I recently caught part of a TV special on the way our brains work. This particular special focused on the reasons people tend to be superstitious. According to experts, our brains are programmed to “fill in the blanks” when we are missing pieces of information. In the TV special, people were shown blurry images and asked what they thought those images might be. People told the researchers what they saw based on what their brains helped them construct out of the incomplete images, and once in a while, their brains guessed right. This helps explain the rationale behind superstitions; if we wear a certain shirt and our favorite team wins a big game, our brain “fills in the blank” to conclude that it is our “lucky shirt”. If we have a bad day at work, we might throw away the socks we are wearing, as they are deemed our “unlucky socks”.
Basically, our brains conclude that we have control over something when we actually do not. Our team wins or loses based on how they play, not on anything we wear or don’t wear. We have a good or bad day based on our mood, actions and responses to others – lots of variables that don’t include which socks we wear. I found this a great reminder of life in general, and how much energy we are tempted to spend on things beyond our control.
Take communication in relationships, for example. We can’t control other people, although countless hours have been spent thinking that we somehow can. No one has found that “magic button” to press that will make someone else do what we want them to do. When we struggle with something in our relationship, it is tempting to be sarcastic (“I really love it when you work late so I can do more work around the house!”), avoiding (lamenting to the next door neighbor that your spouse comes home late from work), or passive-aggressive (writing a blog post mentioning how your spouse comes home late from work and having him proofread it). The one thing in this situation we can most directly control is how we actually communicate with the other person. We can control what we say to others, and we can maximize the chances they might respond positively if we express ourselves in direct, healthy ways (“I’d really like to be able to see you more and get things done around the house. Would you be able to come home earlier from work some nights?”).
Parents watching their children grow into young adults learn about limits of control on what sometimes seems like a daily basis. In the toddler years, we insist on holding their hands while walking in the parking lot. Suddenly, they are 16 and driving out of that parking lot themselves. We try to give them a good foundation and teach them to be safe, but we control so much less as they eventually move into young adulthood. At our house, as our oldest daughter prepares to leave for college, we help her pack and give advice on classes, hoping that whatever words of wisdom we have shared over the years have sunk in enough to help her in the future. Even if we were willing to return to the endless newborn routines and sleepless nights to get some of that control back, our task now is to let go a little bit more. Soon she will start a new daily routine apart from us and we will be focused on providing support to an adult taking control of her own life.
When it comes right down to it, knowing the limits of our control can actually be quite a relief. It frees us from taking responsibility in situations where we are not in charge and lets us focus on areas where our actions can really make a difference. After all, it’s exhausting to think we have the ability to control so many different things, when we only have so much energy to go around. It’s incredibly difficult to contemplate having an adult child living apart from us, but I know it’s enough to take control of what I can in my own life and urge her to do the same in hers. I also know that if I want to encourage my new college student to do well in her first exams, I will counsel her to go to class regularly, take good notes, study diligently, and on the day of the test, remember there are no such things as “lucky socks”.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.