There are always things in life that we can’t control - the weather; the economy; the way other people react to the things we say and do.
And sometimes, it feels like we have no control over anything at all - such as, when a global pandemic is killing hundreds of thousands of people, and harming millions more, or when political divisions threaten to tear our country apart. Or when we suddenly and unexpectedly experience a loss, such as the death of a loved one, or being let go by our employer.
Sometimes, life can seem utterly overwhelming, and if we’re not careful, we can be overcome by a sense of despair, helplessness, and doom. That, in turn, leads to paralysis, keeping us stuck in place, unable to take action on our goals and dreams.
But the truth is, there are things you DO still have control over, and at times like these, it’s always helpful to focus on those things. Doing so will increase your confidence, and help generate some forward momentum in your life once more.
Here are five things you CAN control, no matter what is going on around you. Some of these may, at first blush, seem pointless, or silly, or trivial. But don’t underestimate their power.
The very first thing I do when things start spinning out of control in my life is to focus on my daily routines, particularly my morning and evening routines. If you have never created a morning and evening routine, this is definitely something you will want to implement; it will literally change your life. Here are just a few examples.
Experts have suggested that up to one half of the brain’s resources are used on vision. Practically speaking, this means that the more visual distractions there are in your environment, the more sensory inputs your brain will be receiving, and this can exacerbate feelings of overwhelm.
It’s interesting to note that the increase in popularity of minimalism in recent years coincides with the rise in complexity and the speed of society. The more complicated life becomes, the stronger our craving becomes for the peace afforded by removing excess items from our environment.
Whether you dedicate a weekend to clearing out the garage or the basement, or simply take a half hour each day to slowly work through a closet shelf or drawer, decluttering can provide tremendous benefits. The process itself generates a sense of control over your space, and the end result is a lasting feeling of calm and order.
You can’t control your emotions – by definition, they arise spontaneously and without warning. But you CAN control your thoughts and feelings, which are the ways in which you REACT to your emotions. Many people don’t even think about these as being separate things, but making this distinction can be truly transformative.
When you feel a strong negative emotion arising (whether it be anger, jealousy, envy, impatience, or any other emotion that might cause you to react impulsively), take a breath. You can use a technique such as Mel Robbins’ 5-Second Rule to mentally back away and gain perspective. Then ask yourself, “how would my best self respond in this situation?”
This one is somewhat related to planning your day, as mentioned in point 1 above. By deciding, consciously and in advance, how you want to show up in each situation and activity in your day, you gain mastery over your behaviour and your reactions, which in turn improves the quality of your life.
So important is this practice, that in his book, High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way, Brendon Burchard addresses it before any of the other 5 habits. He refers to this habit as “Seeking Clarity”, and breaks it down into three main practices:
Practicing intentionality sends a signal to your brain about the way you want to speak, act, and react. It primes you to be at your best, and to be more in control of yourself.
Simply defined, values are the things that you believe are important. Your values can change over time, based on experiences that you have and information you are exposed to. They are initially shaped by the values of your family and teachers, but over time, as you mature, you may choose values that differ somewhat from these.
It may seem odd at first to say that you can control your values. But let’s take a look at what the Barrett Values Centre has to say:
“Values are intimately related to our needs: Whatever we need – whatever is important to us or what is missing from our lives – is what we value. As our life conditions change, and as we mature and grow in our psychological development, our value priorities change. When we use our values to make decisions we focus on what is important to us – what we need to feel a sense of well-being.”
If you don’t like the outcome of the decisions you’ve made in your past, it’s helpful to dissect them in terms of the values that underlie those decisions. What motivated you to choose the way you did? Once you’ve identified those values, you can then decide whether you want to change them.
It’s often a surprise to us when we do this work, to realize that our true values are not what we thought they were. When we are not acting in alignment with the values we consciously hold, it can mean that there are deeper, underlying values at work that we didn’t realize were there. Only by identifying these can we root them out and remove them from our lives. Once that’s accomplished, we will be able to act in congruence with our values, and gain greater inner peace and a sense of personal integrity.
Focusing on the things you can control won’t make the uncontrollable factors in life disappear; it’s not a panacea or magic bullet. But what it WILL do is lessen the sense of helplessness and overwhelm, and get you unstuck, so that you can once again feel a sense of optimism for the future.
No matter what this life throws at you, by directing your attention to the things that are within your power to manage, you will be more resilient and better able to handle the rest.
You’ve got this!
Note: I am a coach, not a clinically trained therapist, and this blog post is intended as general advice, not a replacement for psychological counselling. If you are suffering from clinical depression, or have any other mental health concern that is making it difficult for you to cope in life even with strategies like these, please don’t hesitate to consult a professional therapist.
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