Most of us focus on what we can’t control
Many of us spend an enormous amount of time ruminating on the past, worrying over the future and obsessing over minute details of situations, outcomes, world events and people’s behaviour. We have very specific ideas about how things should be and we become frustrated, resentful or upset if life doesn’t go according to our plan. Basically, we waste a lot of energy trying to control things we don’t have the power to change. So why do we do this?
Out of control = unsafe
If you have grown up in a chaotic and out-of-control environment, have lived through an overwhelming situation that left you feeling powerless, or you have a Type A personality or tendency toward perfectionism, feeling out-of-control can make you feel unsafe.
To counter the discomfort and vulnerability of feeling powerlessness you may have convinced yourself that that you have more power than you do over the circumstances of your life and the people in it. Ironically, trying to control things you can’t impact makes you feel more powerless, which makes you feel more unsafe, which makes you want to control things more. It’s a whole thing.
Feeling overly responsible, guilty or resentful are clues
Your team fails to win a project and you blame it entirely on yourself.
A friend going through chemo catches a cold and you feel like it is your fault because you should never have asked her to go to the shopping centre with you because you are certain that must be where she came into contact with the virus.
Your brother starts drinking too much and now his marriage is on the rocks and you feel both guilty that you haven’t been a better support and resentful because he hasn’t called the counsellor or gone to the AA group you suggested to him.
If you have a pattern of trying to control things outside of your control you often end up feeling overly responsible for things that aren’t your responsibility, guilty for things that aren’t your fault and resentful that no one appreciates all the effort you are putting in to make things better. These feelings are a clue that you can use as a prompt to ask yourself “Am I trying to control things that aren’t mine to control?”
Boundaries are key
Good mental health requires good boundaries. Taking responsibility only for the parts of life you can control is how you begin the process of boundary setting. This not only allows you to make more conscious choices about where you spend your energy, it shifts you from feeling powerless to powerful and uncertain to clear.
But to do this we must not give in to the urge to take responsibility for things beyond our control and to absolve ourselves of guilt that can arise when we break old patterns and begin making healthier choices for ourselves. This is something that requires a conscious practice of letting go. So how do we do this?
It starts with acceptance
When I was growing up my mum went to Alcoholics Anonymous for a while. One night, she came home with something called the Serenity Prayer. This prayer is something you can repeat to yourself as you begin the process of letting go of your tendency to control.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference
That first part, accepting what we can’t change – things like how people to respond to us, their behaviour and their choices – is often the most difficult. It requires a letting go of our fantasies of how we wish things could be and a surrender to the reality what is. This can be tough, but it is necessary. Because it is only when we are honest about how things really are and the limits of our control that we become clear about where best to focus our energy.
- Take out a piece of paper and pen
- Write down a situation or relationship in your life that feels overwhelming, frustrating or out-of-control
- Reflect on how much energy you are spending trying to change things on this list
- Write on your page: “It is hard to accept, but I know I can’t control…” (Hint: it generally involves other people) and list the aspects of the situation you might wish you had the power to change, but don’t.
- Imagine each item on the list is tied to you by a rope
- One by one, work your way down the list and picture yourself untying each rope while repeating the phrase “This isn’t mine to control. I no longer feel responsible for this. I choose to focus only on my part. It is safe for me to let this go.”
- Think about those things in your control (hint: it generally involves yourself)
- Write a mantra based on these items e.g. “I now focus only on those things in my control,” or “I notice my guilt but no longer act on it. Each time I feel guilty I bring my awareness back to the present moment,” or “Just because a problem exists doesn’t mean I have to be the one to solve it.”
- Each time you find yourself falling into the habit of obsessing over things beyond your control, untie the rope and repeat one of the mantras you have created instead.