Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

The Control / No Control Divide

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

One essential skill we all need – if we’re going to get anywhere in life – is the ability to rationally differentiate between those areas of our lives where we can make a positive impact – where we have control; and those areas where we’re like proverbial leafs blowing in the wind – where we have no control.

Get it wrong and you’ll condemn yourself to a life filled with anxieties, stresses, frustrations and disappointments.

You’ll squander valuable time and resources attempting the impossible. Alternatively, you might use the ‘no control’ card as an apathetic excuse to give up. ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ might become your defeatist cry.

No Control… A Convenient Excuse

A relative of mine is in a poor state of health to say the least. He’s had heart bypass surgery, has Diabetes, he’s overweight. He can’t get off the sofa without wheezing like an asthmatic running a marathon.

What does he do?

Does he attempt to improve his health by avoiding foods high in saturated fats and salt, watching his weight, avoiding alcohol; maybe even proactively trying to gradually improve his health by keeping to a healthy diet, popping a few carefully chosen health supplements… and extreme though it might be, getting a bit of light exercise?

No, he sits in front of the TV each and every day stuffing his face with fish and chips, and filling his lungs with the tar of 40 cigarettes. He’s doesn’t attempt any form of rehabilitative exercise or try to manage his weight; instead he seems to relish in proactively abusing his body.

Why?

Because thanks to his fatalistic mindset, he believes that there’s absolutely nothing he can do about his poor health. It’s all down to his advancing years, all 60 of them; and being dealt a raw deal by the fickle hand of genetics.

Of course, genetics play a role in health. We can be unfortunate enough to have genes that predispose us to cardiovascular problems, premature ageing, and a whole host of health related problems.

Likewise, the harsh realities of age can’t always be discounted. We physically deteriorate as we get older, that’s an indisputable fact.

And yes, go back a couple of millennia, and 60 would have been bloody old. In ancient Rome where average mortality stood at 25, 60 would probably have got you in to the Roman Empire’s version of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

But despite that, I know one thing: -

If I sat around all day stuffing my face with crap, smoking like a fossil fuelled power station; if the only daily exercise I got was lifting the bacon and egg McMuffin to my mouth and flicking TV channels with the remote, I’m pretty sure I’d be in a pretty poor state of health too.

The truth is that he’s proactively abusing his body; he’s exacerbating his poor health. And yet he complains that there’s nothing he can do; that he’s a victim of circumstance and his genetic makeup. That his health is beyond his control.

Of course, that’s utter b****cks; his thinking is clouded in the extreme.

It demonstrates a total inability to distinguish between the controllable and non-controllable. It’s a state of learned helplessness that can lead down only one conceivable path… a very bleak, probably short one; about as short as leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Controlling the Controllable

Now the proactive mindset is obviously quite the opposite.

For example, I know I have no control over whether I’ll be struck down with some terminal disease. I accept that my fate on that one is to a greater or lesser degree, predetermined. It may not be written in the stars, but I know it’s certainly encoded in my genes.

There will be some rogue letter in my DNA – a genetic time bomb – that will sooner or later spell my demise. Maybe it’s set to go off in the next few years, or maybe I’ll be one of the fortunate ones who are still running marathons at 100.

But despite the extreme uncertainty of when, where and how, that genetic time bomb is definitely lurking there, somewhere.

But despite the utter lack of control I have over my genes, I nevertheless have complete control over how I look after myself.

I can exercise, I can eat healthily, I can stay calm, relaxed and positive in my outlook. Living choices that not only keep me fit and healthy now, but will with a stroke of luck, lessen the risk – or at least lessen the blow – when something goes wrong… as it inevitably will.

And when my body finally does pull out that genetic Joker, I can guarantee you one thing. I won’t use it as an ‘uncontrollable’ excuse to give up. Instead, I’ll do everything in my power to maintain my health for as long as possible.

I read once about Owen McKibbin, one of Men’s Health magazine’s most prolific cover models, whose father died of a massive heart attack in his early 40’s.

