I have control issues. If there’s a problem, I go looking for a solution. When somebody else comes to me with a problem, I often suggest potential solutions, when frankly, they may just want to vent. It’s one of the many things that I’m working on. Just this week my wife was dealing with a problem and I asked, “Is there something that I can do to help, even if it’s just listening?”See, working on it.
If, however, I am facing a problem of my own and it seems that there is nothing that I can do about it, I find that difficult to deal with. “Difficult” sometimes being a big understatement. I want to be able to fix whatever is going on and I often have trouble admitting that I can’t actually “fix” a situation. Being able to fix a problem gives me a sense of control. Not being able to fix it, takes away that sense of control and leaves me feeling somewhat on the helpless side, a feeling I really dislike.
Recently I finished reading The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Anchor. In the book (on page 137), Anchor talks about an exercise he recommends to clients where he has them create a list of all of the things that are stressing them or things they see as challenges, and then be honest about what is in their control and what is out of their control. He goes on to say that those things within their control can be broken down into smaller bits, which they can act on and feel a sense of accomplishment.
The best way to wash a car is to put a thumb over the hose’s spout, so that only a fraction of the area is open. Why? Because this concentrates the after pressure, making the hose much more powerful. At work, the equivalent of this is concentrating your efforts on small area where you know you can make a difference. By tackling one small challenge at a time – a narrow circle that slowly explained outward – we can relearn that our actions do have a direct effect on our outcomes, that we are largely the masters of our own fates. With an increasingly internal locus of control and a greater confidence in our abilities, we can then expand our efforts outward.”
This sounds great. I should probably have created such a list as soon as I finished reading that chapter, but I didn’t. At the time it did sound like a good idea to me, but I just let that feeling pass. A few days ago that I realized why. The idea of seeing a list of everything stressing me out that is out of my control scares the hell out of me. Why on earth would I do that?
It wasn’t until I pulled the book out and sat down to write this post that the above quote truly hit home. I’m expending a lot of energy stressing about things that really out of my control, and often not even close to being my responsibility, and it’s making me feel helpless, which really is a horrible feeling. If I refocus on the things that I can actually do something about, and then move on whatever actions are necessary including asking for help if needed, I’ll likely feel like I have more control overall.
For example, certain health problems are prevalent in my family. There is nothing that I can do about it if there turns out to be a genetic component. I could sit around and worry about what my future health might look like or I can get up every morning to exercise, eat healthier food, try to get enough sleep, meditate, etc., because those are the things that really are in my control and if I don’t do them, my health will likely suck later in life regardless of genetics. If I do focus on doing those things I’ll be healthier and have more energy to enjoy life today, and hopefully for a long time, which sounds better than sitting around ruminating.
I can make the list that Anchor recommends and get to work on those things that are in my control, or I can avoid the activity and expend a bunch of energy trying to figure out ways to fix things that I can’t. It seems like an obvious choice.