How To Feel In Control, Even When You Aren’t
You know the saying that we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can do in a year?
If ever we needed proof that human adults are capable of using their imaginations, then we need look no further than any one person’s daily to-do list. Oh, the things we believe we can accomplish in one twenty-four hour period of time.
It’s a funny phenomenon, the way we humans tend to dance between near- and far-sightedness when it comes to what we think is possible and what we think isn’t. You’d think we’d use the contrast in our favour, but alas! That is not always the case…
We’re farsighted on the day-to-day stuff (“I will be able to accomplish All The Things today, with no distractions”), and nearsighted on the longer-term goals (“Well, I don’t want to aim too big, in case Life happens and I can’t make good on my plans”).
In general, this tendency leads us to feel less in control of things than I imagine we’d like to be.
Think about it: you can’t even get through a typical day’s work without falling behind. This is, of course, not at all factually true: your to-do list didn’t account for all those distractions, interruptions and impromptu tasks. But it leaves you feeling behind, regardless, and this, in turn, makes you ever more wary of making longer-term plans, since you can’t even accurately predict one day at a time!
Generally speaking, I notice that a lot of people — myself included — spend a lot of time struggling to try to manage things that are not within our control, while simultaneously abdicating our responsibility to take the reins of the stuff that we actually could. We hang onto things we can’t control like I hug my cat who desperately wants to get away (but Hermes, I LOOOOOVE you!), and we drop the things we could manage faster than a hot potato.
What is the difference and why do we do it?
This is called Locus of Control, and it’s a psychological term that describes the degree to which people feel that they have control over the events and outcomes of their lives. If we feel we have a lot of influence over what happens in our lives, we are operating from an internal locus of control: the power is within us, like Glinda famously tells Dorothy.
If, on the other hand, we feel that the power to control our lives and what happens to us is outside of our control, then we have an external locus of control. Or, I suppose, more accurately, an external locus of control has us, and we call it Fate, or Destiny, or good or bad luck.
I bet you’re thinking that an internal locus of control is good to have, while an external locus of control is bad, or at least not preferable. The reality is that we are all operating with both of them, depending on the circumstances. It’s more of a spectrum than two distinct islands. The tricky bit is where we mix them up, desperately trying to enforce control over factors that are not within our jurisdiction, while we leave our genuine sovereignty up for grabs and Fate’s passing fancy.
In reality, they’re neither good nor bad, but that being said, if we actively practice and cultivate an internal locus of control, we tend to feel more responsible and effective in our lives. Plus, the bonus is that if you practice distinguishing what really is within your control, you get better at letting go of the things that aren’t. That’s an excellent return on your investment. A real buy-one, get-one deal. Who doesn’t love a good BOGO?
I thought it might be helpful to illustrate the distinctions between things we can control and things we can’t, so here is a handy dandy, but not exhaustive, list:
When life feels like it’s out of control, the good news and the bad news is that, to some degree, it probably is. This can be a leg iron, or it can be freedom, depending on where you choose to focus your energy and attention.
Too often, we try to grind out command and authority over things in the left-hand list, which is a waste of our time, while we turn a blind eye to the items on the right-hand list, which is where we can actually step up into leadership, and steer our vessel.
In short, if you want to feel more in control of things, it helps to get clear as to whether the thing you’re trying to manage is within your locus of control. If it isn’t, then maybe stop wasting your energy trying to force it to go your way. And, if you’re feeling like you are not the boss of you, then it might be worth seeing where you are relinquishing your sovereignty over the things you could actually govern.
People lightheartedly quip that if you’re feeling helpless, go and clean out a drawer or closet. If you’ve ever taken this advice, you know it actually works to exercise dominion over your own space. Who’s to say it needs to be a physical closet? Think of all those messy drawers in your head and in your heart.
Practice paying attention to what is within your control and what isn’t. Then choose accordingly. Become the CEO of you, and take control of the stuff you can actually be the boss of. Let go of the rest, and watch your self confidence, peace and enjoyment of life grow.
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