Free Therapy # 30: Relax, Nothing is Under Control

In all my years as a practicing psychologist, I have learned repeatedly that one of the strongest motivations driving human behavior is our need for control. When I work with clients, one of the many measures I am mentally assessing is their perception of control over their lives. If I can understand this, it is a tremendous benefit to me in my efforts to assist them with their presenting concerns.

Maybe this word “control” is just another word for security but I have noticed that it plays a central role in our day to day existence, determines our level of mental peace and dictates how anxious, depressed or angry we become as we deal with the stress each of us confronts on a daily basis.

Back in 2006, I discovered a psychologist named Steven Hayes who seemed to not only understand this issue of control, but along with a great many others, had developed a complex theory (Relational Frame Theory or RFT) that could be applied clinically (via Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT) to free us from our self-created prisons of pain that arise from our obsession with control.

And so it was in October of that year that I found myself unknowingly embarking on my own personal experiment with the concepts of ACT in the process of traveling from Redding, California to Vancouver, Canada for a training with the brilliant Dr. Hayes.

Like other military brats, my childhood consisted of a series of arrivals and departures, as we bounced from homes in Germany to Los Angeles to Germany to Virginia to Ohio, all by the time I was 13. Travel is in my blood and I am often more comfortable moving than sitting still. And I’m usually pretty good at preparing for trips.

For example, while a passport was never necessary for my travels to Canada in the past, I knew this was about to change and I checked to be sure. A quick look online, however, convinced me I was still safe to journey without one.

That was my mistake, though, because after driving 150 miles from Redding to the Sacramento Airport – a full two hours early for my noon flight – I was informed by the rather rigid ticket agent at the check-in desk that I must have a passport.

She would not let me board the plane without one and wasn’t a bit interested in my pitiful pleadings to let me take my chances with the Canadians.

And so I was forced to drive back to Redding from Sacramento – another 150 miles. After retrieving my safe deposit key from my home and my passport from my safe deposit box, I headed back down the most boring stretch of freeway in the universe outside of Kansas and checked in several hours early for my new flight, scheduled to depart at 7 p.m.

From Sacramento, I flew up to Seattle, too late for any connecting flights to Vancouver until 6:00 the following morning. You may have suffered this kind of cruel fate yourself, at some unlucky time in your life and if so, you have my sympathy. For there is nothing more boring or frustrating than to be stranded at an airport for nine hours when you thought you would be sleeping in a comfortable hotel bed.

The worst part of that night was the wandering aimlessly like an itinerant nomad though the dark and mostly empty cavernous halls of the hulking Sea-Tac Airport, filled with jealous envy at the lucky chumps who found one of the few couches suitable for sleeping. When I finally found slumbering solitude on the carpet of a dark and secluded gate, the security police flashlighted me awake and forced me to get up and continue my wanderings.

When I finally arrived in Vancouver about 7 that next morning, I decided I might as well go straight to the conference since the workshop was scheduled to begin in an hour. I told the cab driver to take me to Simon Fraser University and closed my eyes to rest. One hour later when I had paid my $70 and sleepily stumbled out of the cab, I soon discovered I was supposed to be at the downtown campus, which required another hour in a different cab and another $70.

When I finally walked into the workshop an hour late, I had been awake for over 24 hours and had not showered or shaved. I dropped my suitcase in a corner of the large room behind some coat-racks and tried to find a seat in the jam-packed hall of 200 well-rested professionals. I finally found an empty chair in the middle of a long row in the back, more than ready to learn about how we help our clients handle the ordeals in their troubled lives over which they have no control.

How do we deal with life when it completely defies our need for control and predictability? What do we do with our mind when it refuses to accept the fact that its expectations will not be met? How do we cope when we are having an experience we really do not want?

My attempts at answering these questions will be provided in my next column.

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.

Doni’s headline disclosure: I found the idea for the  headline, “Relax, nothing is under control,” on Facebook, originally posted by the Alternative World News Network.   

Image from the Alternative World News Network

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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3 Responses

  1. ajac37 ajac37 says:

    It always seemed like an uneven trade. In order to have (or even appear to have ) control, one has to also accept responsibility! Seemed to me that control was waaaay overrated!!

  2. It's easy to say control, but we all know that it's not that easy to control your own life!

  3. Avatar Pamela says:

    It is interesting how one event can spiral into another and another– challenging spirals, of little control. I can totally relate. Your experience with the airport, etc., would have pushed me over the edge.