If you’ve read the first two parts of this series, you’re already aware that there’s so much in life we simply can’t control no matter how much we want to. Losing control, or realizing we never had the control we thought we had, causes us distress that often turns into anger. For those of us who are parents, this means we can’t even control our children. Sure, we can influence them through consequences or sticker charts or physical force, but we simply can’t control them.
This was a harsh realization for me. Somehow, like a lot of people, I had convinced myself that I had way more control than I truly did and like a good alarmist I began asking myself if there was anything in my life I could control. Maybe you’re wondering the same thing: can we actually control anything?
The answer is a resounding yes. While the list of things you can’t control might be far more daunting, the truth is you still have a considerable amount of control in your life. This is great news for those of us who may feel completely out of control. However, it’s bad news when you realize that the only thing you can control is yourself–your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviors. After all, it’s way more fun to try to control other people.
Below is a list of fifteen things you can control right this second. This list is by no means exhaustive (who has time for that?), but I hope it helps you see that there is a great deal in your life you truly can control. And, if you can take control of these things, you may find the impact on your daily life to be tremendous.
- The way you take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. No one else is responsible for the way you think, feel, and behave except for you. Others can certainly influence these things, but ultimately you are responsible for them. Knowing this, it’s up to you to claim that responsibility for yourself, whether you’re proud of your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors or not. Claiming this responsibility is the primary and best way to take back control in your life, and you really can’t control the rest of the things in the list if you skip this first step. (Here’s something I realized: a lot of times responsibility is just a more bitter tasting synonym for control.)
- What you do with your emotions. You are responsible for your feelings, but admittedly it can be difficult to actually control your own emotions. I think the jury may still be out on whether this is even possible. However, I believe you are always in control of how you respond to the emotions you experience. While this isn’t a simple task either, it’s a vital step toward regaining control of your life. When you’re angry, do you lash out or do you take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about yourself, others, or the current situation? When you’re happy, do you let the feeling fleet away with the next inconvenience or do you savor it and handle it with gratitude?
- What you focus your thoughts on. Like feelings, thoughts can be difficult to control. They tend to appear almost out of nowhere, sometimes even shocking us with their randomness. If we can’t control what thoughts surface, we can at least replace negative thoughts and choose to refocus, even if we have to do this twenty times per minute. This can be exhausting, but the more we practice the better at it we become. Our thoughts have a symbiotic relationship with our feelings and behaviors, so we owe it to ourselves and those we love (and even those we don’t) to control every aspect of this relationship that we can.
- The words use you say. Words are powerful. In part one of this series, I wrote about the difference between influence and control, and how influence is the ability to impact the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. Words are one of the primary ways we can influence others, for good or for ill. While it may feel like it sometimes, our words do not just fly out of our mouths without us choosing them. We have complete control over what we say, and therefore have a great deal of power in our relationships. Words can also impact the way others perceive us, and so we should be careful about how we speak. The control over our words is ours alone, and occasionally overzealous autocorrect, but it’s our own fault for not paying attention before pressing send.
- Your health habits. You only have the body you have. Sure, you could get some transplants and prosthetics, but those are expensive and gross (I assume). Take care of yourself. Get to sleep at a decent time. Eat healthy. Exercise. Schedule regular doctor’s appointments. These things are not anyone else’s responsibility but yours. And taking care of yourself is a responsibility. It’s not selfless or noble to run yourself ragged, so build a bridge and get over yourself.
- Your boundaries. What are you okay with others doing to/with/for you? What are you not okay with? Determine your boundaries, communicate them, and stick to them. But recognize that, while you control what your boundaries are, you don’t control whether others respect them. Therefore, if and when someone violates your boundaries, you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do in response. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t be a welcome mat either.
- Whose opinions you care about. It’s not necessarily bad to care about others’ opinions of you. After all, you should probably care what your boss or your spouse think of you. However, those are people who have earned the right to have their opinions cared about; most people haven’t earned that right. Don’t give anyone that right if they haven’t earned it. Also, you shouldn’t count out your opinion. What do you think about you and the choices you make? Your opinion about yourself matters, even more than your boss’s or your spouse’s. You always have to live with yourself. Make sure you like the person you are, and if you don’t, well, you’re the only one in control of changing that.
- The way you treat yourself. What does your inner voice say about you? Is it unfairly harsh and critical? Odds are, you’re not actually as bad (or as good) as you tell yourself you are, so replace unrealistic self-statements with realistic ones. My therapist encouraged me to practice reciting this mantra: “I’m a wonderful guy. I’m an average person. Sometimes I feel like a loser.” I love this because it covers the whole gamut of self-despair, narcissism, and the impermanence of crummy feelings.
- Your breathing. This may sound silly, but when everything else in your life feels out of control, you can always control your breathing. If you’re feeling particularly distressed, focus on your breathing. Take deep breaths. Hold your breath. Inhale for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, exhale for eight seconds. Whatever. Controlling your breath is a fantastic way to ground yourself in the present moment and connect your mind to your body.
- Your gratitude. In every situation, no matter how out-of-control you feel, there is always a laundry list of things to be grateful for. Don’t believe me? Get out a piece of paper and start writing down things you’re thankful for, all the way from your spouse to your new (or old) F-150 to the fact that your toes help you keep your body balanced. I promise it won’t be that difficult to fill both sides of the sheet.
- How you present yourself. You can’t control whether the world thinks you’re a lazy slob (since you can’t control what other people think), but you can influence them by being mindful of the way you present yourself. Sure, you can’t control the impact your genes have on your physical appearance, but you can control the impact your jeans have on your physical appearance. Also, you can control your hygiene, your fashion choices, your body language, your tone of voice, your vocabulary, your posture, your eye contact, and your facial expressions.
- The commitments you make or break. There really isn’t a situation that you’re completely stuck in, unless, for instance, you’re in prison. But you can quit your job. You can leave your church. You can say no to joining that committee. You can cancel dinner plans. There may be unpleasant consequences that come with making or breaking a commitment, but you have control over the decision to make it or break it.
- The content you consume. My old youth pastor growing up always said, “Garbage in, garbage out” in reference to the content we consumed. I truly believe that this is the case. Whatever you watch, read, or listen to will be internalized and eventually externalized. For the most part, you can control the content you consume (news, music, TV shows, movies, books, blogs, podcasts, conversations etc.), so be sure you’re consuming content that’s worthwhile.
- Your work ethic. Whether you are employed outside the home or are a stay-at-home parent, the amount of effort you put into your responsibilities is completely within your control. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a hard worker, but I have noticed that on the days when I really do put in a solid amount of effort, I feel good about myself and my capabilities. And just think: that’s entirely within my control.
- How patient, forgiving, and grace-filled you are. Some people are unbearable to be around (and sometimes these people are our children). At times, these people can make us so livid we either vent about them to the emptiness of our cars, our friends and family, or even to their faces. But think about it: is that the kind of person you want to be? Do you want to be so controlled by someone else’s behavior that you completely lose control of yourself? Probably not. It’s incredibly difficult, sure, but you can choose to be patient. You can choose to be forgiving. You can choose to be grace-filled. Not only will you show yourself to be the bigger person, but your surprising reaction may even have a positive effect on that unbearable person.