How Much Control Do You Have Over Your Mind?

brain inside a lightbulb

A while back, a post about choosing to be positive came up in my WordPress Reader feed. The blogger mentioned that “our mind is something we do and can have control over.” While they weren’t making reference to mental illness at all, I don’t think control over one’s own mind is quite so cut and dried, particularly when mental illness is in the picture.

I’ve got issues with toxic positivity, but for this post, I’ll skip over that angle and consider the extent to which we do, or do not, have the ability to wrestle our minds into submission.

Thoughts/emotions & metacognition/meta-emotions

Emotions are a response to what’s going on in our environment. They’ll leap up and bite you, whether you want them to or not. Similarly, thoughts can jump up and bite you in the nose. You can try all you want to get control over those emotions and thoughts, but you probably won’t have much luck if you approach them head-on. They simply aren’t interested in being controlled. If you try to suppress them, they’ll get in your face even more.

Meta-emotions are the emotions that saw the initial emotion and decided to join the party. Similarly, metacognition is thinking about your thoughts. This meta territory is more malleable. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s a possibility.

Even less easy is digging down to core beliefs, the foundations that are feeding into those automatic thoughts; that’s what therapy is for. Sometimes a whole buttload of therapy.

What’s different in mental illness

Mental illness appears to arise from a mix of biological (including genetic) and environmental factors. Science still has a ways to go in refining this, but a diathesis-stress view would be that the more biologically vulnerable someone is, the less that’s required environmentally to trigger the onset of illness. Even if biology isn’t the major causative factor, environmental factors can produce functional changes in the brain, as happens with PTSD.

Surprise surprise, mental illness isn’t wave-your-magic-wand controllable. There are medical and psychotherapeutic treatments, but they may only be able to do so much. While someone may have some control over whether they get treatment (as long as the mental health care system isn’t screwing them over), they can’t control whether treatment will be effective.

Control vs. acceptance

I’m a very left-brained kind of person, and quite self-reflective. I like to think, and I like to poke around my inner environment and figure out what it’s doing and why. I’ve gotten to know that environment pretty well, and while I can’t control things, I can often recognize them for what they are.

I like the idea of acceptance as an alternative stance to control. Not as in laying out the welcome mat for the mentally wild and wonky, but letting it do its strut and then walking out of the room of its own accord. Probably part of why I’m pro-acceptance is that I don’t have the mental energy to attempt control, even if it was possible. Trying to control sounds extremely exhausting, and mental illness on its own is enough to deal with.

While messaging that you can/should control your mind is common, that may be, at least in part, because people are trying to sell you things. And really, if controlling the mind was fully doable, why are there still so many of us crazy folk? Wouldn’t someone have found the magic wand by now? Until someone does find it, maybe attempts at control aren’t the most efficient use of resources, and a little acceptance could make things a little easier.

To what extent do you think you have control over your mind, and how much do you try to control it?

53 thoughts on “How Much Control Do You Have Over Your Mind?”

  1. Sometimes I can help contol a negative pattern of thinking by thinking about more positive ways to represent a thought but it takes a lot of effort and to be honest I don’t always have that much energy to spare. Quite often our brains don’t t have the capacity for rerepresenting thoughts due to brain fog.
    Sometimes it can work for me but most times I have to tell myself to cut myself some slack and just be kind to myself.

  2. I know for me once i accepted the knowledge i have a mental illness and there is no cure no matter what i had tried or hoped. I no longer was feeling bad that i couldn’t control my negative thoughts. They send me for a loop when i have them for sure since now they are infrequent due to the work i out in

    1. It’s definitely a big adjustment at first, but I’m the same way, accepting that things were happening because of illness made it easier.

  3. Sorry hit the wrong button … i was saying since i put the work in to take my meds and have some kind of self awareness. I do think we definitely can’t control the first thought but the thoughts after can possibly be controlled in black and white scenerioes like… i want to harm myself right can’t be controlled by the i guys so more action of doing my thought can be. Does that make sense?

