You Are in Control
Life is hard… As humans we face heart breaking loss, constant uncertainty, perpetual change, work stress, conflict, health issues, self-doubt, disappointment, sadness… the list goes on of all the difficult things we experience in this life. As a therapist and as a fellow human, also living the roller coaster of life, I’m here to validate that life IS hard. Life also isn’t fair. It’s not fair that some people are born into wealth and some people are born into poverty. It’s not fair that some people have insanely efficient metabolisms, and some don’t. It’s unfair that some people experience trauma and others don’t. It’s unfair that some people are born with able bodies while others aren’t. It’s unfair that natural disasters happen, that violence happens, that injustice happens…. There are so many things in this life that are unfair.
Probably the hardest part of realizing life is hard and isn’t always fair, is also the realization that there is so much of it we can’t control. We can’t control the weather, we can’t control death (mostly), we can’t control what other people think or how they act, we can’t control our genetics, we can’t control the family we were born into, we really can’t control so many things in this life.
Many who struggle with anxiety or depression often hyperfocus on these things that are out of our control. And part of the development of the anxious and depressed symptoms comes from experiencing a desperation to control those things. This attempt to control could look like guilt, regret or punishing yourself for past mistakes. Or maybe it involves thought processes like “if only [this] were different my whole life could be different.” It might look like blaming others for how our life has turned out. It might look like nervously thinking about the future and fretting all that could go wrong. Engaging these thinking patterns is a trick of the mind – if we think hard enough about the difficult things in life, we will somehow be able to avoid them or change them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that ☹
For some people, these challenges of life become a stopping point. They stay stuck in the negative experiences and end up feeling hopeless and victimized. Their misery becomes their legacy. They choose a life path that is full of bitterness, resentment, anger, sadness, and self-pity. Unknowingly, these people push away opportunities for happiness and contentment. The truth is, no matter how hard life gets, you do have control. Taking control is hard and it requires a lot of intentional effort, but it is possible. The life you want is available to you if you are willing to put in the work.
You are more in control than you know.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned that has granted me the most ability to effectively manage the challenges of life is realizing I am very much in control over how I feel about it. I can choose to focus on the negative or I can choose to divert my attention to the positive. I can choose what I dwell on. I can choose my actions, and I can choose how aligned my actions are to my values and beliefs and my speech. I can choose how I show up in life. I can choose to let go of the things I can’t control.
There is a concept taken from Buddhism that is used in modern therapy called Radical Acceptance. This is the idea that we create our own suffering by refusing to practice acceptance. It states that acceptance is the first step in cultivating change mentality and change behavior. It is important to note that acceptance does not translate to approval. You do not have to like the thing you are accepting. For example, if you were raised by an emotionally abusive parent, you do not have to approve of or like their behavior to accept it. Radical Acceptance just means you accept that you can not change this person, you can not change their behavior, you can not change the past. It also does not mean that you must accept that person in your life and continue to deal with their behavior. You can have boundaries. You can choose to heal. You can take action to have a healthy and positive life despite their painful conduct. It means you let go of the narrative that because you experienced abuse, you are doomed to eternal pain and sadness. The abuse was not your choice, it did not happen because you are something wrong, it should not have happened. Period! But “shoulding” yourself creates infinite suffering. Refusing to move beyond the painful things that have happened is a choice.
Radical Acceptance calls you to divert your energy towards what you can control. Below is a list of everything within your control and questions to reflect on how you can gain more control in your life.
- You are in control of what you allow to influence you. What do you spend your time doing? Are you spending your free time on social media? On the news? Where are you getting your thought content? Ask yourself what is influencing you the most right now. Are these positive influences or negative? Some examples of positive influences are motivating podcasts, self-help books, blogs that focus on wellbeing, meditations, music with positive messages. One thing to note: have you realized how negative the news is? We get a false perception of “staying informed” when we engage the news, but the truth is the messages are so influenced and biased and there are no news providers that are required to stay factual- the main motivation of news channels is to scare you and upset you into feeling like you need to watch it more! The news and social media are two of the most negative influencers out there. Guard your mind and your positivity by staying away from these things as much as possible. If you use social media, unfollow the negative people, stay in touch with the positive people in your life, and follow groups and pages that are encouraging and positive. Remove all the negativity you can. You get to choose what influences you.
