The Kármán line: Issues of Control by Giselle Marrinan
The Kármán line is an attempt to define a boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. In 2014, there was a short, poignant and somewhat surreal film made called ‘The Kármán Line’. This film centres on the subject of death of the mother in a family and treats it in a very unconventional manner; by having the dying mother’s physical presence become increasingly remote from her family until she actually disappears into the heavens. Very clever. It is the slow acceptance by the family of the inevitable.
Being in control or out of control in our lives is somewhat like crossing The Kármán line. One area is relatively well known and familiar to us, the other is pretty much unchartered and a bit scary. Indeed, our journeying across this line from the known and routine where we are in control to the unknown and irregular where we are out of control and back again is the stuff of daily living and its many challenges.
In 2008, two researchers, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky observed; “The need to be and feel in control is so strong, that individuals will produce a pattern from noise to return the world to a predictable state.”
What extremes do you go to, to be in control? I remember a client who came to me some years ago to help her with an issue around smoking. She had tried many techniques to quit but nothing really worked. In cases like this, I like to drill down to find out the real reason someone is grappling with their problem and in this case, I invited her to tell me about her typical day. She was in her 30s and still living at home with her parents. She would come home from work, have dinner with the family and at some stage after the meal, she would get up from the table and go out on the patio to smoke. How is this relevant I hear you say? It was pivotal. Over a few sessions, I learnt that she felt her parents were overbearing and she felt smothered by them. Her perception was that the only time she had space and control over her life was by lighting up her cigarette and leaving them to go outside. So, it wasn’t that she couldn’t give up smoking, it was more about taking a few minutes control back in her day. If we hadn’t cracked this and looked for alternatives, I think she would still be a smoker.
I also had a case where a lady came to see me in London with an issue surrounding agoraphobia. This condition is an anxiety disorder where the person avoids places or surroundings where they feel out of control and where they fear they might embarrass themselves or feel in some way trapped. Panic can set in and this will lead to reinforcement of the initial trigger leading to more fear. It can be a vicious cycle. In my client’s situation, she would bring along her husband or son who would sit in the car and wait for her. After a few sessions and when the trust was built up between us, I unearthed that the reason that she brought her husband or her son with her, was because she wasn’t getting enough attention from them at home. So, the real issue was around her family dynamics. This lady was controlling her family and getting their attention by insisting they drive her to her various appointments including seeing me.
It is not always as simple, as is evident from the two foregoing cases to define the root problem, as frequently this is not the presenting or surface issue.
It has been said that behind the need to control is fear. So, you must ask yourself what it is you fear? It could be the fear of failure. I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t fear failure of some sort. We all want a sense of security and predictability in our lives but the older we get, the more we realize that these are illusionary.
Think of times in your life when you have been out of control and how it made you feel?
What, if anything did you do to try and regain the status quo?
How did this technique work for you – was it successful?
What emotions, if any does the word ‘control’ have for you? Does it instil fear in you and if so why?
An exercise I use with my clients is taken from the model by Stephen Covey called, the circle of concern vs the circle of influence. It is very powerful as it focuses you on the areas of your life over which you have some influence and those which you need to let go because they are out of your control and sphere of influence.
- On an A4 sheet, draw 2 large circles, one inside the other. Give yourself plenty of space to write in each
- In the outer circle (which you will label, ‘The circle of concern’), list all the concerns you have now. Keep going until you have run out of ideas. These can be personal concerns about other people’s behaviour towards you, your own behaviour, your finances, relationships, the state of the country, or indeed the world. It’s your list, so wax lyrical.
- In the inner circle (which you will label, ‘The circle of influence’), list the concerns over which you feel you have some influence or control. This could be your own behaviour and/or attitude.
- Outside of these 2 circles, is an area of; ‘no concern’ This would be things like your past, unforeseen situations etc…
- At this point, I ask my clients to review their picture at home and see where they can make the smallest of changes to their circle of concern and see if there is anything over which they can exert some influence. It usually starts with a change in their own attitude or behaviour. This is something they have control over. It moves them from the zone of victimhood to action. Sometimes working on confidence issues, can really start changing this picture over time.
This drawing will give you an idea of how proactive or reactive you are in life. Stephen reckons, that proactive people tend to concentrate more on their circle of influence working on things they can do something about, “being responsible for our own lives……our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions”. If we are being proactive, we are looking at changing from within as our first step forward.
With reactive people, we see their circle of influence shrinking and all their energy gets sapped into this whirlpool of fear. They will look for change to happen from the outside without looking for the strength within themselves. If the latter is your picture, then revisit it many times and ask yourself, how this can be changed? Are you giving up your power subconsciously? Do you need help to see the bigger picture? Is this a pattern of learned behaviour and sense of helplessness?
If you were more proactive, could you lose some of your need to be in control all the time, knowing that sometimes you can’t micromanage everything?
You will inevitably cross The Kármán
line many times in our life, but will you have the wisdom to know when it is
beyond your control and more importantly, come to peace with it? When you come to terms with your fears, maybe you
can begin to make these positive changes starting from the inside out.
 Whitson & Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science; 322(5898):115–7.
 Covey, S. (1992) ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. Simon & Shuster
Giselle Marrinan is a life coach and the author of the book, ‘Life Coaching Insights: Another Zero. Bring the Joy back into Your Life’.