I have been reflecting a lot on the thoughts you offered me when I first left my job last year on openness vs control. This was really helpful. I know a lot of my anxiety recently has been rooted in my feeling like I am not enough and therefore trying to control everything, then having scattered energy and feeling like I am not accomplishing anything at all. Do you have any tips on how to stay in a space of openness and trust?
Oy can I relate. I am a recovering control freak. (And how very insightful to notice that this comes from a feeling of not being enough. Which is, of course, a lie. But more on that another time.)
But Life cannot be controlled. Yes, there is a lot in life that we can have some agency over.
We can make things happen, we can put order to our corner of the universe, but we can’t bend reality to our will. A LOT of what happens in Life is unpredictable and uncontrollable (death, taxes and plagues come to mind).
Much of what happens just is. And much of Life is coming to terms with that. A Wise Teacher called this process “coming belly to belly with reality”.
This is not easy.
When something doesn’t turn out the way I had hoped; when Life throws a curveball that changes everything (like unleashing a plague or being downsized), I feel grief: it hurts, it’s scary and it’s terribly disappointing.
And it pisses me off.
Avoiding that grief, that hurt, fear, disappointment, and anger is at the root of my compulsion to control.
Sometimes I can control how I feel by engaging in all kinds of unskillful behavior around food, work, my wife. I can avoid feelings by overworking; by not eating, or bingeing on chocolate. I can avoid others or avoid being alone.
But avoiding feelings – pleasant or unpleasant – results in anxiety, burnout and overwhelm.
We can’t control What Is. We can’t control how it makes us feel. But we can move towards acceptance. We can come “belly to belly” with it.
A million years ago, a therapist introduced me to this simple but powerful exercise. I still use it today.
First, I make a list of things I can’t change, can’t control or have no business trying.
Then I make a list of things I CAN change. What can I do in this moment? What is my responsibility?
It’s helpful, when doing this exercise the first few times, to ask a trusted friend to review your list of things you can’t change.
I have an overblown sense of responsibility and I don’t always have the wisdom to know the difference between what I can and can’t make happen.
Trusted friend <checking my list>: “Umm, you can’t stop it from raining.”
Me < googling it>: “You sure? I thought I read somewhere that….”
TF < hands me back my list>: “Yes, I’m sure. And you can’t live on a chocolate-based diet, nor can you rescue all the dogs.”
Me: “What if I try harder?!”
I am prone to arguing. This is the bargaining stage of grief. I argue hardest when I’m really invested in a specific outcome.
When I look at my two lists, my perspective shifts.
The list of things I can’t change helps create space for self-compassion. I practice letting go. I move towards accepting the way things are and apply self-compassion to my disappointed heart.
But I also open up to the things I CAN do something about.
The list of things I can change is empowering. It helps me refocus where in life I do have choice. Often, these are simple, mindful self-care strategies or small actions that set the stage for good things to happen. There usually is so much more I can do than I can think of when I am so focused on what is going wrong.
And that’s where Openness comes in. Open to letting the answers come and trusting they will. They can’t come when I am filled with conviction about what SHOULD happen and driven by the compulsion to MAKE them happen my way. Answers come when I am quietly receptive; when I am open for inspiration to land gently on my shoulder. < image: butterfly landing on dog>
I was once frantic with trying to find the answer to a question about a particular topic. I couldn’t find the answers anywhere. After being reminded to “let the answers come” rather than chase them, I resolved to do just that. I let go of my obsession with “figuring it out”.
A few hours later, I overheard two people talking about the very topic. Soon after, a video shown at work was about that topic too. And that night, while watching TV, it came up again! It was an incredible sequence of random events that gave me plenty to think about. Once I stopped obsessing about it, answers came flooding in.
These moments are sprinkled with a bit of magic. They leave me feeling like I’m on the right track, like I’m part of something greater and more mysterious than my limited mind can grasp.
Over the years, I’ve come to trust that the answers will come but only if I let the questions float gently rather than chase them. After all, the same force that guides the planets around our star guides us.
- Become clear about what is and what isn’t within your control. Make a list of what you can control and what you can’t (or shouldn’t).
- Take time to surrender and grieve the things you can’t control – meditate, talk to a trusted friend, confide in your animal companion.
- Take action on the list of things you CAN control.
- You don’t have to believe that the answer will come. Simply resolve to watch and listen. Trust takes practice.
Photo credit: (if you know who took this incredible photo, please let me know so I can credit them!)