By far, what creates the most stress for most of the people with whom I work is the perception that they are not in control of their lives. 

They feel that what they think is determined for them by their past. 

The what they feel is determined by what has happened to them and how other people treat them. 

That how they spend their time in the course of the day is determined by other people, from bosses to family members. 

Often times they even feel that the way their physical body feels is out of their control— that the very cells of their bodies are at the mercy of chronic illness and injury. 

Research has firmly established the connection between the feeling that our lives are out of control on the one hand, and anxiety and depression on the other hand. It’s a phenomenon called “learned helplessness”…and it can really cripple people emotionally once it sets in. 

A subset of people get into self-help and personal development because they want to feel more in control of their lives. A popular self-help mantra is “take your power back!” 

The thing is, “taking your power back” isn’t quite as easy or straightforward as some self-help gurus might like you to believe. 

Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that we can be far more in control of our life experience than we think. A lot of the feelings of our lives being out of control are actually the result of us not being clear about our goals and values, and not having or using the right tools and skills to manage our time and our energy. 

But it’s also ABSOLUTELY the case that certain domains of our live are at least partially, and sometimes wholly, out of our control. 

Good therapy— and, by extension, good self-help or personal development— isn’t just about teaching you to “take your power back.” 

It’s also about acquiring and using the skills and tools necessary to deal with it when “taking our power back” isn’t necessarily an option. 

Most people in the real world really do need to sacrifice at least some of their time and energy working jobs for paychecks. 

Most people in the real world really do need to deal with the fact that, as they age, their bodies don’t physically respond like they used to. 

Most people in the real world absolutely have to deal, sooner or later, with the fact that they will lose people, pets, and situations that they truly love…and those losses will be out of their control. 

No amount of personal empowerment is going to give you complete control over your life. 

I assure you: there are absolutely things that you cannot control, no matter how empowered, confident, healthy, or focused you are. 

Which is EXACTLY why it’s so important to get realistic about that subset of things you CAN control. 

Things like belief systems. 


Willingness to wait. 

Willingness to learn. 

Willingness to be imperfect when you’re first learning a skill. 

Willingness to seek out tools. 

Willingness to consider failure a learning experience, and try again. 

Emotional self-care— as exemplified by being kind and respectful to yourself. 

There are more domains we CAN control, but you might have noticed about those I’ve already listed that they tend to take place INSIDE your head. 

That’s where we really DO have control. 

We can condition our thoughts. 

We can learn to observe our patterns of thinking and believing without judgment— and get curious about them. 

We can learn to keep track of the thoughts and beliefs that work for us or against us…and we can commit to reinforcing those patterns of thought and belief that make us stronger, kinder, and more confident and competent. 

THOSE are the things we can control. They require no metaphysical backflips, no understanding of quantum physics…and certainly no thousand-dollar workshops with a self-help guru. 

Get real about what you can and can’t control. 

It’s one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. 

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