One of the most popular prevailing myths of life is the illusion of control--the belief that we can shape the world around us to our own desired specifications. We’re told by our shared stories and cultures that we have the power to craft our own comfortable, unchallenging reality from the ground up, if we only work hard or smart enough.
We might think that we can protect ourselves from pain and suffering if we can only learn to manipulate our environment in the right way. If we own the right objects, if we practice the right type of spirituality, if we organize our time well enough, if we find the perfect career, if we're able to keep up with all of the rules we set down for ourselves, we'll never have to face uncertainty and unhappiness again.
But this myth is just that—a myth. The world is actually transient in nature. The forces of time, chance, fate, individuality, and choice will always keep us guessing. You actually have far less control over life than might you think you do. And rather than being scary, that can be a beautiful, freeing thing to realize.
At the root of it, the desire to control your circumstances is one of the ego's survival techniques. Perfect control means that you'll never have to question yourself, or to feel the discomfort and insecurity that questioning yourself brings up. Control is a protective measure, guarding your ideas about yourself and your worldview. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have control over how other people perceive you, or how they act towards you and even each other?
The desire to control can also be born from empathy and frustration. It can be heartbreaking to think of all the atrocities happening around the world, from the decimation of our oceans and rainforests to the horrors of war, and realize that we as individuals can only do so much to help. This realization can lead to feelings of powerlessness and despair, or even to rage.
No matter what issues you keep close to your heart, worrying about the things you can’t control is no way to live. Rather than prompting you to take action, this anxiety can actually prevent you from personal growth.
So how do we stop worrying about the things we can’t control? Here are a few techniques to help.
1. React with intention
I know I just told you that you have very little control over what happens in your life and the world. But there’s actually one thing you do have a good measure of control over -- yourself. Of course, you can’t control your initial reactions and emotions, your intrusive thoughts, or how others see you, but you can control how you accept and move forward with those things.
Let’s say someone you love has hurt you in some way. You have a choice here: do you engage with that hurt with bitterness, anger, and resentment? Or do you take that hurt and turn it into compassion, understanding, and a desire for peacefulness? Do you confront that person, try to hurt their feelings, or try to guilt them? Or do you become vulnerable and honest with that person, and open up a discussion that can heal and nurture your relationship?
You can’t control the fact that this person has hurt you. You can’t even control the feeling of hurt that comes along with it. But what you can control is what you make of the situation. You can choose the path you want to take, even if you’re not sure where the path leads.
2. Face your fears
Sometimes approaching your fears (sometimes manifesting as control-freak tendencies) from an intellectual standpoint can be very cathartic. I like to think of it as unmasking my demons - they might look fierce and dangerous, but once the mask is off, they’re never as threatening as they once seemed.
Try writing your fears down. What is it that makes you anxious? For instance, are you worried about what people think of you? Next, sit in meditation for a few minutes with your fear as the focus. Really dive deep into why you worry about the things you do. Don’t be afraid to revisit this again and again until you understand your own motivations. Self-knowledge is always a beautiful key to peace.
3. Live in the here and now
The only thing that exists is right now. When you’re trying to control things, you’re living in the future, striving for something that you’ll never enjoy. Create opportunities for yourself to exist in the present moment. Meditation, of course, is one of the healthiest and easiest ways to do this. Even if it’s the only part of your day where you’re able to live in the present, just 15 minutes can make a huge difference to your overall levels of anxiety.
4. Do good on a small scale
A lot of anxiety about control is about the world at large. You can’t individually stop global warming, but you can take small measures to contribute in a good way. Rather than getting plastic bags at the grocery store, bring a few reusable boxes to take your groceries home in. Ride your bike to work instead of driving. You can’t single-handedly combat widespread hate, but you can spread love to those around you. Buy coffee for the person behind you in line. Call your grandma just to say hello. Pick up litter on the street. Wherever you see an opportunity to do good in the world, take it!
5. Look for opportunities to let go
I used to hate roller coasters, but my husband loves them, and is always trying to get me to loosen up and join him in the fun. I can’t control how fast the roller coaster is going, or whether there’s a structural integrity issue, but I can control my attitude to it. The last time he managed to drag me onto a roller coaster, I decided just to let go of the outcome. I was terrified at first, but I consciously chose to let go of my worry and choose trust instead. Once I did, I found that I absolutely loved the sensation of freefall! It felt like I was a bird in the sky. I found a whole new place to find joy, in exactly the place where I’d only found fear before. I’m not going to go skydiving anytime soon, don’t get me wrong - but giving myself permission to overcome my fear of not being in control was a cool moment.
Worrying about the things you can’t control might make you feel like you’re safer, but life would be pretty boring if we could control everything, don’t you think? Next time you find yourself in an anxious moment, remember to take a deep breath, draw upon your courage, and give yourself gentle and loving permission to just go with the flow.
Paige Leigh Reist is a lifestyle writer and the blogger behind thewholesomehandbook.com.