McKibbin’s attitude was the same. He said that although he didn’t have the slightest control over any genetic weakness he might have inherited, he sure as hell would do all that he could to minimise the risk of suffering a similar fate.

He didn’t sit around wallowing around with some fatalistic negative attitude; self-destructively stuffing his face with Big Macs and super-sized fries, telling all who would listen that his fate was sealed.

No. He did, and still does all in his power to maintain optimum health and to defy those genetic odds. An attitude he said he’s intent on passing on to his own son.

He took control of the controllable, he let go of the rest.

He accepted the things he could not change – his genetics; had the courage to change the things he could – his lifestyle; and had the wisdom to know the difference.

No Control… No Worries

Whilst some people use the ‘no control’ card as a convenient get out clause to action, many more waste masses of their time irrationally worrying over events and issues over which they really have no control.

Take the genetic time bomb example above.

Instead of doing everything in their power to minimise the risk, how many people simply live with a background “What if it happens to me?” anxiety; morbidly dwelling on something that is fundamentally out of their control; allowing it to sully the quality of their lives.

As an obsessive compulsive with an innate fetish for terminal diseases I’ve been their many times.

Twenty years ago I lived under a constant foreboding cloud of anxiety that I’d catch the human equivalent of BSE, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. The term ‘Bovine spongiform encephalopathy’ slipped off my tongue with unnerving, compulsively-fixated ease.

I was obsessed with it. I used to mull for hours over how catastrophically terrible it would be to catch it – how it would rob me of a happy life. I even envisaged lying in a hospital bed in a vegetative state with a constant stream of saliva dribbling down the side of my face.

The only positive out of the whole experience was that I became a prolifically good juggler. In my deranged obsessive compulsive mind I’d convinced myself that as long as I still had the precision hand / eye coordination required to juggle, it was a sure sign that I was Okay. Although you can imagine the state of anxiety I’d get into if I dropped a ball.

Is There Anything I Can Do About This?

More than anything, learning to consistently ask myself, ‘Is there anything I can do about this?’ helped me to break free of that, and many other OCD driven anxieties. 

Forcing myself to rationally answer that simple question enabled me to let go of the unsolvable, regain a sense of calm and, in the emotional void left over, to identify and work on the things I could change.

“Nothing I can do about it, I accept that… so f**k it!” became my mantra.

What’s Your Irrational Concern?

This isn’t about quelling the irrational concerns of an obsessive compulsive of course. The truth is, we all have a propensity to worry and stress about things, that upon inspection, are beyond our control.

The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus wrote,

When I see a man in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What can this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he still be anxious? It is for this reason that one who sings to the lyre is not anxious when he is performing by himself, but when he enters the theatre, even if he has a very good voice and plays well: for he not only wants to perform well, but also to win a great name, and that is beyond his own control.

Whether that’s worrying about your job security, or whether you’ll achieve the grades you need, or whether your work will be deemed up to scratch, or the health and wellbeing of family and friends, or the state of the economy, or whether the weather will stay nice for your hard earned couple of weeks a year, whether interests rates will shoot up making it impossible for you to pay your mortgage, or whether you’ll end up destitute and alone, or whatever… we all have a hidden fear about the future that we dwell on needlessly from time to time.

When we do so, we allow them to both affect our emotional wellbeing and paradoxically, our ability to act.

But when you take the time to think about it, you start to appreciate that you really have very little control over your life… and most of our worries are indeed, the product of those preoccupations.

Let go of them, accept those things you cannot change; no longer let them haunt you.

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about the things that are beyond the power of our will. ~ Epictetus

Look Before You Cross

You can take reasonable, common sense precautions of course. You may not be able to control whether or not you’ll be run over by a bus, but you can make sure you always look both ways. You can’t ensure you won’t pick up some weird novel tropical disease, but you can get yourself immunised before you go abroad.

Saying “I have no control, I accept that…so f**k it!” isn’t an excuse to dispense with reasonable precautions or an excuse not to plan in order to avoid potentially negative eventualities; it’s simply about letting go of the unhelpful burden of the things you really can’t control.