- You are in control of who you give your energy to. Who do you spend time with? Are the people in your life positive influences or negative influences? Do the people in your life encourage you and support you in making choices that align with your goals? Are there people trying to sabotage your goals? No matter what the relationship – family, friend, co-worker, etc. you get to choose who you give your energy to. I understand that its harder with family – you don’t get to choose who your family is. But if family is consistently hurtful, you can let them go. You are worthy of feeling peace and experiencing love and acceptance. Maybe make a list of people in your life who bring positive energy to the table, and a list of people who bring negative energy. Who do you want influencing you?
- You are in control of your thoughts. This one is hard because we all have immediate automatic thoughts. These thoughts are seemingly outside of our control, however, our automatic thoughts generally come from core beliefs. Our core beliefs relate to our immediate interpretations – for example, if one person has a core belief of “I am unworthy,” then the immediate interpretation in many experiences is going to relate to unworthiness. Core beliefs are something that therapy can be very helpful in navigating and reconstructing.
Apart from core beliefs and automatic thoughts, there are other thought patterns we might notice ourselves experiencing. We might notice tendencies to dwell on the negative, maybe ruminating on ways other people have wronged you, hyper focusing on what went wrong, repeatedly thinking “I can’t handle this,” etc. You are in control of these thoughts. You have the power to acknowledge where your attention is and to divert your focus on something positive. Practice letting go of the negative thought patterns and instead focus on your goals, what you can do to meet your goals, positive self-talk, thinking about uplifting experiences, etc.
- You are in control of your actions. You are capable of practicing self-control. Just like automatic thoughts, we sometimes have automatic urges. These can be positive or negative, but whatever the case, you are capable of managing those immediate urges. You can take the steps necessary to be the person you want to be. You are capable of remaining calm instead of getting defensive. You can exercise instead of laying on the couch. You can read a book instead of browsing social media. (Here is a big one for me…) you can eat that vegetable instead of that piece of chocolate!
Take some time to evaluate the activities you engage the most. Are those activities in alignment with your goals? Are your reactions impulsive or thought out? Do your actions align with your values? Think about what your values are. Think about what you want in life. What actions will get you where you want to be? Do you want to be healthier? What actions can you take to exercise and eat better? Do you want to have better relationships in your life? What are some ways you can work on your communication and to be a better person in relationship to others? Do you want to get better at a specific skill? How can you make time to practice that skill?
- You are in control of what you put into your body. Apart from having the goal of being healthier, there are aspects of food and water intake that are important to understand and implement when managing your mental wellbeing. In general, if you want to feel better, an important place to start is to evaluate what you are putting in your body. Your body is a machine that requires the proper chemicals to function at its best. Eating a lot of sugar and junk food is going to make you feel depressed and anxious. You will not feel your best if your diet consists of overly processed foods that provide zero nutrition to your body. Staying hydrated, eating the appropriate amount of protein, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables will enable you to feel your best, trust your body, and function the way you are supposed to. One of the biggest ways to control how you feel is to be mindful of what you put in your body.
- You are in control of your time. Sometimes life is busy, work is demanding, your family has a packed schedule and you feel like you are barely making it. Even at life’s busiest, you are ultimately still in control of your schedule. Ask yourself what the biggest barriers are to managing your time. Maybe you can find time in the early morning or late at night to practice some self-care. Maybe you can say no more to what people are asking of you, maybe you can learn time management skills to feel more productive and efficient in a shorter amount of time. No matter how busy, there are always ways you can find more control of your time.
- You are in control of your goals and your own ability to meet your goals. Maybe meeting your goals feels hard, maybe you don’t even feel capable of having goals, maybe the goals you would like to have feel unachievable. I want to challenge you to take some time to dream and visualize. Picture your best self- what does that best self look like? What does he or she feel? What is he/she doing? Allow yourself to fully envision what your best life is. Then think about what it will take to get there. Think about your current barriers to getting there. No matter the vision, you are capable, and you are worthy of having the life you want. You just have to be willing to put in the work to get there. Remember, motivation won’t just happen one day. No one else can make your dreams happen. You are the only one who can make your life be the life you want it to be. Your happiness can not be contingent on everyone else doing what you want them to do, and it can’t be contingent on life falling in place exactly how you want it. You have to put in the effort. And trust me, you will reap the rewards from what you sow. And your life will be amazing! You just have to put in the work and take control.