How To Cope with Things Outside of Your Control

Imagine the following scenario:

You are in a large, beautiful interior space with everything you need to accomplish any task that is put before you or to create anything you can dream up, along with every possible distraction and form of recreation you could imagine. Your friends and SOs hang out here and there is plenty of interesting work to do, when you’re motivated. This is a place of peace. It just feels good to be here.

There are three doors that lead off of this space.

Being the curious human being that you are, and not content to remain in this happy place, you want to know what is behind those doors, so you begin to explore them.

The problem is that each time you spend more than a few minutes in any of these three rooms, you begin to feel sick. If you’re in them for a few minutes, the sickness is mild, but the longer you attempt to remain in the room to get a better look around or to actually do any work in them, you become incapacitated. If you stay too long, even your friends who may hear your cries for help from behind the door, can’t get in there to save you. You have to be able to get out before it’s too late, yourself.

In the first room, it is very dark, but once you start feeling your way around and can begin to make out what is in there, at first it feels really familiar like you’re home. But gradually a feeling of heaviness descends upon you that eventually makes you feel like you are being crushed and you can hardly move. Sometimes you can barely make it to the door to free yourself. You wonder if there could come a time when you can’t get out and you would suffocate to death.

In the second room, there are a lot of other people, which ought to feel comforting, which it is at first. But a feeling of irritability begins to creep over you that eventually turns into frustration, and then builds into an all-consuming anger. Sometimes you fly into rages and you find yourself stomping out of the room, seething, and beating your head against walls. At other times, you just find yourself in there screaming, like you’re about to lose your mind, which you fear just might happen if you can’t get out.

In the third room, there’s a lot of activity going on. It’s a very interesting room, but as soon as you start to get your bearings and make out what’s happening in there, your throat starts to close up, your heart starts to pound in your chest, and your stomach begins to churn. You become so panicked and filled with dread that eventually you are convinced you are going to die. No one can convince you otherwise, and you feel like you are going mad.

This Is Your Life

Describing this nightmarish three-room/open space scenario is one of the ways I talk with clients about how to cope with the things in life over which we have no control. The three rooms represent the three areas of our lives over which we have no control: the past, changing other people, and the future.

The Present

The beautiful interior space filled with friends, work that could be done, distractions, and recreation is the Present Moment. This is where we have the possibility to act upon anything we actually do have some control over, which is:

  1. What we say and how we say it.
  2. What we do and how we do it.
  3. What we think and how we think it (to a degree).

The Past

The first room represents the past, which is over and cannot be changed. Going over what has already happened in your life can be helpful if you’re trying to access memory or if you are looking to learn something from what you have already been through. But you have no control over what has happened in the past. If you stay too long in the past, you can begin to obsess, ruminate, lean toward regret and self-criticism, and become depressed.

Changing Other People

The second room represents the attempt to change other people. You cannot change other people. On a good day, you will be lucky if you have any ability to influence them. But change them? Not going to happen. You have no control over whether other people will change. Setting yourself to that task will result in you becoming frustrated and angry, and is guaranteed to get you in touch with all kinds of feeling helpless.

The Future

The third room represents the future, which has not happened yet, so all we can do is attempt to predict, forecast, or create possible scenarios about future events in our mind. While it can be very helpful to make predictions about the future, especially if they are based on evidence from the past, to do more than that begins to create worry, anxiety, rumination, fear, and catastrophizing. We have no control over what has not yet happened. We can only control what is occurring now.

Leave It to the Superheroes

To be able to change the past, change other people, or change the future would require some ability that is beyond what we humans currently possess. (A TARDIS wouldn’t hurt, either). But you definitely need a superhero or something with super-human powers to be able to pull this off.

Which is why these rooms’ doors are closed and should be most of the time. It is not for us humans to be going in and attempting to rearrange the furniture. The furniture in there weighs 1000x more than our human furniture, is flying past our heads at high rates of speed, or suddenly morphs into monsters that try to attack us.

Where you have power and strength, as well as good mental health, is in your own space in the present moment, being able to respond to whatever is happening RIGHT NOW.

The Protocol for Coping with Things Out of Your Control

When you have identified that something is beyond your ability to control (the past, changing other people, or the future), you need to do the following:

  1. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do RIGHT NOW about whatever it is that you are concerned about. Can you say or do something about it? Can you develop a plan or a course of action or a contingency plan for “what if” situations? Can you determine what your boundaries or non-negotiables are?
  2. Decide if you ARE going to do anything about what you have decided you CAN do. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you have to. As psychologist William James advised, remind yourself that “you can, and you have a choice.”
  3. Leave what you cannot control to the superheroes of your choice. If you believe in a Higher Power, God, or Superman, Wonder Woman, or The Black Panther…please just try to trust that your superhero is doing what needs to be done in those rooms that are off-limits to you, you meddling human! Or you can just trust that you’re better off leaving some things alone.

DrAnita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist

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