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Controlling What You Can Control

Feb 8, 2008
One morning a few months ago, my sister called to report, "The doctor says Mom has Alzheimer's." We'd suspected this and still, hearing that dreaded diagnosis, my heart broke. I didn't want it to be true. I wanted my mom back, to forever be as she'd always been. I didn't want to face what lay ahead. I didn't want to feel what I was feeling.

We all have times like this in our lives, times when something disturbs, upsets, or stresses us. No matter how troublesome or trivial the situation, we always have choices. One crucial choice is whether to focus on what we can control or what we cannot control.

It may seem silly to focus on what we cannot control. Who'd ever do that? Yet that's what most of us do, at least some (if not much!) of the time. And that focus causes a great deal of stress, frustration, and unhappiness.

Trying to Control What Can't Be Controlled

Here are some ways you might try to control the uncontrollable:

* You try to control your feelings. You want to or believe you should be able to stop your grief, anger, sadness, fear, or whatever else you don't want to be feeling. But feelings have a life of their own and they will last as long as they last. You cannot control your feelings.

* You do your best to get your partner, boss, co-workers, friends, employees, or children to behave in certain ways. You can't MAKE anyone else think, feel, or do anything. You might be able to INFLUENCE them and you cannot CONTROL them.

* Perhaps you want an institution or issue to change (such as the government, war, or global warming). You can choose to take action to try to influence such things and you cannot control them.

In these and many other ways, we persist in trying to control the uncontrollable.

But when you do this, you use (waste!) an enormous amount of your precious energy. And since you still don't get the results you want, it's also futile. It weakens you, makes you feel like a victim, and binds you to the tyranny of how things "ought to be," rather than how they actually are.

What CAN You Control?

"You can be happy if you know this secret: some things are within your power to control and some things are not." These words of 2000 years ago from Roman philosopher Epictetus offer wise guidance for today.

What is within your power to control? That is determined by what you can affect right now, in real time.

You can control how you respond to your feelings, to other people, and to situations you face.

You can control the choices you make, your opinions, and your actions.

You can control your thoughts and where you place your attention.

It's not always EASY to control these and it is possible.

When you focus on what you CAN control, you have more ease, inner peace, flow, and strength. You feel more in charge of your life. You have more energy for creating the life you want (since you're not squandering it on the uncontrollable). You accomplish more.

What About That Phone Call?

After I got off the phone with my sister I chose to focus on what I could control rather than what I couldn't.

I couldn't control my strong feelings so I let myself cry and protest to the Universe until the feelings eased.

I can control how often I visit my mom who lives across the country from me. I decided I would visit more often, to spend time with her and help in whatever ways I could.

I can't control her health or the progression of this terrible disease. I know this intellectually and I imagine I'll still get caught up sometimes in wanting to control the uncontrollable. When I do, I hope I'll be able to notice and make a different choice, a choice to let go of what I cannot control and to ask myself what I can control, what I can do.


The Serenity prayer, taught in 12-Step programs, guides millions of people each day with its wisdom, "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."

Clearly and honestly assess what is and isn't in your control and you'll be able to see what, if any, action to take.

In Your Life

Here are a couple of suggestions for experimenting with this.

* Commit to taking responsibility for what you can control and letting go of what you cannot control. When you "slip" -- and, if you're human, you will! -- just recommit and get back on track.

* Choose a situation that's been troubling you.

1. Ask yourself these questions about the situation:

What do I have no control over?

What can I control?

What can I influence? (Some things, like other people's behaviors, we can't CONTROL and we may be able to INFLUENCE by what we say, ask, or do. After you take action to influence someone or something, remember to let it go and release the outcome.

2) Once you've clearly assessed what you can and cannot control, decide what action, large or small, you can and want to take. By the way, letting go IS an action, an action that can save you enormous amounts of frustration and stress.

Focusing on what you can control and letting go of what you cannot control creates more ease, inner peace, happiness, and success in your life.

About the Author
Bonnie McFarland works with women at midlife who are bored, stuck, or restless and wondering what to do with the rest of their lives. Visit www.labellavia.com for her free e-book and ezine to create more pleasure, passion, and purpose in your life.
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