  4. I like this post Ashley. I have seen similar things like this said on Twitter and as much as sometimes it meant well by some that I know who tweet these things, if only that simple. I roll my eyes at times when I hear those words.

    As someone here has mentioned already, if something happens negative, I will try and find a positive from it. But it don’t always work.

    I like to self-reflect on things. Again, in a positive way, or acceptance. But it can be hard when battling with brain fog at times, or when I am really fatigued. But again, while like this, I try not to be hard on myself, because I can so easily do that.

    1. Brain fog definitely gets in the way. Sometimes things are just hard, no matter how you look at them, and some form of acceptance is the best that can be done.

  5. Loved the snark – and no, I have no control over my mind, not too sure I want any because on a good day my pinball brain keeps me amused and interested, even when it refuses to let me sleep or keeps bringing up things I’d rather not hear about – again. It brings me up, and down – hey, that’s life (“that’s what people say” – sing along now…) As for that positivity crapola – makes me so angry – not gonna go there.

  6. We don’t have much control over automatic reactions. We sometimes remember to try to translate those reactions into feelings and unmet needs. This process works for judgments, anger, most thoughts. It takes patience and practice, as probably does every mental change.

    Positivity and negativity are two sides of the same coin for us. So we don’t try to reframe too many thoughts, except to gain perspective or identify cognitive distortions.

    Your acceptance and letting go sounds healthy. Everything is temporary. If you keep a feelings journal, they seem to come and go (if you let them).

    Our ideal would be to be flexible, meaning no preconceptions, no expectations and to just experience life and keep allowing.

    Our brain likes to look for danger, however, so we rarely get a moment’s respite. Even sleep is filled with ocd, nightmares, anxiety.

    Once everyone in our house returns to school/work like prepandemic times, we will practice/experiment exploring our temporary feelings again

  7. I agree trying to control is exhausting and ineffective for me, but accepting what I’m thinking or feeling then trying to move on from it after is much better for my mental health than all the fighting and hiding I’ve spent most of my life doing.

  8. I am going to make a general comment to begin with: I don’t think anyone, even if they have never had any challenges with their mental and emotional health can ever claim to have perfect control of their minds. But neither do I think that it is to true to say that humans have no control of what goes on in their minds.

    But I don’t think that anything is cut and dried when it comes to trying to control your thoughts or emotions when overwhelmed by intense chronic stress or facing a mental health challenge.

    I know in my own case, when I had years of painful personal challenges that there seemed no solution to, and were insidiously crushing me…I am sure it became more difficult to “control” my thinking and emotions.

    When we were children, our parents patiently taught us when we did something wrong. They asked us questions to determine if we understood why what we had done was wrong. I always remember when I went into my brother’s room (which was not allowed) played with his art materials, stole some money on his desk, and then lied about it when they asked me why there was ink on my hands and how I had come to have the money to buy an ice-cream. I vividly remember their questions causing me to think about what I had done, feel genuinely sorry I had done that, and become determined I would not do that again. I do genuinely believe that their way of teaching us was powerful.

    As teenagers, our parents were just as effective, and that was essential when we were experiencing surges of hormones and emotions. My parents were honest and open about how we would start to see boys in a different way, and how boys would see us in a different way. They equipped us with foreknowledge so we could be prepared to recognize our powerful inner feelings when they occurred, and could make decisions, understanding that whatever our choices were, there would be a consequence of some sort, and we were coming to an age when the decisions we made may bring responsibilities that would last for a lifetime. They helped us to reason, to be foresighted, to think about the cost of a rash decision based on a surge of emotions.

    Our parents were always balanced and helped us to be aware of patterns of behaviour that we may not have been aware of. They often asked us – “what sort of person do you want to be?” They linked thoughts and emotions to speech and actions and reactions.

