You might not like to call yourself a control freak but you sure do like to know where events are going and feel that you have a handle on all the eventualities. Generally, this isn't a bad way to operate, but if the description above sounds like you, you're also no doubt aware of the downsides this sort of personality.
Try as hard as you like, life will still serve up surprises and frustrate your constant desire to be in control. And that can be stressful. So is there a better way? If you're prone to keeping a firm hand on events, can you adjust your thinking to be less stressed when you sense control, as it inevitably does, faltering?
New research out of Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School and Wake Forest University suggests you can. The study compared the effects on mood and well being of two approaches to uncertainty called "primary" and "secondary" control.
Primary control is the go-to strategy of control freaks. In this approach you try to beat uncertainty by eliminating it, i.e. you do your best to control everything. But when John Hopkins' professor Erik G. Helzer and his co-authors surveyed more than 500 research subjects about how this approach worked out in real life they found it had serious flaws. Namely, it was associated with negative moods and feelings. In short, the inevitable failure of this approach bummed people out.
The serenity of Frank Sinatra
Those who opted for the other strategy -- secondary control -- were happier and more peaceful. What is this more chilled out approach? It amounts to the serenity prayer you might have seen cross stitched and framed on your grandmother's wall:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Helzer though draws another, more secular parallel in the research release: "Think of the old Frank Sinatra song, 'My Way.' A man is looking back on his life, and he generally feels satisfaction with how things turned out, but it wasn't all happiness. That's a richer notion of what it means to live a good, full life. It's an attitude that doesn't downplay the negative experiences of life, and yet it allows for a different kind of engagement with life so that reappraisal and learning can occur and lead to greater satisfaction."
Secondary control then is all about exercising control of your expectations and judgement, rather than of events. You can't control everything in life but you can control your belief that you should be able to, your feeling that sheer effort can secure perfection.
"You don't have control over a lot of situations, at work or elsewhere in your life. But you do have control over your response to it, over the meaning you assign to the event. Sometimes you have to give up on the idea that 'I just want to show that I'm right.' It's important to note that secondary control can be just as active and beneficial a method as primary control," Helzer concludes.
Sorry, no specifics here
It's a powerful point that those who love to be in constant control of events can benefit from hearing, but the research is pretty light on tips or advice on getting yourself to this more peaceful understanding of uncertainty if it doesn't come at all naturally to you. Being reminded by science that controlling your attitude towards events rather than the events themselves is sometimes the healthier option is helpful, but hopefully future studies will suggest more nitty gritty interventions to help folks beat their control freak tendencies and quiet the anxieties that cause them.