Wishing something would happen but it never does. Wanting someone to do something different, but she never does. Worrying about what someone else thinks of us, getting angry when the rain spoils our cookout, and stressing about what the traffic will be like when we leave work tonight. These are all things we have no control over. And yet, these are the types of situations that we often spend many hours of our day fretting about, causing our lives to be more stressed than they need to be.
Often, when we are stressed, anxious, or feeling down, we are focusing on what we can’t control and, unfortunately, not taking charge of what we actually can control. When we focus on what we cannot control, our anxiety, as well as our feelings of hopelessness and sadness, increase because we are, in fact, creating an impossible situation for ourselves. No matter how talented or intelligent we are, we have no control over the weather, what someone else thinks of us, or what someone else does or says. And when we shine the spotlight on that which we cannot control, we leave all that we can control hiding out in the dark. For example, we can take control by developing a contingency plan or alternate date for our cookout, and by making the best possible behavioral choices for ourselves when interacting with others. Once we have taken control of what we can, it then helps to remind ourselves that this is all we can do, and we will have to let the rest go. If we are successful, we tend to feel more at peace and less stressed and anxious.
Differentiating what we can and can’t control, problem solving when we do have control over a situation or parts of a situation, and letting go when we do not, are vital steps for maintaining a mentally healthy life. Once we have determined which parts of a situation we can and can’t control, we can go through 4 basic problem solving steps to manage what we can control and we can learn strategies for letting go of what we cannot.
When we approach a problem or a dilemma, we first want to define the problem, then think of ALL possible solutions, thirdly, think of the consequences or ramifications for each possible solution, and finally, make the best choice, given our options and the consequences for each option. We can practice slow deep breathing, mindful meditation, yoga, and visual imagery techniques to learn to let go of that which we cannot control. Distracting ourselves with enjoyable activities such as reading, exercise, listening to music, talking to a friend, or snuggling with our loved ones, also works well when we need to let go of what we cannot control.
When feeling especially stressed, ask yourself if you are shining the spotlight on what you can’t control and try to light up what you can control. Often the stressful feeling itself can be a clue that you are focusing on things you have no control over. Learning to differentiate what we can and can’t control, problem solve what we can control, and let go of what we can’t, will help us find a sense of peace, reduce stress and anxiety, and leave us with a greater sense of empowerment in our daily lives.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist