If a therapist or friend has ever admonished you to take control of your life, your relationships, or just yourself, you may have been among the many who have been perplexed by this recommendation. It may have sounded like a simple enough suggestion, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to understand or to follow through on once you got out in the real world where your life takes place. The application may have been a bit elusive, to say the least.
I’ve heard some interesting responses to suggestions that included the words “take control,” such as: “I had no control over what happened, and I can’t control it now,” or “I try to put my foot down and take control but my partner just gets mad.” So it is pretty clear that the “take control” idea is often misunderstood and can be a real challenge to implement.
Perhaps one step we can take to clarify what exactly is meant by taking control is to take a look at what is not meant by that phrase. For example, taking control does not mean changing your past, altering a chain of events, getting other people to do your bidding, being the boss or the decision-maker, or controlling other people. It does not mean sucking it up when you are feeling down, and it does not mean waving a magic wand that will make all of your problems go away. We cannot change the past, control the future, or force other people to do our bidding, and our determined efforts to do so will only lead to frustration and a feeling of having lost control, not gained it!
So how do we go about gaining a sense of control? We can’t change the past, but we can change our reaction to the past. We cannot control the future however we may be able to influence it to a certain extent, especially if we learn to control our own behavior. We cannot control other people, but we can control ourselves. Interestingly, when we do take control over our own reactions and our own behavior, and when we focus on our own actions rather than trying to control the actions of others, things often begin to fall into place for us. So a subtle shift of focus from trying to take control of external events and other people to taking control of and responsibility for ourselves is the key.
How to Take Control
While the capacity to take control is something we can acquire, it involves skills that are not fixed. That is, we need to continue learning to take control, shifting our approach and learning new approaches as circumstances require. It is a process that requires a bit of creativity and flexibility. The good news is that once we commit to the process, it becomes much less important what other people do and what other people think, and we become much less concerned about whether or not we can control them. We are centered in ourselves, not obsessed with everybody else.
I will suggest a few activities here to get you started on your own quest to take control.
Take Control of Circumstances
When life hits you with situations you do not want and you start feeling out of control, remember that it is entirely up to you how you respond to unfortunate circumstances. It’s fine to just spend some time experiencing your feelings, but rather than moving from there to bemoaning unkind fate, move on instead to thinking through how you wish to respond. What can you learn from what has happened? Are there things you would like to do differently going forward? Do you need help right now? If so, what kind of help do you need, and who will you ask to help you? Do you need alone time to regroup and figure out what is next for you? What would a positive resolution look like for you, and what’s the first step you need to take to reach that kind of resolution? Is there some part of that desired resolution that you can act on right now? Take control back from circumstance and focus your energy on how you will move forward. Then take a step, and another, and another. Soon you will be in a different place.
Work on Your Boundaries
When we feel we’ve been mistreated or taken advantage of by others, it is easy to get caught up in our own tale of woe. We imagine ourselves a helpless victim who is powerless to affect how we are treated. While there probably is some validity to your perception that you can’t change or control another’s bad behavior, that doesn’t mean you are entirely powerless. You decide what is acceptable to you, and you decide how you will respond when someone steps over the line. If you aren’t sure exactly why something bothers you, or if you haven’t encountered this type of behavior before, you may need some time alone to think through what concerns you, what is and is not acceptable to you, how you want to make your preferences clear, and how you want to handle it when someone transgresses. Do you want to explain to a friend why something bothers you, or ask that they don’t do it again? Do you want to say “no” next time a particular request is made of you? Is there someone you want to avoid, or at least minimize time with? Have you shared too much personal information with them? How will you handle it if this happens again? Boundary work is not a once and done activity. We all work on our boundaries throughout our lifetimes. Doing this work consciously and intentionally can make the learning process easier. It is your life and these are your relationships. You decide what you will and won’t do, and you decide what you will and won’t tolerate from others.
Be More Proactive
If you’ve gotten in the habit of drifting along in life, passively experiencing where life takes you and dealing with whatever comes your way, you may begin to feel like you’ve lost control. While there is certainly nothing wrong with kicking back and drifting for a while, and flexibility is a wonderful asset, you may feel more in control of your life if you begin to plan and act with intention more often, rather than just reacting to whatever comes your way. Make some decisions about what is important to you, what you want to do, and how and when you want to do it. Then carry out your plan with intention rather than just seeing what transpires. Notice how you feel when you bring a plan to fruition. Are you feeling more in control? Remember that it is up to you what you do with your life. Sometimes the simple act of making a decision about what you want to do next can be tremendously empowering.
I hope I’ve given you a clearer picture of what taking control is all about. It won’t make you omnipotent, but it will leave you feeling stronger, more focused, and better able to handle whatever life throws at you. You will feel in charge of your own life. It will never be a perfect life, but it will be yours!
Important Note: This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care. Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different. If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.