The critical distinction between influence and control makes all the difference to positive self esteem.
Life is not often in our own control. We bemoan this in various ways as we go throughout our day. “Why do I always get the red lights when I leave the house late in the morning?” “I wish I did not have to work such a mundane job.” “I want her to love me the way I love her.” “I want a baby so much. Why can’t I get pregnant?” “I don’t know what I will do if the tests show I have cancer.” From the trivial to the passionately desired wishes we have, it seems so much of our lives are not in our control.
This is truth: No person controls much in life. Yet, we create a great deal of misery in our own lives by the desire to be in control. The very idea that we should be able to control a situation leads to feeling helpless. And if a person has depression, this ‘should’ intensifies a common problematic thought process of this disorder. Depressed thinking is typically ruminative: repetitive, unresolved thoughts. And, when people are depressed, helplessness is a primary theme of their ruminative thinking. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” their brooding brains repeat and repeat until they believe it entirely.
Your brain believes what you tell it. Okay, that is very simplistically stated. But brain science demonstrates that when you repeat a thought, the brain recognizes the repetition and supports it by strengthening the structure of the neural pathway you are lighting up. The brain builds more blood supply (increased vascularization) and provides faster processing (more glial cell support). With such increased speed, that pathway of thought regarding how helpless you are becomes a superhighway of helplessness. It gets easier and easier to fall into the path of “There’s nothing I can do.”
When that is a default thought process, depression gets stronger too. It becomes harder for a person with depression to shake off the sense that they are not effective and will not be effective. Low self-efficacy is a hallmark of this disorder. When you want to climb out of depression, you do have some control, but it is important to be absolutely clear about what control is and what it is not.
12 Step Self-Help provides insight into this and I have learned from the program about the use of the word ‘powerless’ when I think about control vs. influence. The first step of this program is to acknowledge that one is powerless over the addictive substance. It is important that the step does not say helpless because that would be the first step to giving in to addiction. The powerlessness of addiction is that once you use the substance, the substance wins the battle. But an addict is not helpless. Addicts can help themselves by not using. Power is in the choice to refrain, not in controlling how much they use. Much of the 12 Step Self-Help model is focused on living a life of contented sobriety—there is a lot more to that than learning ways to not take the first drink or drug—but from the first step onward, people working a program pay attention to what they can influence as well as what they cannot control in life.
It is so important to make this distinction when the depressed brain is feeling helpless. We are indeed helpless when we want people, life, God or the universe to give us what we want and wait to see if we get it. Taking no action to influence is as unlikely to get us what we want as trying to control others to get it. I talk with people every day in therapy who say things like, “I do everything for her. Why won’t she just do this (thing I want from her)?” Meaning, “I should be in control of what she gives. The more I give to her the more she should give to me.” Or “How can I convince him/her to (stay in school, stop using our credit cards, eat better, stop drinking/gaming/gambling, pay attention to me, etc.) Meaning, “If I just find the right words, I will get what I want. S/he will do what I want.” The fallacy is you can control the other person’s behavior by finding the right words or motivation.
If any of us were indeed that powerful, it would mean we could find a way to be less depressed by exerting our control over others. We would really be effective! But we stay depressed, feeling helpless if others do not comply. Well, we are helpless to control others! So by that definition, we are ineffective, indeed.
This is where the understanding of influence comes to the rescue. You may not have control but you do have influence. I use the analogy of trying to force a baby to sleep. If you have ever been wishing a restless infant would sleep, you know the helpless feeling. That tiny person can keep you up all night and you cannot control the child’s sleeping. However you can influence whether the child sleeps. You can make sure the child is fed, dry and warm and make the environment peaceful, dark and quiet. Rocking and singing might help influence drowsiness.
What Situations Can You Influence Even if You Cannot Control Them?
There are many arenas in life where your actions make a difference.
- You cannot force your boss to give you a good evaluation, but you can influence it by the way you do your work.
- You may be powerless over whether you develop cancer, but you have influence over it by managing diet, stress, exposure to chemicals and so on.
- You cannot force a spouse to want intimacy with you, but you influence intimacy by the kindness, caring or sexual interest you display.
- You cannot guarantee an ‘A’ in a class, but you can influence it by the amount you study or put work into an essay.
- You cannot make someone show up for your birthday party, but you can send an invitation that makes it sound like fun and send a reminder.
- You cannot force another person to give you the statistics you need to complete your report, but you can send a memo reminding that person you need their work on deadline.
Influence Success: Have a Plan B
You can influence getting what you want in any situation involving another person by making plans for how to handle the situation if that person does not come through.
When you are depressed, rigid thinking may cause the failure to see influence as actual power. That rigidity might insist that you must make things go your way or you have failed. But once you see that you do not have power to control and only power to influence, you will feel much better about yourself. It is in your power to exert influence over the consequences in your life and, once you do, you may get more of what you want. And if you do not get what you want, you can evaluate if it was in your control (probably not) and if there are other ways to influence the situation in the future. Start on the path to self-efficacy today: Do the DEEDs that can help you get what you want
- Decide what you can influence about a current situation.
- Evaluate the actions you are able to take that can make a difference.
- Exert that influence: e.g., make that phone call, have that conversation, put in the effort.
- Do not assume failing to get what you want means that your influence was ineffective. It means you did not have complete control of the outcome.
- State your intention for the next time you are in this situation.
You will increase your sense of effectiveness and, thus, your self esteem, banishing the helplessness of depression.