How to Control the Uncontrollable

Let’s face it, some stuff we just can’t control. As much as we want to or think we can, most of life is really out of our control. Yet, we don’t want to admit that, so we try to control the uncontrollable. And, in the process of doing that, become stressed, anxious, and frustrated.

For example, I have a client right now who is dealing with some issues with her young adult son. It’s interesting to see her navigate trying to be a parent while at the same time letting her son make adult decisions. Most of the time she wants to tell him what to do and when he doesn’t listen, it creates stress and anxiety (he lives in her home).

This is one example of many where we want to control other people or events (which we cannot) to help ourselves feel better. So, what can you do in these uncontrollable situations to keep yourself from getting stressed, anxious, and frustrated?

First, ask yourself this question: what are you telling yourself about the situation?

We usually think it’s the person or the event that is creating our anxiety, but more often it’s what we are telling ourselves about the person or event that creates our stress.  For example, my client’s young son lost his job due to lack of performance, and she is stressed over this for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of what she’s telling herself this means.  Her voice track goes something like, “He’ll never get a job.” “He’ll never move out” (Ha!) “He doesn’t understand personal responsibility.” “I’ve been a bad mom.”  You get the picture.

However, what if she reframed that a bit? What if she instead chose to tell herself this had nothing to do with her, that it was part of his journey, and he’d learn from it?  Might that decrease her stress level?  Yes, it might. And, it did. She realized that although the situation was disappointing and not want she (or he) wanted to be going through, what she told herself about it made the stress of it worse. Changing some of her voice track made her feel like she had more control over her perception of it.

When we can’t control what’s going on around us, we can always control our thoughts about it and how we react to it. I am not suggesting that we ignore how we feel or that some situations aren’t awful.  I am suggesting that we step back, breathe, and examine what’s causing the stress. The majority of the time it’s what we are saying about the person or situation.

Next, ask yourself what’s in your realm of control? 

We can’t change other people’s behaviors or the traffic, or the weather, but there are things that are in our control.  What can you do to alleviate your stress about what’s happening around you? If it’s someone’s behavior that’s causing your anxiety, you can talk to them about it. Or, you can choose to not spend time with that person. With my client, she knew that hounding her son about his employment was not the solution. But she also knew that he had once been working with a career coach, so she decided she’d reach out to his career coach to see if he had any suggestions for her, as his mom. That was an action she could take, which was within her realm of control and made her feel better about the situation.

Life will present us with numerous uncontrollable circumstances. What we tell ourselves about those situations and what we choose to do will impact the level of stress we experience. The next time you find yourself wanting to control something that feels uncontrollable, step back and ask yourself what you’re telling yourself about what’s happening and then do something about it that is in your control to help you feel better. Remember, it’s not about trying to change the unchangeable or control the uncontrollable because you really can’t. It’s about decreasing your level of stress and anxiety about things you are not meant to control.

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