Do you feel the need to control everything around you? This is common, and there are ways to manage.
You can’t control how your colleagues think and act. You can’t control the traffic. You can’t control whether your loved ones become ill. And yet, accepting that you can’t control these things can be difficult in itself.
But although you can’t control the world around you, you can control your reaction to it.
Learning to accept and cope with things you can’t control might help you find peace of mind when faced with difficult situations. It could also help you relieve stress and anxiety.
A cognitive distortion is a persistent thought that isn’t grounded in reality.
Cognitive distortions make you see things more negatively than they really are. Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to some degree. The more cognitive distortions you experience, the more negative your thoughts can be.
You might find it difficult to think positively or objectively about certain experiences because of these distorted thoughts.
A common cognitive distortion is the control fallacy: the idea that you can and should control more than what you actually can control.
For example, you might feel guilty if your partner doesn’t enjoy their birthday, even though their happiness is out of your control. Or you might spend time and energy getting your younger sibling to study when their success is really up to them.
Maybe others have described you as “needy” in relationships because you tend to want to be in control and in contact with the other person all the time.
Your thoughts might be telling you that you’re responsible for others or for events, and that’s why you feel the need to be in charge of every situation. But perhaps you’re not responsible for everything that you think you are.
Learning to recognize these thoughts can be helpful and might lead you to stop worrying.
When you identify that your thoughts aren’t entirely truthful and rational, you might find it easier to cope with them.
If you realize some things aren’t your responsibility, you might let them go instead of trying to control them.
If you find yourself leaning on cognitive distortions that lead to controlling behaviors, a mental health professional could help. Cognitive distortions can be effectively addressed through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other types of therapy.
The opposite side of the control fallacy is the idea that you can’t control things you can actually control.
For example, you might blame external forces, such as fate or other people, for things in your life that you could actually change.
Identifying those things you can control may help you deal with those you can’t.
“When clients have expressed frustration about circumstances beyond their control, I acknowledge the emotions involved and ask what aspects of their lives they can control,” says Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker and journalist in Philadelphia. “Likely, they will recognize that there are more areas where they feel they have choices.”
Recognizing the control you do have over some things in your life might help you feel better. It might help to do what you can and surrender the rest, Weinstein says.
Mindfulness refers to focusing on the present moment, where you are, and what you’re feeling right now. Concentrating on your surroundings might take your mind off of things you can’t control in the moment.
“In a world where we would rather disconnect by binge-watching shows or scrolling on our phones, the way to regain feelings of control and lower stress levels is to connect to the body through mindfulness activities and breathing exercises,” says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a licensed professional counselor in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and the founder of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health.
Capanna-Hodge recommends engaging in at least 10 minutes of mindfulness exercises a day.
“When we learn to tolerate uncomfortable sensations, thoughts, and feelings, we move from a stress-activated sympathetic state to a more relaxed parasympathetic state,” she explains.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your body relaxes and rests. Your breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and blood pressure slow down and you feel at ease.
Not sure where to start? Consider these short mindfulness exercises.
Consider using deep breathing exercises when you’re feeling overwhelmed by things you can’t control.
Deep breathing might be able to soothe anxiety by taking you out of the fight, flight, or freeze mode and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Capanna-Hodge suggests trying diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing.
A 2017 study of 40 healthy adults found that those who underwent an 8-week training course in diaphragmatic breathing experienced reduced negative responses to stressful situations.
To practice belly breathing, try these steps:
- Sit down in a comfortable but upright position.
- Put both hands on your belly, and close your eyes.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose as much as you can.
- As you breathe in, fill your belly with air.
- Slowly breathe out through your mouth pressing your lips together, as if blowing kisses.
- Let your belly release all the air and become flat once more.
- Continue breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth while you focus on the motion of your belly.
You can use this technique every time you feel your stress levels rising when thinking about a situation you feel the urge to control.
“Journaling is a powerful tool since it is a mindfulness technique,” Weinstein says.
Journaling can be an effective way to express and process your emotions. It can help you deal with things you can’t control by becoming aware of the reasons behind this controlling need.
Writing your thoughts and feelings as they come up might also help you identify those cognitive distortions you experience the most and that might be increasing your anxiety about what you can and can’t control in life.
You could start your journaling exercises by asking yourself these questions:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What was I thinking when I started feeling this way?
- What in this situation causes me pain or stress?
- Is this something I can change?
- If I can’t, what are some aspects of the situation I can control?
- What would really happen if I can’t change anything in this situation?
The goal with journaling is to:
- identify things you can’t control
- identify things you believe you should control and why you feel that way
- find those aspects of each situation you can indeed control
- become aware of the root causes of your anxiety or stress
“There is never a wrong time to work with an objective professional,” Weinstein says. “Please don’t wait until things become overwhelming to reach out for guidance.”
Weinstein says that if anxiety is getting in the way of your day-to-day functioning, it’s a sign to reach out for help.
Capanna-Hodge adds that the physical symptoms of stress, such as changes in your sleep pattern or gastrointestinal difficulties, can be a sign that you might benefit from finding a therapist.
If you find it difficult to cope with what you can’t control, there are a few things you can do to help yourself feel better in the moment and in the long run.
Learning to recognize what you can and can’t control is a good first step that can help you develop the ability to cope.
As Weinstein says, “The reality is, we have no control over other people’s behaviors and choices whether on a personal or global scale. All we can do is work on our own.”
You might find it beneficial to reach out to a mental health professional, especially if you often deal with feelings of overwhelm and anxiety related to controlling uncontrollable things in your life.
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