The phrase I probably hear most from clients in their first sessions in my therapy room is “I can’t”. We disempower ourselves on a near daily basis with “I can’t”. Sometimes those can’ts can be turned into cans, but sometimes they can’t (I bet you can’t say that after a few cans!). There is only so much control we have over the world around us and getting stressed out about what we are not able to do anything about can be a huge source of stress. “I can” is very empowering, but only if you actually can, if not, it is a hugely frustrating notion. Can you personally overcome your depression and get back to work. Yes you can (maybe will help and work, but you can). Can you personally stop the ice caps from melting or stop wars? No, you can’t. So let’s focus on what you can do.
The circle of control
I love a graph. Here is an exercise I often do with clients if they are feeling helpless about a situation. Draw a circle on a piece of paper that represents the situation you are frustrated or worried about. Perhaps you have a job interview coming up. Draw a section of the circle (essentially making a pie chart) representing how much control you have over that situation. Think about it: you have quite a lot of control but not absolute control over the situation. You can make sure you match the criteria of the job description well. You can get your CV up to scratch, you can practice with a friend at confident speaking, you can practice relaxation techniques before you go in, and you can make sure you look smart on the day of the interview (you can even go to a hypnotherapist first to get super prepared). There are factors, however, which are outside of your control. Perhaps they already have a candidate in mind, perhaps they have criteria in mind that they haven’t made knowledgeable to you, perhaps there are 200 applicants for this job and you’re not quite as experienced as others. There is nothing you can do about this. Therefore worrying about is going to take precious energy away from the things you CAN do. The piece of the pie that is out of our control, we have to learn to accept.
Now something like a job interview where we have a lot of control means it is easier to accept the portion out of our control than some of the bigger things. For example if someone we love has a serious illness. It may appear that we have no control at all over the situation, that the illness, and the medical team and the person themselves have all the control. This is difficult to accept and nobody is saying otherwise, but we must strive to accept it rather than leak our energy into trying to gain control. In a situation such as that we do have control, it’s just a smaller slice. We have control over how well we look after ourselves so we have resources to help the person we love. We can ensure we get good sleep and self care, we can make sure our needs our met so we can be physically and emotionally available for the person who is ill. We can listen, we can support. After analysing the situation, you may find you have a slightly bigger slice of control than you think. If you do everything you can to take control of that slice, then you are literally doing all you can, and not leaking power and energy into fretting about the larger portion of the situation that is beyond your control.
Then there are the situations that seem so beyond our control that we don’t seem to have a slice at all. These situations can feel very disempowering and can drain a lot of our emotional and mental energy simply by dwelling on our helplessness. I’m talking of the wars, the climate troubles, poverty and suffering around the world. Being bombarded with images and stories on a daily basis means it’s hard to switch off and news has an accumulative effect that can make us feel desperately helpless and scared. This is made worse by feeling that there is nothing that can be done that has any impact.
The fact is, it may not be visible, but everyone has a tiny sliver of control. We have control over our own actions and because all of our actions feed into bigger actions then even making sure we do all we can in our tiny sliver of pie means we are doing all we can and that is powerful and enough. Imagine how great it would be if everyone on the planet did that? Soon the world would be changing for the better. Now for some people who have time and money spare, doing everything they can in their control might mean donating time and money to campaigning. Someone like a celebrity might use their influence for good by doing a television campaign. But perhaps you haven’t got those resources. This is when it’s time to turn the can’ts into cans. You absolutely can do something. If it’s volunteering for an hour a week, changing from plastic drinking bottles to a reusable one, making some cakes for a fund-raiser, or writing an email to an MP. Make sure you are registered and actively vote when elections roll around (this is an important one). You may not feel it is enough, but if you truly work out what you can actually do with the resources available to you (resources including your time, health and energy levels) then you have a wonderful place to start from.
Tiny actions have a ripple effect. Roping in friends and family, spreading word of your cause over social media or blogging means that you inspire others, and others may have bigger slices of control, and with every person you influence and inspire to get involved in your cause, you are making your slice bigger. So you need never waste energy on the area of the circle outside of your control because as you focus on what you can do, your ‘can slice’ increases.
So next time you find yourself fretting about the state of the world have a think about what you can do and begin to plan how you will put it in to action. You never know, you may end up changing your world for the better.