We’ve all been there; the swirling thoughts, the heaviness, the tightness in the chest. Feeling overwhelmed is a natural cycle of life. Sometimes, it’s necessary to stop us in our tracks, to give us space to reflect on the balance of our lives. However, if you’re finding you regularly feel like your life is out of control, you may be caught in the trap of trying to control the uncontrollable.
This is a dead-end. It wastes energy, wastes time, and causes unnecessary stress. Acknowledging this truth was one of the most significant “aha” moments in my recovery. For anxiety sufferers, trying to control everything is common; we worry about a million possible outcomes, tell ourselves “it shouldn’t be this way” when things don’t go to plan, and bemoan the unjust nature of life.
When life feels out of control, remember there’s always a choice
Truth is, we have a choice. Choice begins with identifying what we can control and letting go of what we can’t. This is one of the biggest catalysts to finding inner-peace, a path to freedom. To jolt myself out of a sense of hopelessness in times of hardship, I continually find myself soothed by these three sentences:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
This passage is taken from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and various twelve-step recovery programs. Those three sentences concisely strike the balance between responsibility and self-acceptance. It encourages us to diligently identify when we are wasting energy and causing ourselves unnecessary stress, and when to act to change our environment.
Safe to say, I’m a big fan. I find these words soothing. And you don’t have to be religious, or a recovering addict, to benefit from these words. From my stance as a secular, non-dogmatic spiritualist (I’m sure there’s a way to condense that) I will explain my interpretation of the Serenity Prayer, comparing it with favourably with the locus of control, a concept from within personality psychology.
It’s outside my control to make you like this quote as much as I do… all I can do is try my best to explain its value. So here goes.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
Reinhold was sharing this prayer at a sermon, so it was part of the contract to begin by addressing God. Casting aside religious connotations, I see this as a call to have faith in a way that works for you. Perhaps you’ll address the universe, oneness, unconditional love, or the divine feminine. The important point is recognising faith gifts us calmness (“serenity”) and clarity.
Serenity isn’t a magic consequence of faith alone
A clear mind allows us to rationally deduce which situations are outside of our control — and encourages us to accept them. Resistance is wrapped up in trying to control the uncontrollable — we’re denying the reality of our situation. Your bus breaks down, you get angry, curse, look impatiently at your watch, ask the heavens why this always happens to you. You lack the serenity required to accept this is something you cannot change. Buddhist philosophy refers to this as unnecessary suffering.
It’s worth noting serenity isn’t a magic consequence of faith alone. Yes, prayer and surrender create the soil for serenity to grow, but ultimately we have the choice to cultivate skilled states of mind via meditation, mindfulness and self-reflection. Try it now — think of the last time you were angry. What was the cause of that anger? Reflect on whether there was additional upset caused by trying to control the uncontrollable.
Courage to change the things I can…
I particularly like this sentence because it’s a clear call to action. It changes the dynamic from passive beholder of life, to someone who takes the courageous stance of enacting change. You’re not enjoying your work. You’re constantly stressed. You’ve worked in this job for years. Leaving is out of the question… or is it?
You decide acceptance alone won’t change a damaging environment, so you find the strength to take a risk, hand in your resignation and find another role which is more fulfilling and less stressful.
How does courage to change apply to the bus example? Instead of sitting with anger, you ask the driver for an update. They tell you there won’t be replacement transport and the mechanic will take 30 minutes to arrive. So you use Google Maps to search an alternative route and see your destination is 20 minutes by foot. It’s a nice day outside. You switch perspective and see this as an opportunity for an unexpected stroll in the sun.
And wisdom to know the difference
“Equanimity’s strength derives from a combination of understanding and trust. It is based on understanding that the conflict and frustration we feel when we cannot control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so, but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable.” — Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
Third and not least, wisdom. An ability to exercise solid judgement works both ways. Take the first sentence to heart, you absolve yourself of responsibility and become a victim. Life is something that happens to you. You wave the proverbial white flag, accepting everything with resignation. No, no, no…
Wisdom is the catalyst to discerning when action can be taken, or when acceptance needs to be cultivated. Born from practice and experience, wisdom acknowledges acceptance and action are two sides of the same coin. Crucially, wisdom tells us not taking action when we have the opportunity to do is equally damaging. We can think of this as appropriate responsibility.
The locus of control — a psychological explanation
Social-learning theory provides a psychological explanation for the importance of these three sentences. The locus of control is a framework of personality developed by Julian B. Rotter, describing an individual’s belief system in relation to events in their lives. Someone with an internal locus of control believes their actions are primarily the cause of events. Those with an external locus of control primary believe events are outside of their control, the consequence of fate or luck.
External loci are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger
Though originally theorised around student learning, Rotter’s concept is easily applied to all areas of life. Interestingly, studies have shown the external loci (I’m sure this isn’t the scientific term) amongst us are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger. External loci is a breeding ground for powerlessness, which, you guessed it, leads to the paralyzing feeling life is spiralling out of control.
Bi-locals: the meeting point of responsibility and faith
The good news is these personality types aren’t black or white. Rotter noted internal and external are part of a continuum, with a third group sitting in the middle. Referred to as bi-locals, this group mixes internal and external attribution. For argument’s sake, this is the “Serenity Prayer” group. I may be bi-ased, but I see myself in this group, and I believe many on the spiritual path to be the same.
Why? Because the spiritual path combines personal responsibility with faith in something much, much bigger than ourselves. It doesn’t encourage us wait for life to do us a favour as we pray for the universe to be on our side. It encourages us to do the work, heal, increase self-awareness, cultivate skilled states of mind. Then, with our work done, we have faith external factors will be on our side; be it synchronicity, karmic law or manifestation.
Empowering ourselves to take control
“If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control — myself.” — Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Perhaps you’ve realised you’re on the extreme end of the internal – external continuum. Great! Belief systems are not fixed, and this is a perfect opportunity to identify what needs to change. It’s time to use these three sentences to sooth and improve (I’m a poet and I know it). Begin with acceptance, move on to action. Rinse, repeat and gain wisdom.
Belief systems are transient. The Serenity Prayer and the locus of control remind us we are never powerless. We can empower ourselves. Paradoxically, a huge, huge part of the process is accepting what we can’t control. Fortunately, as personal development guru Steven Covey suggests, there is one thing we can always control — ourselves.