Mental control: how often do you say ‘I can’t help it’?

‘I can’t help it,’ we say. But what do we mean? Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

‘I can’t help it.’

It’s a phrase many use.  It means, usually, that a behaviour is beyond our control.

‘I can’t help it,’ we say, when we fall in love with someone new.’I can’t help it,’ we say, when we suffer our 50th attack of anger.’I can’t help it,’ we say, when we sleep in late, or speak inappropriately, or eat too much, or eat too little.


Our behaviour is partly within our control, and partly outside our control.  The ‘self’ that controls some of ‘us’ is ill-defined anyway.  But, roughly-speaking, psychologists mean the ability to maintain a thought or behaviour, partly by focusing, and partly by suppressing other thoughts or behaviours.  (You can read more by clicking this definition of mental control.)

I am going to make a distinction that is  a bit of a cartoon picture, but it can be useful.  Our brains and bodies function in two ways:

  1. By associative thinking (as in ‘that reminds me of…’)
  2. By convergent thinking (as in ‘I have decided to…’)

Our behaviour is a mixture of the two.

  1. Sometimes we ‘leak’ into thoughts or actions associatively, without really ‘thinking’ consciously.  It’s automatic.
  2. Sometimes we ‘tidy’ ourselves into thoughts or actions convergently, with conscious awareness.  It’s controlled.


It’s no coincidence that some who suffer extreme anxiety also seem to suffer extreme chaos.  They may be talented associative thinkers (‘that reminds me of a worry I’ve been having…’), but may be unskilled in controlled thinking, and find it extremely difficult to tame emotional disturbance sufficiently to follow through with wise decisions.

A person may pick up an object in their house, handle it for a bit, then put it down somewhere else and pick up another object their mind connects with.  They then put that object down somewhere else, and pick up… etc.  This is associative behaviour without control.  The net result is a messy house.

We do the same thing with the objects in our minds.  What we call ‘worries’, are simply objects of mind.  If we treat them the same way, we will have messy minds, full of uncertainty and chaos.

(Not all anxious people fail to exercise control.  Some over-cook control, and end up severely controlling their weight, others’ behaviour, etc.  This is more a mis-direction of control, and often results in a combination of extreme control in some areas, and extreme chaos in others.)


So, back to our phrase ‘I can’t help it.’

Whom are we saying it to, and why?

  • Perhaps we are arguing against a challenge, real or imagined
  • Perhaps we are discovering our difficulty in behavioural or emotional self-regulation
  • Perhaps we are asking for help or understanding
  • If we are defending ourselves against a challenge, then who is the challenger, and why do we feel the need to explain our lack of control?
  • If we are discovering our own behavioural difficulty, then what can we do to improve control?
  • If we are asking for help, then what help or understanding do we want?

‘I can’t help it’ is a starting point, the beginning of a negotiation.  There will always be things we can’t control, including aspects of our own behaviour.

  • Where things cannot be changed, so be it, and we can negotiate help or understanding.
  • Where things can be changed, we can still negotiate help, but also train ourselves to plan and act wisely.

Whether dealing with our love life, our emotional behaviour, or other aspects of our actions, we can always:

  • negotiate with others
  • improve our self-control
  • plan more wisely
  • act more wisely

There is always something constructive to do.


We can always:

  1. learn what is, and isn’t, within our reasonable control (patience)
  2. learn to accept what we do not control (acceptance)
  3. learn to negotiate help with what we do not control (negotiation)
  4. learn to act more wisely (wise action)

‘I can’t help it’ is sometimes a statement that comes from impatience, non-acceptance, fight-and-flight reaction, and rashness.

If we can learn patience, acceptance, negotiation and wise action, we may still sometimes say ‘I can’t help it’, but probably only gently, when we know something is outside our reasonable control, and when we need to quietly communicate the fact.