The Illusion of Control

This is a big one! So often clients will say to me, “I need to control my anger!” Or they will talk about another emotion or thought pattern which makes them feel out of control. I cringe a little every time I hear the word “control.”

I’ve spent countless hours in meditation practice, watching my breath and being aware of my thoughts. If I’ve learned one thing from meditation, it’s that we are definitely not in control of our thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions come and go on their own!

Even today’s most advanced brain science agrees: There is no thinker of thoughts residing somewhere behind our forehead which can control or manufacture thoughts. In fact, we don’t know where thoughts come from.

So, do we have any control at all about what we think and feel? Perhaps not, but we are responsible for them. I am responsible for my thoughts and emotions and I am responsible for what I do with them. A thought crosses my mind, “I want to punch this guy!” Do I believe this thought? Do I invest emotional energy and will into it? Or do I let it go as it came?


I can also be aware of my thoughts and emotions. Awareness gives me choice. We have no choice about what we are not aware of. At its best, meditation and psychotherapy are both ways we can become more aware of our internal world. The more aware I am of myself, the more responsibly and maturely I can navigate my life.


Let me also emphasize the importance of feeling empowered. I believe any healthy individual feels empowered. To me, power means the capacity to effect change. This is very different from trying to control situations or people. Power means, if necessary, to feel comfortable enough to take charge of a situation.

When we are empowered and aware, we tend to navigate situations skillfully. This capacity also includes being empathetic and emotionally resonating with those around us.

Understanding Fear

The opposite of feeling empowered is to feel frozen or paralyzed – lost in fear. The more afraid we feel, the more we tend to try to control life – whether internally or externally. Our entire being feels contracted and rigid. We feel exhausted and live inside our heads with worry and anxiety. Those we interact with can feel this and tend to feel uneasy around us. We might also be quick to anger – like a bomb ready to explode any moment.

The “remedy” to our sense of being out of control is not trying to be more in control, but to explore our fears so deeply we are no longer afraid of them.

We don’t need control, but we need to be connected with our power. When I feel connected to my power, I feel grounded, at peace, and confident. I cannot be easily shaken or taken down. I feel rooted and settled enough to address a difficult situation, if and when necessary.

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