Controlling the Uncontrollable

I started my therapy session a few weeks ago with a “my life’s okay but I’m really frustrated and irritated.”  These emotions are the reason I sought therapy in the first place so my therapist wasn’t surprised. We talked a bit about the situation and the he, unbeknownst to me, started the therapeutic part of his session:

“Let me ask you something. What do you have control over?”

I looked at him, confused.  What the heck did that have to do with my current anger?

“It’s a simple question. Don’t overthink it.”

I still looked at him blankly.

“Ok, let me give you an example. I asked an 8-year-old patient of mine the same question. He replied that he had control over the clothes he wore. I’m looking for a simple answer like that.”

I stared him down again, flustered. He was putting me on the spot and naturally my anxiety was peaking.  I stuttered a bit as I told him simple answers such as what I’m going to do that day or what car I chose to drive. Feeling stupid and judged, I looked at him.

“Now, what things do you have no control over.”

That was easy. “Other people” I quickly replied. Ding ding ding!  He pointed out the root of some of my anger. I spend a lot of time fuming over the things I can’t control. I let it fester and eat away at me bit by bit until it comes to a head with me exploding with rage at someone. We talked a bit about the people I often try to control because something they do or say bothers me. We identified the the reasons I couldn’t control them and the ways my efforts to do just that make the situation worse. We closed the session with an assignment to come up with a list of things I can and can’t control.

The assignment and this session was a complete eye-opener. No one ever challenged me to think about this. What he was doing was addressing my control issues, those that were causing me to manifest them in unhealthy ways. I sat in my car for a bit just thinking about what we talked about. What could I control?  Well, my attitude, for one. I’m a pessimist by nature because of certain experiences I’ve been through. Optimism has done nothing but wound me emotionally in the past.  It’s a defense mechanism so that when I am disappointed about an outcome, I won’t hurt as badly from it because I already knew the worst was going to happen.  However, by being negative about things all the time I was hurting no one but myself. It made me miserable and caused me great pain by wasting brainpower going over the possible bad outcomes of a situation. Maybe, just maybe, I should try being a bit more positive about things and seeing the good aspects of a supposed bad situation or outcome.

That’s just one of the many things I came up with when it came to what I could control. It was probably one of the most deeply significant, not so superficial as my ability to control what shoes I wore that day. Identifying what I could control helped me realize what I couldn’t control. Turns out that list is twice as long as my controllable one. If it taught me anything, it was that I sure do spend a lot of time trying to control the things I can’t. However, what I can do is use the things I can control to make a situation better.

I don’t like the people I’m around?  Politely excuse myself and go somewhere else or leave the get-together early. Annoyed by sounds people make? (Thanks mysophonia). Put on some headphones and listen to my music full blast. Some situation making me miserable on a day-to-day basis?  Find a way to improve it by either tackling what makes it miserable or finding alternatives that would make me happier.

All this sounds so obvious and simple yet I still get caught up in mishandling control. I’m sure a few people out there are guilty of this as well. I know that since I had this conversation with him, I’ve been trying hard to change the things I can control that are bugging me and accept those that I can’t. It’s like the serenity prayer you hear often at support groups states:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference

I’m really working on figuring out the differences. I’m hopeful that practicing this mindfulness will aid me in tackling the emotional issues that stem from misplaced energy. I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be able to do this automatically and I’ll be able to flourish in ways I haven’t been able to yet.

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