    It has been many years since I left home, but I still think that the training from my parents help me to think in terms of trying to be honest with myself about some of the thoughts that have gone through my mind, or the emotions I have felt, that in truth, I don’t think are very healthy, nor appealing, nor the way I want to be. So I try to work on it. I know with some jobs, I sometimes pick up that I have the same patterns in my behaviour no matter which job, or which group of people I work with. I like clear policies and procedures at work. They make me feel safer. So when I come across a colleague who seems to often cut corners, ignore policies, wing it – oh goodness – it makes me nervous about working with them. But very strangely, from nowhere comes this part of me that I don’t like. Normally I think I am balanced and reasonable. But if I feel like I am working with a cowboy, I start becoming super strict about everything. It actually becomes very stressful1 Sometimes I make the situation worse by becoming extreme. I often ask myself, why did I change my behaviour? Why did I not just say to them near the start of the situation how I felt when I saw them cutting corners and taking risks? Why did I instead change my behavior and become like some tyrannical matron who demands perfection from all her colleagues?

    That is one example of how I have tried to recognise a pattern of my thinking and behaviour that I don’t feel comfortable with, and I proactively feel I want to take some action to change that circuit route in my mind. I try to think of more effective solutions to dealing with the challenge next time I face it. I try to think of my objective – at the end of the day it is important that we have a good team spirit. Yes, it may be a bad thing that a colleague is going rogue and ignoring medical procedures. But it is also a bad thing if I initiate an atmosphere of tension because everyone is super-stressed in case they make a mistake!

    I know I am waffling here, but I know that I often do take myself to task, address patterns in my thinking, feelings, speech and actions that I am uncomfortable with – and ask myself, how could I do that differently that would change the way I feel? If it happens again, how will I choose to react? What kind of person do I want to be? In a sense, I am trying to slow myself down and get a little control of my thinking and emotions. I am identifying where I want to consciously make a change. But perfect control is not something I could aspire to. I want to be balanced. I like who I am. But I don’t want to take for granted that the positives outweigh the negative aspects of my behaviour. I want to keep working on me. I want to keep aiming for a beautiful inner person who adds joy to people’s lives.

    What I do know is that when I am tired, when I am stressed, when I am always rushing and don’t have any time to think, it is much more likely that I will act impetuously and I will say or do something I will regret later. How thankful I am that there is so much kindness and forgiveness that allow for us when we are stressed.

    As usual Ashley, I am writing this late at night, so I hope this is not coming across as a hullabaloo. You always write so much that makes me think deeply.

    1. I think that makes a lot of sense. You can’t change that initial reaction to a colleague cutting corners, but you can work on changing what you do with that. I find that the more tired/stressed I am, the more likely I am to just run with that initial reaction rather than just let it be and choose my path forward more carefully.

  9. Matthew Morgan

    I am also pro acceptance. I am not a huge fan of my anxious thoughts and how I let those affect me. However, I can accept that I have them rather than trying to force them to go away. Great post Ashley!

  10. Good question. I suspect a more efficient use of energy is focusing less on controlling the mind and more on controlling responses and actions. Not because I necessarily believe that we have no control over the mind (Honestly, I am not quite sure what I think), but because I think we have more control over actions and focusing on controlling actions is likely more productive

  11. I try to see things from the positive side. Too long the negative sides have been pointed out to me and I suffered because of that. So now I’m divorced, it took me 13 months, but I’m trying to change my vision of life and things. I try to steer my mind to good things, not to dwell on the bad ones. Often I’m able to recover from setbacks, but sometimes they get me down. Then it’s a longer struggle to get back on top, but I know I’m worth it and I can do it… 😊 I’m not saying it’s easy, but in the end, I feel better and that’s worth so much…

      1. Thanks! I do believe that my meds are helping me achieve this. Before I got them, my struggles were way worse (but then, that might have been influenced by my now ex 🤔). So very happy I am able to receive help in this way… 😊

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