The perception of control we have is necessary for our well-being and living in the world. It is sort of a necessary fiction we tell ourselves. When you think of it philosophically there isn’t much control we truly have over anything. But perception is reality for our brains.

Text: Being human and our perception of control
Title: The fragile perception of control and the effect on well-being
Image: Black spiral staircase going down

Do not focus on things we have no control over

This was always a hard lesson for me with chronic illness. I love to overthink and obsess about all these external factors I have absolutely no control over. All that thinking and worry goes nowhere and just adds a crapton of stress on me for absolutely no reason at all because I have no power to resolve these problems. I have no control over them.

An example is when I applied for short-term leave, or long-term leave, or appeals for these. Once you send in that paperwork, and your doctor does as well, you have no control over the insurance companies process or decision. Thinking about it and the consequences of that outcome prior to ever knowing the outcome drove me nuts. And that was a horrible thing to put myself through with the depression I was dealing with.

So I had to learn to understand the difference between problems I can solve and work on and problems that I cannot solve or should think about. And also those that are not even mine to Own, as in other peoples’ problems I was taking ownership of that was adding to my stress-load that I shouldn’t have been taking on.

Perceived personal control

Perceived personal control is about the control you have about your life though. The capacity to bring about specific outcomes in our life.

  1. I determine most of what happens in my life
  2. My life is determined by my behaviour
  3. If I set my mind to something, I can achieve it

How do you rate these? How much control do you perceive your life to have? How so? How not? And why?

About what control you have about the direction and actions you can take in your life. If we feel we have no control at all in our lives. No power to change or do anything to affect anything at all in our lives that leads to hopelessness and despair. The more control we perceive to have the more adaptive we can be to adversity.

A place I know well. I felt I had no control over my chronic pain, no hope that I ever would because I felt there were no options, no treatments. I felt I had no power over having to work. No relief in the future. No potential in any decrease in pain or pain management.

When you have a good perception of control it can help you:

  • Cope with negative emotions when the come up
  • Engage in coping strategies. And when those do not work, utilize additional coping strategies. It creates a sense of hopefulness that generally leads to more positive coping strategies.
  • Use our support system when we need it

If you have a high perception of your control over your surroundings, you’ll feel capable of influencing your environment and managing complicated situations. Instead, if you have low control over your surroundings, according to the psychological well-being questionnaire, you’ll have greater difficulty overcoming the adversities which arise in your day-to-day life.


A high perception of control

Can have a positive effect on:

  • Positive self-concept
  • Adjusting to job-related stress
  • Healthy psychological functioning
  • Adjusting and coping with physical health problems

It is all about our perception of control

To the extent that I am very aware that in the depths of my depression my perception of control over pain and stress was very low and this greatly impacted my coping skills, I agree. However, I am also aware with chronic illness and pain the reality of it is, control is limited and I also have to understand that as well. But, where I perceive I do have control, within my reaction to pain, coping strategies, and trying to improve my well-being – there I see the flexibility. And therefore I do perceive I, individually, have some control within the limitations of that which I have no control.

The importance of perceived control lies in its effects on subjective well-being.Perceived control enhances an individual’s assessment of the controllability of a situation to elicit the necessary coping strategy. A situation can be appraised as threatening if one perceives a lack of control over the situation and challenging if the individual perceives the stressor as controllable. A situation that is appraised as threatening is likely to be stressful because the person sees the confronting demands as exceeding his or her coping abilities and this perception creates stress with adverse effect on subjective well-being.

Europe PMC

And certainly when I think pain exceeds my coping strategies- I think I lack the capacity to cope, my well-being decreases, hope dissipates and stress increases.

Chronic illness and perception of control

When you read the above it sounds ideal. Having this resilience and positive coping strategies to fling out with any stressful situation. Dealing with negative emotions. Sounds awesome.

But from my experience coping is a process, not an endpoint. I am quite aware of one very poignant fact: Chronic Illness is Unpredictable. If I find balance, at all, it is not sustainable. I get used to medications. I develop another complicated comorbid condition. My illness gets worse abruptly in a way that significantly impacts my life.

Yes, I cope with all of this. Yes, over the decades I have become more resilient, out of necessity. That doesn’t mean I do not need an adjustment period for adversity. I do. That doesn’t mean coping isn’t a process and one that isn’t extremely difficult sometimes on certain days, weeks, months or years- it Is. Or that external reality doesn’t impact me.

That fragile balance

So as humans we need a healthy perception of control to function. And the more we have the better response to the adversity we have. The more resiliency we have.

As someone with chronic pain and chronic illness, we are keenly aware of our lack of control in various ways. The unpredictability of our own health which then impacts a whole lot of factors in our lives. There is no real stability or the illusion of stability. Even if you take the example of pain management. Say you are working and you are on a medication that enables you to sufficiently function in order to work. It seems like you have some sort of stability. Unless the pain gets worse. Unless on a random whim your doctor takes away that medication, which happens a Lot these days. And then Can you sustain work? And for how long? If not… there goes income stability. And that is just how it is.

The fragility of our sense of control can completely collapse like it did for me when I had no pain management and couldn’t function while trying to sustain work. I became hopeless without that perception of control. I fell into despair. A deep depression. If in any way I had even a sliver of hope that I could somehow manage that pain or Would in the future I could have maintained. But it had been so long, so very long without any change that I had completely lost any sense that would ever happen.

Or we can sort of alter our perception of control. So like I say I have no control over my pain, which is something I really do not control, but I have limited control over my mental and emotional reaction to that pain. Or the suffering manifested by the physical signal of pain. I say limited control because let’s face it, I am not all zen about the craptastic reality of chronic pain. But I do have a lot of coping strategies to help me cope in various ways that help me deal with all the mental and emotional fallout to pain. So we can slice up what we have control of. And what we do not have control of. And accept that fact- which can be damn hard to do.

Two common limiting beliefs
Our chronic pain story: author
Our sense of self

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