Influence and Control

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Self Mastery

Suffering arises from trying to control the uncontrollable – Epictetus

And he should know, having been a slave.
He was Turkish born and latterly known as one of the most famous Stoic Greek philosophers, living to a grand old age, from around 050AD to 135AD.

Given the current Covid situation the idea of control is particularly relevant.

To begin, let’s define control:
What is it?
Authority? Power? Command? Yes and no!

At the individual level, control at its essence is about being in command of our own actions and behaviours.
By learning to do that, we can navigate the world and make sense of what we encounter while keeping our selves safe. Control can be defined as influence over our self with implications for our external environment too.

Unfortunately, the word control also has very negative attachments.
Because it is often confused with power and authority*.
Too many people think they are in control when in actuality they coerce, they manipulate, they threaten and stand by unspoken future outcomes that will occur when a person(s) do not cooperate.
That is not control. That is a system of fear and inducements, a machine of outcomes dependent on actions of another person(s), like: Do these tasks and I won’t fire you.
In any power dynamic, when one person or agency is the sole beneficiary that’s a terrible place to be for the other party.

There is also ‘positive control’ which again veers away from control and into a power dynamic, like:
If you eat your main meal you’ll receive desert.
Pay for these drinks and maybe I’ll sleep with you.
Refer a client to me and I’ll refer one to you.
Although the outcome can be deemed as good, the dynamic of coercion for a particular result is still a power move.
In these types of situations there are at least positive outcomes for each although not necessarily to the same degree.


Out of Control

Who has control?
I won’t go into determinism and free will as it would complicate matters: let’s assume every person has some level of control over their own agency.

As Castle Coaching life coach, the concept of control commonly arises with clients.

In an unhelpful form, it manifests in anxious, stressed people who think they have a need to control but really they’re not in control of themselves, of their own emotional state and minds. At least not fully. So it expresses as a projected state. Certainly not to the point of psychosis necessarily, but to a point whereby the horse has bolted leaving the cart behind.

Control freaks are those people who deem themselves needing to know why what when and who about every small detail.
That’s no longer a curious mind, that’s a state of high physiological alertness and nervousness that is panicking.
A further undesirable effect when left unchecked is that panic spreads like a contagion. Panicky people are not what you want behind the wheel of an organisation, let alone a vehicle, or even parenting.

Customer: Do you have any control?
Shopkeeper: Let me check in the back. *returning a short while later*
Nope, we’re all out of control. Would you like some anxiety instead?

Addiction is a great example of losing control that is easy to understand.
It’s one of the most obvious ways someone can overtly display a lack of control, while recovery from an addiction is the taking back of control or reasserting control.
Of note: the word addiction is frequently paired with drugs or other common vices. But we can also be physiologically addicted to an emotional state and not necessarily pleasant ones. Anxiety can be habitual too for example.

Control on a personal level can be seen as mastery of self, in control of the self.
A noble cause.


Control of Others

When control is a device used against other people and animals, that’s one of the ugliest sides of humanity.
The mindset has gone from control of the self and immediate environment from influence, to controlling: sometimes with far reaching and even deadly consequences. This can run the gamut from some one/ multiple people trying to dominate a social group, workplace, or home environment all the way to a society wide dictatorship.*2

There are at least three types of control:

  • Control of objects: skills which can enhance our capabilities in the world
  • Control of our self
  • A desire to manipulate people or other living things (a sign of an out of control mind, with the levels of attachment to reality reducing in correlation to the amount of manipulation that is craved)

In life, be wary of those who desire unreasonable levels of control and be very careful who you give your power to.
Question it.
I’m just doing my job mentality has and had and will have dire consequences.

Stanley Milgram’s famous, ahem, shocking experiments evidenced a deeply worrying blind obedience to authority along with Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, both still referenced frequently in psychology fields for their impact.

On a personal level, question the control you perceive others to have over you. Control is often given away without much thought.
Take a moment to assess your life as it is not how you’ve been told it is, or what you’ve been led to believe.
And really consider things you have no control over, and how much energy is spent on those, physical or mental. It might be surprising, or even alarming, but in a good way, as a wake up call.

Control doesn’t need to have bad connotations. The world needs people with control over themselves otherwise we descend into chaos.
Control isn’t about abusing power, or getting people to do things, certainly not against their will. That’s coercion, that’s from a place of fear. That’s a hierarchical structure designed to have subordinates and therefore creates misery by design.


Lose Control to Gain It

In life, be less fearful.
Lose control of the elements you weren’t in control of anyway. Avoid being a pilot of illusion, on a plane that doesn’t even exist, or only exists because you were told it exists.

Pause. Reflect. Breathe. Recalibrate.

No man is free, who is not master of himself, another gem from that stoic philosopher, really putting the epic into Epictetus.

I think the world can be a better place when—we learn to lose control, in order to take back control. As paradoxical as that may seem.

The ultimate aim of personal development within life coaching is to reach personal mastery: not to be controlling of a situation or people, but to be in control of your self so that any situation is within your control.
When you can influence people in a positive way also, that’s a great place to be as a human.

Be more Epictetus.

*Power and authority are often assumed and ascribed to a person or organisation, when in fact they are illusory and require maintenance, sometimes with others required to participate.

*2 For an illustrative example:
If you threaten someone with a beating if they don’t obey you, yes it can be said that you are in control of them if they do obey you. But in these cases the power dynamic is based on fear and coercion, not reciprocal human relations. It is manipulation and abuse of power.

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