Losing control

What about those people who claim that they "like to lose control" (or, in a variant, "enjoy being at the edge of losing control")? Sometimes one can be carried away by an emotion (like anger), an activity (e.g. involving sex, or dangerous situations), or a physiological stimulant (such as drink or drugs). How can something like this be valued, or even seem to be of value? What could be attractive in these episodes where one is being swept out of control?

What feels pleasant about this experience, I think, is a certain sense of relief, or escape — from the task of deciding what to think and how to act, from the responsibility of bringing your activities in harmony with your goals, in short: from your own self. What makes it even more attractive is that you are nonetheless acutely aware of what happens; as compared to sleeping, for example, you are still consciously experiencing what is going on, how it feels, even how it may affect others near you. But you are not strictly yourself anymore: although in a sense you are still responsible for what you do, the whole point of not being in control is that things take care of themselves (for better or worse), that it is no longer you who is in charge even of your own behavior, let alone developments in general.

But what sort of a participant makes that you? Not one who can be trusted, being pushed around by something else as you are; not one who is in touch with reality, since you have temporarily subscribed to the illusion of exemption from responsibility for your beliefs, feelings and actions; not one who can claim credit for anything beneficial that might emerge from the events. The only thing you get out of the whole affair is a transitory psychological state of questionable significance.

Of course, whole world views have been formulated that assign a rather deep importance to it: the experience of losing control to stronger forces puts your own being in perspective, it demonstrates to you how small and powerless you actually are, how meaningless all your striving really is within that vast, cold and inhospitable universe into which we all are thrown. And of course, if you are one of those rare people who can endure that glimpse of insight in the real proportions of your own significance, that is a distinction rather than a sign of weakness. Or so the theory goes.

But what is this if not an attempt to invoke high-flown language to exculpate an indulgence: it's always easier to lose yourself than change yourself; it's easier to escape for a while to where you don't have to face the fact that it's your actions that have made you what you are; it's easier to believe that the sensations you are fed make your life well-lived than to define and achieve your goals yourself. A fondness for the experience of losing control is a weakness of character.

Losing control is not the same as taking risks. Risks can be known and calculated in advance, and there doesn't have to be anything uncontrolled in a high-risk activity. Of course, to the extent an activity is risky, it is not in one's control — that is the very meaning of a risk. But when properly managed, the possible losses and dangers resulting from the risk are taken into account and accepted, normally because they are offset by the benefits that might be gained from the situation. Deliberately taking risks is precisely not a case of losing control — if anything, it is a more controlled way of dealing with things than simply not factoring in any risk in one's expectations. Some people may tend to take higher risks than others, but if they choose to do so because of greater opportunities, that's a specific way of exercising choice, and on that level, they are actually very much in control.

True enough, it is not always possible to be fully in control — we all know it isn't; in some cases it can be unreasonable, even downright self-destructive, to obsessively cling to the desire to keep in charge — sometimes we simply can't. We all have to learn to cope with these situations (and with our retrospective realizing what has happened, our experiencing us as acting in away against, or despite, ourselves). But there is a difference between accepting them and embracing them, between being able to endure them and actively seeking and enjoying them.

Enjoying to lose control, then, is a character fault. On the other side of the spectrum, being afraid of losing control seems to be faulty as well. This is not, of course, because losing control is after all not such a bad thing. Rather, it is because fearing something that should be up to you anyway is unwise. If it is up to you to keep in control, then you should do so — what would be the point of being afraid then? If you have reason to expect you won't be in control in some future situation, then you should think about how to avoid this, if at all possible, or else you must accept it. There seems to be no point at which fearing the future situation looks as if it may contribute anything useful. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.