The Illusion of Control

When my mom was ill I spent months navigating through the labyrinth of hospitals, specialists and insurance companies. I spent hours talking to doctors trying to understand the science behind different medical solutions and almost as much time trying to understand hospital policies and staffing. Along the way, I made hundreds of decisions from whether or not she wanted to be propped up to whether we should pursue a different course of treatment. Despite the fact that I applied every ounce of energy, effort, and intelligence I had to my mother’s well-being, she still died. My first reaction was to feel like a failure.            

I found myself going over and over the decisions I had made over the past months. I replayed scenarios over in my head speculating on a different outcome. When I joined a grief support group I expressed my feelings of guilt and failure about my mom’s death. The gentle facilitator of our group pointed out that guilt is our attempt to make believe that we’re able to control something that is both uncontrollable and incomprehensible. It took me months to realize that no matter how desperately I wanted to keep my mom alive, I was never responsible for her death.            

My husband later pointed out that I had crafted a narrative in which I had sole responsibility for my mom’s well-being. In fact, I have a step-father and 5 siblings and we consulted at least 20 medical specialists. We made all the decisions about my mom’s care as a team and my mom was the final arbiter of what she was willing and unwilling to do. My personal delusion was that I was in the driver’s seat, but I wasn’t.        

This is the funny thing about the illusion of control, it immediately isolates us from others. I think I, and I alone, have to figure things out and solve the problem. I think when things go wrong it’s my fault. If I dig under the surface of this idea there’s an ugly truth: I think I have an extraordinary amount of power to influence and change things. My sense of my own importance in any situation is inflated beyond what is humanly possible. The beautiful, heart-breaking truth is that all of life is interconnected and none of us are ever alone. Even in the blackest moment of despair what is happening to me is happening to someone else and the events swirling around me are part of a massive cosmic stew that is impossible for me to comprehend.

This week try to notice when you want to control a situation you can’t control or just notice who else is involved and who might be able to help you.

Stephanie MillerComment