One of my favorite mantras is the Serenity Prayer. You know the one: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The wisdom to know the DIFFERENCE. Recognizing what one can and cannot control truly takes wisdom, insight, and trust. Though just about all of us suffer, on some level, from the illusion of control. And this illusion can certainly bring stress and chaos to our lives.
There is plenty of scientific research examining and supporting the notion that all people have varying degrees of control illusions. When it comes to lay literature, think of the plethora of “positive thinking” manifestos, like The Secret and thousands of other books and videos all espousing how to manifest certain thoughts in order to magically compel outside forces to fulfill our desires. This illusion seems inherent to human nature, and it works, of course, because it helps people feel calmer or less anxious if they believe they can somehow control the things not in their control. However, it doesn’t work when illusions keep someone stuck in situations that aren’t working, cause stress or pain in relationships by insisting on one’s responsibility for others’ actions, or trigger us to take blame and feel shame for things that weren’t our fault.
So let’s get real. What can you control…really? Here’s my answer, and I’d be very interested to see any proof that negates it: Each of us can ONLY control our own individual actions, thoughts, and feelings. That’s it! Okay, some feelings seem to be out of our conscious control, and for many of us thoughts can be difficult to manage. But the bottom line is, we only have control over ourselves. Nothing else! No other person’s behavior or mood. No natural force outside our own bodies. None of it. Is this scary? To many people, it is.
So how do we exist in a world without the illusion of control? Here are three important tips:
1. Take stock of how you feel
Giving up any long-running illusion is scary. Even more so when that illusion is the belief you have a major influence over the world. So, one thing that will be necessary—and extremely beneficial for life in general—when giving up any illusion is the practice of really understanding how you feel in any given moment. When you recognize you don’t have control over certain things, the tendency is to suddenly recognize the fear that has motivated the illusion in the first place. So instead of trying to avoid, fix, or get rid of the fear by using an illusion of control or some other fear-avoidance device, would you be willing to simply FEEL your fear? This means getting present with it, allowing the fear to be there, and noticing how it feels in your body. The more you practice feeling fear without judgment, the less uncomfortable it will feel, the more it will dissolve, and hence the less you’ll need the illusion.
2. Positive perception or non-attached optimism
When you give up the illusion of control, how then can you stay positive and not in a constant state of fear. Well, there is something helpful in the spirit of Positive Thinking literature. Though, it’s not that certain ways of thinking will compel outside forces to get in line with your desires; rather, the helpful perspective is that when you think positively, then whatever happens—whether in line or not with your particular desires—can be viewed in an optimistic light. In other words, an optimistic person tends to have “good” things happen because he/she judges everything as potentially “good,” not because it fell in line with the way they wanted it to turn out. This takes some non-attachment to the outcome, as although certain outcomes may be more desired, an optimistic individual is open to the positive potential of any outcome.
3. Take action and responsibility over the things you CAN control
Get very clear on what you are responsibility for and what you are not. Stop taking blame or feeling guilt or shame for how other’s feel or experience the world; stop being at fault for events outside your control. And take full responsibility for your own actions, thoughts, and feelings, without blaming anyone else. No one can “make you” feel a certain way or do certain things. This absolute control and power over your own self is a true liberation—from the burden of responsibility over others’ journeys in life and the feeling of true independence of other people’s control.
If you’d like to get really clear on what is true, if you’re willing to live in a more honest reality, then are you willing to give up the illusion? Like the Serenity Prayer suggests, it takes immense courage to break old illusions of control over what might happen, blame for that which already happened, and responsibility for other peoples’ journeys. If you have the courage to face the naked world as it truly is and take responsibility for your journey and yours alone, you may find a liberation and aliveness you’ve never before experienced…
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Your truth is yours, and my truth is mine. If your world calls for control over forces outside yourself, more power to you. Or I should say, the illusion of more power to you.