We Think We’re in Control Until We Aren’t
We live as if we are fully in control of our life. It’s a normal thing to do until something like the pandemic shows up, which, like anything unexpected, reminds us that we’re not in control as much as we might like to believe.
If Viktor Frankl were still alive, I bet he’d be smiling every time someone quotes him these days.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl
Since we’ve all been administered the “stimulus,” how we respond is the big question. If we want growth and freedom, we need to realize that there are only two things in our control: our attitude and our behavior. We have the ability to make wise choices about both.
Making wise choices means we aren’t bound by looking good, being right, getting defensive, seeing our effort as a waste of time, or being close-minded. We do our best to play the cards we’ve been dealt, knowing we may not achieve everything we want, and aspiring to be proud of our behavior at the end of the day.
When we ignore our ability to make wise choices by reacting unconsciously or believing we don’t have the capacity to make any choices at all, we suffer. Someone bitter and resentful believes “there is nothing I can do; it’s all being done to me.” They blame others and make excuses. We suffer when we focus on things not in our control.
I really had my hopes up for that job I didn’t get.
They should not have spoken to me like that.
If only she would return my calls.
Arrogant politicians really make me upset.
I want the pandemic to be over now.
Instead of focusing on things you can’t control and becoming resentful, identify everything that is within your control and how they contribute to your overall well-being.
How we respond to others’ perception of us
People only see our behavior, never our intention, so they judge us by what we say or what we do. Some people view us positively, some not so much. Be kindhearted as much as you can and realize that people’s perception of you is a combination of the way they see the world and your behavior.
When you accept and love yourself, you don’t try to please everyone. You make an effort to be the best version of yourself. Sometimes you fail. Accept your imperfection.
And remember what Byron Katie said, “It’s not your job to like me — it’s mine.”
Awareness of and questioning our beliefs
Our beliefs are filters through which we see the world. They are influenced by our family, our life experiences, and the culture we have grown up in. We have positive beliefs like: I’m fundamentally a good person. I can make a positive difference in the world. I always try to do my best. And perhaps some that are less positive: I’m not good enough. Everyone is smarter than me. I’ll never get a good job again.
Beliefs greatly influence our life — how we show up, how we live, and what we do. If you want to improve your life, identify and rewrite your beliefs. Look for patterns and dysfunction. Notice any self-talk such as: “I should, I need to be, I can’t, I will never, I am not…” These are the “rules” by which you live your life. They are designed to keep you safe and secure, looking good, and being right. They create patterns of dysfunction.
We suffer when we focus on things not in our control.
Ask yourself: What is repeating itself in your life? At work, with family, with friends, in close relationships? When you identify and challenge your own beliefs, whether positive or negative, you are lighting the fire of transformation and growth. Psychologist Christiana Star explains more about this in her article, “How Your Subconscious Beliefs Affect Your Life.”
Our attitude and behavior
“The last of human freedoms — the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” —Viktor Frankl
We are capable of neuroplasticity, which means we have the capacity to rewire our brains and form new synaptic connections, which can significantly change our health, our moods, and our attitude.
While someone might have an internal narrative that they’re a negative person and they always will be, the truth of the matter is they could change that by building a new brain map in a very short time. In Neuroscience for Leadership, neuroscientist Tara Swart writes that “Depending on the complexity of the activity, [experiments have required] four and a half months, or even three months for a new brain map, equal in complexity to an old one, to be created in the motor cortex.”
A change in attitude can be achieved through meditation, mindfulness, prayer, visualization, cognitive behavioral therapy, affirmations, or positive input through reading or audio recordings. The impact on mental and physical health is profound and well-proven. David Hamilton explains this in great detail in his book, How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body.
Your attitude is in your control. Every day, every moment. If you want to change it, you can. When you change your attitude, your behavior will change too.
Our behavior is the product of the choices we make and whether they’re conscious or impulsive. No one makes us angry. We get angry because we have been triggered. What we do in those states of being less conscious is always on us. The more we can take advantage of that space between stimulus and response, the better off we will be.
When we make up false stories about ourselves and believe them, we create our character and destiny.
Where we invest our energy
We have a certain amount of energy each day. Think of it like currency. Where do you want to spend it? On things that provide no return or on things that provide nourishment? What is the impact on you when you find yourself caught up in activities that are draining? For a phone to keep its charge, it’s got to be plugged in. To keep our charge, we also need to be plugged in — to things that are generative and energizing.
If we want to complain about the world, who has done what, what should have been done, and who is to blame, we can do that. Sometimes it feels good to move into that space for a while, but taking up long-term residence is not healthy.
Your attitude is in your control. Every day, every moment. If you want to change it, you can.
Reflect on how often you dwell on the past (which never gets any better, by the way), or worry about why your expectations for the future haven’t happened yet. Stay present and keep good company.
The stories we make up about ourselves and others
Civilization has been built on stories. We love them — telling them, listening to them, watching them in movies and on TV. Problems develop when we make up stories about ourselves and others that aren’t true.
For example, you’ve moved into a new home. Your neighbor says nothing when she sees you. You make up a story: She’s not very friendly, so you decide not to say anything to her. A few weeks later, you bump each into each at the grocery store and have a wonderful conversation. She tells you she’s had her hands full taking care of her sister’s children and dealing with other family issues. You leave the conversation thinking she’s a really nice person after all.
If you have to make up a story, use a technique called the “most respectful interpretation” or MRI. In the neighbor’s case, instead of thinking she is not friendly, you could assume she is distracted.
Better yet, withhold any interpretation and deal with the facts: She didn’t speak to you on one occasion. Ask yourself, why don’t I begin a conversation with her?
Another approach is to use the concept of “checking your inferences.” An inference is an opinion based on facts or evidence. Example: A work colleague known for late-night partying shows up on an early-morning Zoom call bleary-eyed and disheveled. You think he still looks drunk. Instead of saying that, you simply ask, “Are you doing okay?” He says, “Oh, I am. We just got a new dog, and I’ve been up all night.”
When we make up or repeat false stories about others, we create barriers or contribute to gossip. When we make up false stories about ourselves and believe them, we create our character and destiny.
How we speak to others
If you want people to listen to you, avoid these when speaking:
- making excuses
- toxic opinions
Here are five principles that will help people listen to you:
- Honesty — Say what is true for you, directly. Straight talk.
- Respect — Speak with kindness and with an understanding of the other person’s situation.
- Authenticity — Be yourself. People are naturally attracted when they feel someone is comfortable being who they are.
- Integrity — Your word is your bond. Keep the promises you make.
- Responsibility — Own your contribution to any situation. Admit your mistakes. Apologize sincerely if you screw up.
The ball is always in our court. There’s always something we can do when we focus on what is in our control.