by pushing ourselves or others too hard.
Are you trying to force things? Are you allowing yourself enough space to rest? If not… perhaps try to relax your thinking about action and control.
Taking this action might help you take less action in future.
NOTE: Remember that the opposite of all advice is also true! This post shouldn’t be an excuse for passivity when action is genuinely required. Sadly, we always have to do the work to see if we ought to take action or not. But once we’ve figured out that we should be passive – or should act – we need to allow ourselves to act appropriately… even if the current action is to wait.
No cartoon cars were harmed during the production of this post.
Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)
Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.
Like us on Facebook, for more thoughts on happiness.
Read the whole series on Anxiety here.
4 thoughts on “Doing Things is Overrated… So Stop (A Bit)”
I loved it Neil! Thanks a lot and keep up the great work. You are helping poor anxious people like me to live easy and happy life and there is no great act in the world than this.
Neil, I want you to know that I am 22, and suddenly started suffering from near constant panic attacks, and I have been struggling for about two weeks with intense terror. You have been one of the few truly inspirational speakers that touched me, because I feel as though you truly understand the deep downs of anxiety. I want to extend a personal and heartfelt thank you, because you have already begun helping me significantly.
I’m sorry to hear you’ve been struggling, Ed.
I’ve been in those endless-weeks-of-terror places, and they are AWFUL. I’m glad my sharing has resonated with you, and I hope you’re getting support (and reaching out to those around you! My experience is that this is always easier than it seems!) and feeling better.
Really glad what I’ve said has helped! That’s incredible to hear.
Thanks Mahnoor <3 So amazing to hear something I'm doing is helping somebody! 🙂