At any given moment, someone or something is controlling you, and at the same time, you are controlling something or someone else. That control is never absolute. There will always be leaks in the control system. Always.
You might ask yourself: Who or what is controlling me right now? Who or what am I controlling right now?
Let’s take for example breathing—or, if you want to be scientific about it, respiration. Right now you are breathing air in, and after a moment, you breath air out. This happens automatically whether you are paying attention or not. So who or what is in control? Is it you? Technically, yes.
Your diaphragm is in control. Your diaphragm is a thin, dome-shaped muscle located right under your lungs. When it contracts, air is drawn into your lungs. When it relaxes, air is pushed out. Here is a video that shows how it works.
But who or what controls the diaphragm? Is it you? Technically, yes. It’s your brain and the autonomic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that keeps you breathing so that you can concentrate on other things and people or, take a break from it all, and get a good night’s sleep.
If you choose, you can take control of your respiration by simply focusing your attention. You can speed it up, slow it down, or try to stop it altogether, but as soon as your attention wanders, the autonomic system takes over once again–unless you are cursed by a mermaid.
According to a German legend, Ondine was a water nymph who had an unfaithful mortal lover. The king of the water nymphs punished the lover by casting a curse on him that took away all his involuntary respiratory functions. In this state he could stay alive only by staying awake and remembering to breathe. He eventually fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. His respiration stopped and he died.
“Ondine’s curse” is a condition in which involuntary respiration is lost, but the voluntary control is still intact. A person is unable to continue breathing until he or she voluntarily remembers to breathe. As soon as voluntary effort to continue breathing stops, respiration ceases. Ondine’s Curse is also known as ‘Centrial Hypoventilation Syndrome”.
Like the autonomic nervous system, there are systems that we have come to accept as a permanent part of our world, and as such, they fade into the background. Like the air we breath, we take them for granted and rarely think about them. Many of them are essential to our survival, others can threaten it.
We need to recognize the kind of control that can harm us, but unless we are paying close attention, it might operate outside our awareness. We therefore need to set up warning systems that can alert us to a possible threat. The problem is, there are many control systems in operation at any given time. The bad ones might not stand out.
The good news is that control, no matter what kind, operates according to a pattern. There are techniques, mechanisms, signals, that are the same no matter what kind of control is in operation. If you recognize the signals, you can follow them back to the someone or something that is attempting to exert control. Then you can decide what to do about it.
You might argue that you already have everything under control, thank you very much. You are perfectly aware of the bad controllers, although you might not know exactly what to do about them.
Yes, there are people, situations, problems, concerns, that we all recognize immediately because they stress us out. We try to deal with them the best we can, but sometimes there is absolutely nothing we can do but endure.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” –Reinhold Niebuhr
However, if we see each stressor as part of a control system, we might be able to figure out how to get some relief. Or not.
This is not a self-help website. I cannot tell you what to do about the controls in your life. But together we can bring the control systems into awareness, so that we can each answer these questions for ourselves.
1. Should I allow this person or thing to control me, or should I figure out some means of avoidance or escape?
2. Should I try to control this person or thing, or should I leave well enough alone?
It’s all about recognizing the signals of control. The first signal we will be discussing is…
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