At least in a lot of cases. It’s simply the nature of life that we can’t control everything we wish we could:
- You can’t control whether your best friend stops smoking so much weed every day.
- You can’t control whether your boss thinks you’re smart.
- You can’t control whether your spouse feels stressed out at the end of the day.
Your power and influence in this life are limited.
You can try to influence people in the way you think is best, but it’s a mistake to assume responsibility for the outcomes.
When your unconscious belief is that you should be able to control the outcome of everything, you end up with unrealistically high expectations for yourself. And inevitably, these expectations get violated, leading to big emotional swings:
- You walk in on your best friend smoking weed after he told you he’d quit, leading to a surge of frustration and disappointment.
- Your boss gives you a bunch of negative feedback after a presentation you thought was great leading to shame and self-doubt.
- Your spouse comes home stressed again despite the fact that you called them that day at lunch to check in leading to anger and resentment.
Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel helpless. Sometimes we just can’t help. Living in denial about that isn’t going to help anyone in the long run — least of all yourself.
Lowering your expectations to a realistic level doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you’re being honest with yourself.
Finally, have the humility to accept that you can’t control nearly as much as you’d like. Do your best, but don’t pretend that you’re God.
No one enjoys suffering. When you stub your toe, do you stand still and breathe, serenely accepting the pain of existence? No. You scream, grab your foot, jump up and down, and generally do anything possible to lessen the pain.
Our natural human response is to resist and avoid pain. We go to great lengths to alleviate our discomfort because discomfort really sucks. Unfortunately, this isn’t a great long-term strategy for surviving the ups and downs of life.
Just as the world is filled with joy and love, it is equally filled with hardship and inconvenience. An illness, a loss, an indefinable but persistent bad feeling – these problems have plagued humans since the beginning of time.
And yet, when it is our turn to suffer, we feel surprised. It is as if the cosmic waiter brought us the wrong meal. Wait. This isn’t what we ordered! We wanted happiness with a side of modest, meaningful struggle. Not persistent hardship and frustration with ambiguity on top.
What to do? You can’t just wish happiness into your life. But, with the practicing of good hygiene you can prevent much of the negative consequences of a troubled life. You can prevent the physical illness many of us create with poor reactions to life events.
First, identify the problems over which you have no control. Focus especially on the issues that you wish would be different, but cannot make different.
- Maybe you need to accept that the person you love is never going to treat you with kindness.
- Maybe you need to accept that you have a chronic illnessthat isn’t going to be cured.
- Maybe you need to accept that a bad thing happened to you, and you couldn’t do anything to stop it.
- Maybe you simply need to accept that you can’t please everyone and that you will waste your life if you keep trying.
Then, turn yourself towards acceptance. Notice when you start to resist suffering. Often, we resist through trying to solve the unsolvable, or brainstorming ways to avoid pain in the future, or berating ourselves for not avoiding pain in the past.
When you notice your resistance, simply turn your mind and body towards acceptance again. This is not a one-time decision, but a continual practice. Relax your body. Stop trying to find a solution. Repeat to yourself: “It wasn’t what I wanted to happen, but it is what happened, and I cannot change it.” Just accept. Again and again and again.
Acceptance is the last stop on the self-improvement train line. we tend to think it is also one of the best stops because it is such a relief. When you experience the peace of acceptance, you start to wonder why you spent so long kicking and screaming along the way. It is a gift you can give yourself in difficult and painful times.
For example, a customer suffered from chronic pain for many years. He spent much of his twenties deeply frustrated with his body. He was young and healthy, and thought he wasn’t supposed to hurt. It was unfair and didn’t make sense, and therefore shouldn’t be happening. He overworked himself and ignored his needs, which only exacerbated his pain. Once he accepted chronic pain as a fact, he was free to build a life that accommodated his pain. Counterintuitively, accepting his pain was what made it better.
Once you experience the relief of acceptance, you may find that you have a lot of free mental energy. You don’t have to spend your time and effort resisting the facts of your life. In short, once you stop wasting your time on what you can’t control, you are free to work on what you can change.
The final step is to identify the problems in your life that you cannot and should not accept. The unjust treatment of others, an unsalvageable relationship, a job that is making you miserable; these things could conceivably change through your individual behavior and are therefore much more worthy of your attention. By practicing acceptance, you empower yourself to change yourself and the world meaningfully.