I have four calendars. Five, if you count the cutesy week-at-a-glance one sitting on my desk that I haven’t used in quite some time. But mostly four: a shared whiteboard one with Brian, my pen-and-paper planner that came with cute stickers and perfectly-placed inspirational quotations selected by Bando brand. then there’s my iPhone calendar, and then there’s my lesson planner. What does that tell you about me? Other than having a mild calendar obsession and it being virtually impossible to tear me away from a Paper Source boutique…
If you guessed that I like having control & a certain element of predictability to my daily life, you guessed correct. But as much as control over circumstances can come with a certain rush and satisfaction, I’ve come to understand (and embrace) that control is just plain unrealistic to expect all the time, making the pursuit of control–well, problematic and unsatisfying. Yours truly was born a perfectionist, and promptly added “go-getter” to my list of self-identifiers, meaning I carried around the mantra of “Your life is what you make of it. You are in charge of your own destiny.”. Don’t get me wrong. I am all about Carpe-ing that diem. I do indeed believe that life begins outside of your comfort zone, and that we should all do one thing a day that scares us. I also believe that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams, and that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Where I think many people (and I) get tangled up, however, is that they lose sight of the fact that some things are just out of our hands. When an endeavor goes awry or we don’t get that job we’d been vying for, we’re so quick to look back at ourselves and go “what could we have done differently? what might have gone wrong? why didn’t x, y, or z like me? Why didn’t I get a second date? Was there food in my teeth during that interview?” Because we’re in control of our circumstances, right?
Growing up as a woman, I was not only taught that as an ambitious woman my life was what I made of it, I was also taught by society to apologize quite frequently (and preface sentences with phrases like “this might not be what you’re looking for, but….”) The end result of very well-intentioned sources of inspiration combined with society-based female-minimizing? That if I kept apologizing for things in the process of having control over my life, that a lot of mishaps, misunderstandings, and wrong-turns must not only be in my control, but also totally my fault. My destiny is ALL in MY hands? Damn, that’s a lot of pressure! Maybe I should apologize again or try and make everyone in this room happy, because them liking me and approving of me is 100% in my control too, right? Wrong. (We all learned that in high school. You can be part of spearheading the committee that makes CREPES in the hallways during school day mornings but no amount of hazlenut spread will make everyone want to be your bestie. Especially not in the era of MySpace and Top 8.)
As we all know, I’m no expert– I would never claim to be one. What I have managed to do on a personal level is to tame both a a lioness of inner anxiety and a magnetism towards wanting control over situations over the past several years, and came out the other end feeling much more grounded. Ironically, one of the most pivotal moments in acquiring a new perspective on things was embracing the fact that there are so many instances when we have to just sit back, let the universe iron out whatever kinks may exist in the moment, and release any notion that our actions can or will control the outcome. It is surprisingly freeing to realize that there are many moments in our life when we in fact have no control at all. Are you showing up? Are you doing your best? Are you treating others with respect and goodwill? That’s about as far as our control stretches in a general sense.
A practice that really supported my sense of clarity and perspective was developing a way to do a reality check about if I have control over any given situation or not. The awareness that sometimes it’s time to take matters into your own hands and at other times it’s best to just see how things run their own course equips us all with a readiness to take the bull by the horns when the situation calls for it, and at the same time foster a beautiful sense of flexibility and acquired acceptance that sometimes the healthiest (and only) thing to do is go with the flow.
One metaphor I’ve developed to help visualize (and consequently embrace) the ebb & flow of control over circumstances in our life is an oscillating fan, and being aware and okay with whatever direction it’s facing. There are times in our life when the fan will oscillate away from us, and something might totally not go our way. We might not gain the approval or admiration of someone we’d hoped to. We might get really (and I mean REALLY) crummy news. We might not succeed at persuading another person of a truth that we hold fiercely to be an absolute. We might show up at a party and not know anybody there. We might be stuck in the WORST traffic ever on our way to the airport. We might get a terrible cold right before a vacation we’d really looked forward to. For anyone who’s ever had the thought “This isn’t how it was supposed to go,” you know the feeling I’m talking about. In these moments, it can feel brutal but it can also feel ever-so-slightly liberating to: allow ourselves to not have all the answers, give ourselves permission to adapt the “we’ll see what happens” mindset, even if it’s just taking the mindset for a test-drive, and allow ourselves to genuinely have no clue what the end result of X,Y, and Z will be. Show up, do your best, and treat others with respect and goodwill. Do your best to be a problem-solver, but don’t convince yourself that you are necessarily steering the ship.
And THEN there are times when the fan oscillates towards you and you DO have control. What an exciting (and sometimes terrifying) feeling. Opportunity knocks at our door, or we decide we want to try something new, or we see one of our idols at the cafe or bookstore we’re at and we have the chance to approach them. Or, you know, it’s tax season. Then it’s time to act. Summon your gusto. Do what you need to do. Steer the ship.
So I encourage you, dear friends, to try this with me– next time you’re feeling stuck, or flummoxed, or flustered, or overwhelmed, take a step back and really try and determine which direction that fan is oscillating, and then act (or don’t act) accordingly. It’s way too much responsibility (and presumption) to live with the notion that we’re in control of everything all the time.
And in case you were wondering, in my humblest of humble opinions—
here are the things that I think are a fair case to argue one has control over:
- their body (+choices related to it)
- How often we spend on our phones (or other non-work-related devices)
- their attitude + reaction towards things
- how much you put into a relationship (which does not necessarily govern the quality of a relationship– stop blaming yourself for relationships that didn’t necessarily flourish)
- nutrition + care towards yourself
- Willingness to help others
- risks that you take (New favorite quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”- Anais Nin)
- forgiveness towards others + towards yourself
- Basic adult responsibilities like walking the dog & taking care of finances & doing your taxes on time
and here are a few things that we indeed have no control over:
- Chance opportunities that come our way
- illness that comes out of left field
- Other people’s backgrounds, vulnerabilities, and willingness to share
- Period cramps (sorry, boys)
- Others’ attitude + reaction towards things
- The amount of traffic on the road
- Natural disasters
- Everyone in the room’s happiness
- freak accidents
- Others’ decision-making (we can present a compelling case about why someone should believe or do x y or z, but in the end, it’s up to an individual’s decision-making process).
I’m still fine-tuning this fan metaphor, and my own ability to use it. But, if it sounds like a helpful exercise, I encourage you to pilot it along with me 🙂
The bottom line, though, is that sharpening our ability to determine when we do or don’t have control over a situation allows us to go easier on ourselves (deservedly so), go easier on those around us (we’re all trying our best here), and then rev our engines when opportunity hits. Oh and if you like the looks of that fan, I should mention that it’s a Lasko® 32-Inch 3-Speed Oscillating Tower Fan with Remote Control in Black, available at a Bed Bath and Beyond near you ;). Not a product placement, for the record, but they do have damn good coupons.
Delightedly (finally)not (under the impression that I’m) in control all the time,
The Mindful Maniac