CONTROL: WHERE WE HAVE IT, WHERE WE DON’T, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
“Things are totally out of control!”
How many times in the last seven days alone have those words, or words similar to them, popped into your head? For me, it’s been at least a few times. Conflict, chaos, change. These things tend to leave many people spiraling, feeling a profound sense of powerlessness; a tiny raft adrift on the raging seas.
The scary thing? In many ways, we are. Life is big, ever-changing, and so often, it’s out of our control. Are you feeling at ease, here? No? Me neither. This sense of discomfort, this dis-ease, has a lot to do with our definitions. Language is important here, as it is with all things, so I want to define a crucial term: control. Let’s come to a working definition, so that we can figure out what we can control in this largely uncontrollable world.
For me, control is: what you DO, with what you THINK and FEEL, right NOW.
A narrow definition, to be sure, but understanding all the things we can’t control can be rather freeing. So, quickly, what exists outside of this definition? Are you thinking about it? The weather. Yep, a lot of people think this one first. We can’t control that. It has nothing to do with our thoughts, feelings, or actions in this moment, so it’s out. That’s an easy one. Some harder, deeper ones exist, for sure. Here are three, and then at the end of this post we’ll talk about what to do about them.
The past and the future.
The past is easily understandable from a logical point-of-view. The past has already happened, and we can’t change it. Yet, in my work as a therapist I see plenty of people trying to do just that. What does it look like? It looks like the person continually punishing themselves for the mistakes they’ve made. It looks like shame, wherein people reduce the sum total of who they are to the mistakes and harmful choices they’ve made. They say, “I’m an idiot.” “I’m a horrible person.” “I’m not worth loving.” It’s ok to admit it if you’ve said these kinds of things about yourself. Many of us do, at times. When you beat yourself up over past mistakes, you might be attempting to control your past by staying in it and punishing yourself.
How about the future, though? I’ve had many clients tell me they believed they were capable of controlling their futures. It doesn’t take much tugging at the strings to see this idea unravel. What’s to stop the tree across the street from smashing down onto your house during the next storm? Without insurance and great friends who would put you up for a while, you, yes you, could see yourself homeless. Scary thought? Yes. But to attempt to control the future through excessive worry is disheartening, maddening, and at the very least, exhausting. We can’t control an unknowable future. For those terrified over the uncertainty following the presidential election, this may be exactly where they currently find themselves.
Our thoughts and feelings.
If some people argue that they can control their futures, it’s nothing to the people who tell me they have control over what they think and feel. Or, that they should have control over what they think and feel. “I shouldn’t get so worked up.” “I should be over this by now.”
I submit to you that sometimes, thoughts and feelings are outside of your control. Both are the result of complex chemical processes that operate outside of conscious awareness at times. Both are dependent on the kind of sleep you had last night. Many of your thoughts are responses to things that are so quick you might not even notice them. How can that be under your control? No, it’s our response to our thoughts and feelings that is ours to determine. It’s why the opposite isn’t true either. “I wouldn’t have said that if I wasn’t so upset.” Sadly, no. Getting mad might not always be under our control, but the way we get mad is ours to decide.
This is one of the biggest ones. Wouldn’t we all like to be able to control someone in our lives right now? Go on, admit it. If you’ve ever been in a fight with a loved one, desperately trying to get them to see it your way to no avail, you may very well have been trying to control them. To change their thoughts, feelings, and actions to suit your liking. If I’m honest, there are people I’d like to control right now. One very important person, in fact. Hint hint, he has a comb over. But I can’t, and you can’t. And when the people we can’t control have very real power over our lives, it can be a scary prospect.
Feeling warm and fuzzy? Again, me neither. So where does that leave us?
What can we do about this? An answer comes to us from the many 12-Step programs. They have a saying, a prayer if you will:
“Lord, 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.”
Can we control the election results? No. Can we control our families? Nope. Can we control our futures? Sadly, we can’t. But there are things within us and around us that we can control, and there are things that we can influence. You can’t control the President, but you can write or call your congressperson. You can vote, you can get involved.
You can’t control your past, but you can work on forgiving yourself. You can’t control your family or loved ones, but you can control your actions toward them, your responses to your thoughts and feelings as you relate to them. It involves becoming aware of these things, challenging these things, and that’s hard work. But. It. Can. Be. Done.
You can’t control the future, but you can influence it. Influence involves doing what you can, within the realm of what you can control, to affect something that is outside of your control; being ready to accept the results if they don’t go your way.
Ask yourself this question: What can I control in my current situation? What do I need to try and influence? What do I need to accept? To answer these questions is freeing because it allows us to spend less time on things we can’t change. So go. Be free. May you find the wisdom to know the difference.
This is a guest post by licensed professional counselor and author Collin Pearman. His novel, A Timeless Abandon, deals with themes of faith, loneliness, politics, depression, and making difficult choices in dire circumstances, set against the science-fiction backdrop of a beautifully-rendered world.