What Are Control Fallacies?

This is my fault, I should have done more.” 

I can’t control any of this!

Do you find yourself constantly thinking in one of these ways? Perhaps you find yourself feeling increasingly anxious over the many responsibilities you hold, or feel helpless in the face of life’s challenges. This could be a sign of one of the control fallacies.

Control fallacies are a type of cognitive distortion involving a biased view of our control over situations. We either believe that we are in total control of ourselves and the situations around us (“hyper control”) or have no control at all [1] (“out of control”).

These mindsets, while falling on extreme ends of the spectrum on one’s sense of control, also stem from past experiences. A mindset of hyper control stems from taking on a lot of responsibility during childhood which results in deep-seated beliefs that everything depends on us. Another cause could be having high expectations of ourselves (perfectionist thinking). Feeling out-of-control can come from experiencing abuse or trauma that we had no way to control or escape from, resulting in learned helplessness (acceptance that we have no control). It could also be caused by low self-esteem or personal insecurities that lead us to feel like we’re not capable of changing anything [2].

How does it Lead to Stress?

When we fixate on things we are unable to control, we tend to feel responsible or even at fault for the work of our colleagues, the bad mood of a spouse, or the plight of a friend. This creates feelings of guilt, stress, and anxiety when things turn out badly. This mindset often leads to feelings of fear, rejection or anger when we are not able to be in control.

On the other hand, when we feel that we have no control over our life, we tend to feel anxious. Such a mindset minimises chances of success as our beliefs generally lead to self-defeating actions, and an unwillingness to put in the effort to take ownership over things we can influence. The tendency to blame external factors beyond ourselves hinders recognition and acknowledgement of areas of improvement. This amounts to a vicious cycle — when we believe that we cannot make a difference, we are less likely to make an effort which results in negative outcomes [3].

What are the Signs?

Hyper Control — “This is my fault, I should have done more”

Out of Control — “I can’t control any of this”

You often

  • take the blame and/or responsibility for everything and anything 
  • apologise out of guilt that you have failed those around you for someone else’s negative circumstances
  • find it difficult to delegate work to someone else 
  • feel irritable and stressed when things are not going your way; feel resentful when you find yourself doing more than others
You often

  • blame ​​external factors for the circumstances you are in 
  • give credit to “luck” or “fate” for success
  • feel helpless and powerless in the face of challenges 
  • find difficulty in investing effort to complete tasks

How do we Manage our Control Fallacies?

In reality, there are factors outside our sphere of control, for example, environmental factors like the weather, or someone else’s thoughts and actions. The only thing we can control is how we choose to react to a situation. 

Overcoming the Hyper Control Fallacy Trap

  1. Accept what is out of your control 
    • Oftentimes, the need for control stems from the fear that things will go wrong if we are not in control. However, there are many occasions where there is nothing much we can do to change the situation. Acceptance means that we distinguish between the things within and outside of our control. We draw mental boundaries in order to stop worrying about the things we cannot control. 
  2. Recognise that imperfection and failure is normal and part and parcel of life
    • Our fear of failure can also drive us to feel the need to control the situation, sometimes excessively. Recognise that no one is perfect and that everyone makes mistakes — including yourself. Trying to micromanage yourself and others will not prevent mistakes from happening. Instead, it might even bring about counterproductive effects as a result of the increased stress and anxiety.

Overcoming the Out of Control Fallacy Trap

  1. It can be difficult mustering courage to do things you feel that you have no control over. However, remind yourself that even if you cannot control all circumstances, there are opportunities for small changes that start with your individual decisions and actions. 
    1. If you find yourself thinking that an outcome you hope for will only come to fruition with “some luck”, reframe it to “what can I do to increase my chances of success?”
  2. If you catch yourself  regularly attributing life outcomes to external factors, reflect on your past actions and ask yourself:
    • One thing you can still do to improve the situation  or
    • What were the choices you’ve made (good or bad) which led you here; what could you learn from them?

Take responsibility and give credit for your own actions. Know that everyone makes mistakes, there is no harm in acknowledging your own shortcomings!

As the saying goes, “We believe what we see, and we see what we believe.” Our actions from past experiences might feel like it defines the person we are, but no one’s future is set in stone. Our mindsets and beliefs play a big part in influencing the choices we make for ourselves. Having healthy mindsets in our decisions can make a huge difference to how our tomorrow goes.

The task is not to control the wind, but to direct the movements of the ship so that it stays on course.” – ‘Learn to Balance Your Life: Take Control, Find Time, Achieve Your Goals’ — Jessica Hinz and Michael Hinz