Your basic need for control and autonomy

Written by Robert Sanders. Posted in Basic Human Needs, Blog

woman in control of thingsThe need to have control of our lives, and the need to be ‘master of our own destiny’, is a core basic human need. As children grow and learn, they work from dependence to greater and greater independence as the years progress. It is an essential part of the survival of any species that its young be able to fly the nest and be individuals in their own right. Perhaps this is the reason that a loss of control or autonomy in our lives has been found to lead to symptoms of panic, anxiety and depression.

How many times has the following scenario occurred in your life?

You are getting on with things, reasonably contentedly and everything seems fine. Then, BAM, you lose your job; there is a financial crisis; your relationship breaks up; or you find yourself or a loved one with a serious or debilitating illness. The things over which you thought you had some control, are suddenly not so straightforward. In fact pretty much any problem that we face in life tends to have a control related aspect.

It is no wonder that the correctional system tends to use limitation and control as a punishment – prison sentences, curfews, tagging, all take away an element of control and autonomy from the perpetrator.

Different people deal with things in different ways, and when it comes to situations where control is an issue there are two ways of viewing a problem.

  • Those who think that events and things are predetermined by fate, or luck; and those who tend to blame others for their misfortune are said to have an ‘external’ locus of control.
  • Those who take responsibility, by recognising the things they could have done to prevent a crisis experience, or who choose to respond in the best way possible, are said to have an ‘internal’ locus of control.

It’s not an either/or though. Some things that happen simply aren’t preventable, and we can’t control the behaviour of others. So while we may favour one attitude over the other, we have to treat each situation differently and often a combination of approaches is best.

Take back control wherever possible

Take the current situation with the Coronavirus crisis. While the jury is out on whether the nation’s preparations for an inevitable pandemic were adequate, nobody could have predicted the disease itself and its particular impact. You would be very hard on yourself if you thought you were in any way to blame for the various losses that have come about as a result.

On the other hand, if you respond to the crisis by taking some responsibility for how you handle the limitations imposed, you regain an element of control. Those who wallow in self-pity and don’t try to improve their circumstances, even slightly, will suffer much more.

On a personal level, I had hoped to go away to my beloved Spain for a few days and enjoy good food, beautiful beaches and lovely walks. I had planned to be involved in the Lindfield fun run and various other running events. I was to have attended book-club meetings, writer’s group and celebrated my wife’s big birthday with family and friends. None of these have been possible and a Spanish holiday seems impossibly far off. The best thing I can do is look forward to a time when I can go once more. In the mean time I have to let go of the need for now.

On the other hand I’ve been able to run alone through countryside in the early morning, I’ve spent as much time as I can in the garden, I’ve walked on local beaches, paddled in a stream and discovered garden badminton! The writers group and the book club have continued to function online, through video, rather than shut down completely. My cooking has had to be stepped up a notch, and we’ve had some takeaways. These are things that I can control.

Loss of control is a modern disease

The current crisis will have a knock-on effect. It is an unprecedented loss of control for everybody. I think that may be what is behind the increase in public protesting and the frequently cited abuses of the ‘lockdown’ rules and the tier system. Often our response to a loss of control is anger and rebellion.

Other times when we lose control, there is a tendency towards a ‘learned helplessness’. This is where constantly being prevented from having control in a situation leads to the victim believing they cannot control even the things that were previously normal for them. Now we are forced to stay at home so much, going out can become a real challenge and result in unexpectedly high feelings of anxiety.

Even if we were to consider the pandemic an isolated incident globally there is still a concern that the sheer rate of change that has been taking place in the world over the past decades, is leading to a greater sense of lack of control and freedom to be ourselves. For example, the ease of access to social media means that anything we do can be picked up and broadcast by anybody who sees. It can be commented on, judged, approved or censored.

Controlling Pain

There is a very interesting connection between a person’s ability to be in control, and their response to pain. Essentially, those who experience pain are likely to suffer more, when they feel they have less control over the experience.

If someone is in pain and you are able to truthfully tell them that it will pass after a certain length of time, they will usually feel less pain overall. If you know that you can manage the pain by your own actions – such as using breathing exercises, self-hypnosis, or simply by taking a pill when and if you need to, you will tend to feel less pain.

Many will be familiar with the modern hospital approach of managing pain relief by means of a button that administers morphine at set doses when required. It has been found that patients actually use less pain relief when they are given control of the dosage. 

When you need to let go of the need for control

Having a sense of control and autonomy is fundamental to our well-being, like all the other psychological needs. On the other hand we have to accept some uncertainty. In a sense we need to be able to control our need for control.

The one thing you can’t control that perhaps causes the greatest discomfort for most of us is the behaviour and attitudes of others. No matter what our intentions, our expectations and our needs, we have little or no control over what others do or say, let alone think or believe. The moment we start to see the behaviours of others – our loved ones, our friends – as something that needs to be changed by us, we have set ourselves to suffer the discomfort of lack of control. It is really important to notice when you are doing that and recognise the futility of it. The best way to control your outcomes with others is to focus entirely on controlling your own responses and choices around their behaviours.

How else can we fulfil our need for control and autonomy?

When you take responsibility for the care of others your sense of autonomy increases. In care homes, the elderly are often given a house-plant to look after as part of enabling them to feel more valid and needed. Someone living on their own may choose to feed the birds regularly, or care for hedgehogs. Those who are more able to get about will do well to get involved in their local community. Don’t just do fund-raising but actually take direct action to care for others. This is different from the care that we feel forced to give – to a helpless relative or spouse who is taking advantage of us. 

You also need to be sure that you have a space or an environment where you can be free to be yourself at least some of the time. The more control over this you have, the better. Try to find a time when others are guaranteed to be out of the house. Go out somewhere by yourself when you are not needed. Believe in the importance of your own self-care. Allow time and space for you. Find the small things that you like doing and make sure you do them.  

Note: The above article is adapted from an article published by the author in H&E Magazine. Robert Sanders is an experienced coach and therapist. You can read more on his blog at

Tags: , , , , ,


  • Vinings Natural Health Centre
    Clover Court, Church Road
    Haywards Heath
    West Sussex
    RH16 3UF

Copyright © 2018 Vinings Natural Health Centre