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Is Control In Life A Myth?

By David Penglase

I’m of the firm opinion that disruption, distraction and change is the default position of life and what this means is we need to be able to proactively self-manage through disruption rather than relying solely on our ability to be reactively resilient in times of change.

Most of us know the saying that we can’t control what happens to us in life but we can control our response to what happens to us… or variations to that theme. In this post I want to share with you my own interpretation of what that actually means. In my Master degree in applied positive psychology, one of the most influential and practical theories that I draw upon in my own life to help me better and more proactively self-manage disruption, distraction and change is the theory of Self-Determination (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Self-Determination theory suggests that our ability to proactively ‘control’ our responses to what happens to us in our professional and personal lives is directly associated with our sense of (a) autonomy, (b) competence and (c) relatedness.

Your sense of autonomy is not about self-reliance and wanting to be ‘alone’. It’s about your belief in your capacity to act with a free-will that is aligned with your personal values and principles about how life ought to be lived. For example if you feel in your workplace that you’re forced to take action in ways that are incongruent with your personal values or ethics, your sense of autonomy would be negatively impacted.

Your sense of competence is your belief in your capacity to do what needs to get done.

Your sense of relatedness is an innate drive to be connected with other people, a sense of belonging as opposed to feeling like your alone in the world.

OK… all good in theory, but so what? Good question, and I’m glad you asked it.

Primary Control

There are two ways we can consider how ‘in control’ we are in our professional and personal lives. The first is what researchers refer to as Primary Control – which is taking control and asserting our own wants, needs and expectations in our professional and personal lives through goal setting and striving for mastery in the pursuit of those goals. Without goals, life happens and we need to react, as opposed to with goals, we are at least able to take proactive action toward achieving something in life. Life is about living, not just about reacting.

Secondary Control

While not mutually exclusive, another way, is Secondary Control – which is taking a reflective view that we can’t really 'totally' control what’s going on about us and to accept that disruption, distraction and change is the default position of life. This is not to say that goal setting and goal pursuit is a wasted exercise, because 'life' might get in the way... it's to accept that in the pursuit of goals (which science validates has a wide range of benefits to our professional and personal well-being), life will more than likely get in the way, and we need to be able to proactively self-manage, adjust, be flexible, be open and get on with things.

To me, what this means is the most healthy approach to self-managing disruption, distraction and change is to approach life through both lenses of Primary and Secondary Control.

So what’s really in our control, based on the self-determination theory, and that will help us better proactively self-manage in times of change is our ability to work on the three elements of autonomy, relatedness and competence.

What this means is if we commit to continual learning (competence), building trust relationships (relatedness) and being clear about taking intentional actions aligned with our personal values (autonomy), we will be in a much more positive position to be able to proactively self-manage in times of disruption, distraction and change… which is another way of saying, helping us to be more ‘in control’ of that which we can be in our professional and personal lives.

If you're a leader who would like your team to be able to more proactively self-manage through disruption, distraction and change, give me a call on 02 9546 2492 or click here to email me.

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