For example, it would be pretty detrimental for me if interest rates went up at the moment. But the grim truth is that I can’t control the fiscal policy of the Bank of England, so to worry about it would be irrational. That’s the uncontrollable part of the equation that I have to accept for my own peace of mind.

I can however, focus my efforts and attention on making myself more financially secure. I can work more efficiently, more creatively, I can keep my eyes open to new opportunities; all proactive steps that will of course, lessen the blow when interest rates do, as they inevitably will, rise.

In other words, I can still proactively prepare for a negative eventuality, and I can indirectly influence or even nullify its negative  effects. All of which I do much better when I let go of the uncertainty of the uncontrollable.

A Lot To Let Go Of…

Just a few of the things that you don’t have any control over: -

How people perceive you:

Whether they like, admire, respect you… all you can ultimately do is act decently and respond accordingly to the feedback you receive. Winning someone’s favour, affection, respect or admiration is ultimately beyond your control, so don’t worry about it.

That lack of control is a good reason to just be yourself. All that any of us are obliged to do is to act towards others positively.

Other people’s attitudes and behaviours:

Their concept of fairness; of what’s right and wrong; how they’ll react.

All you can do is put your case forward. You can try to influence others when it’s important or appropriate to do so.

But much of the time it’s simpler to accept that people have wildly different notions of right and wrong, and let it go for your own peace of mind. 

Is there really any point getting worked up about the bloke tailing to close to you? Can you control his attitudes towards road safety? Are you really going to risk a potential conflict with a complete stranger by bringing to his attention his bad driving?

No? Then accept you have no control over the situation and let the stress go. Pull in, let him pass.

It’s an effective analogy for so many areas of life, not just road rage.

People annoy us, upset us, frustrate us… many of them complete strangers or little known acquaintances.

Much of the time we just hurt ourselves by getting stressed about it. But the reality is that it’s their problem… it’s usually easier to just think, ‘Have a nice day!’ and take whatever proactive measures we can just to get out of their way.

One of my favourite quotes for letting go of such uncontrollable stresses goes:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

Those are the words of the Stoic philosopher and 2nd Century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurilius in his Meditations.

Don’t let them fuel a sense of pious self-righteousness. That’ll just lead to ill will. Simply use them to accept the basic truth of life: people don’t always look for the win/win; or treat each other as they should. Use those sage words to simply let go of the expectation that they will – it’s an uncontrollable part of human nature.

What will happen this time next week, next year, next decade:

When it comes to the future there are simply too many variables  to predict with any certainty what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year. All you can do is proactively work on whatever seems like the most sensible strategy right now, and adjust your course as the future unfolds.

Relationships:

It never fails to amaze me how people obsess over their relationships; get jealous when their other half even so much as looks in the direction of another person; read rejection into every perceived slight; obsess over whether someone still loves them or not.

You fundamentally can’t control the emotions or affections of another human being, or what they do; so let go of the angst and the insecurity.

What you can do is be a loving, supportive, happy, tolerant, understanding partner… that part is very much under your control.

Your Nearest and Dearest

Non of us want anything bad to happen to those we love, but worrying about them for worries sake, doesn’t help in the slightest.

Accept you can’t control someone else’s life; accept that you can’t control their health or stop them ageing and dying…they’re fundamentally beyond your control. You can help them, you can look after them, you can encourage them, you can give them all the support, love, advice that they need…those are the only factors that are within your control.

The List Is Almost Endless

There are many more; those were just off the top of my head.

In fact, if you examine your life closely, you’ll find that the influence you have over your life and your environment is relatively small.

Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”

That mode of thinking can be applies equally to the control and influence we have over our lives: – We don’t have a great deal of control; but we focus our efforts intelligently on the small areas of our lives where we do, we can achieve great things.

So to that end, always ask yourself, “Do I have any control over this?” and then have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference.

That really is the surest route to a happy, fulfilled and stress free life.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth