How To Stop Caring About Things You Can’t Control
Updated January 16, 2019
Reviewer Alicia Fiske, LMSW
It has been well observed that worrying about things over which you do not have any control can lead to stress and less satisfaction in life. You can greatly improve your own personal happiness when you learn how to stop caring about things you can't control. One of the single most valuable, necessary, and helpful 'truths' to accept as we navigate this life, is that we truly have absolutely no ability to control anyone other than ourselves. Failing to accept this stark, basic, reality leads us to waste time, effort, energy and emotion in ways that are completely useless. Of course, that is somewhat easier said than done. It is possible, however. You naturally react to situations, even if you don't have direct control over how they turn out. But it's not impossible to change that habit or tendency, and quit letting uncontrollable situations work you up.
Recognizing Things You Can't Control
There are certain situations you simply cannot change. This doesn't mean you should just give up on everything and drift along allowing anything to happen to you and your life. Believing you control nothing is just as unhelpful as believing you control everything. It takes an understanding of that balance to find a place of true happiness in your life. Here are some of the things you cannot control:
- What other people think. The only thoughts you can every really know are your own. As for other people, you can only know what they communicate to you. And if they are communicating thoughts you don't care for, guess what? There is nothing you can do about that. You can try to convince them with your points, but you cannot simply change their mind because you want to.
- The past. You have some measure of control over your own future, even though you don't control everything. But the past, that is something you have no control over. It is done. If you've made mistakes or have regrets, as is the case for all of us, the only thing you can do is make decisions about how they affect your present and your future.
- What if scenarios. Your future is in part determined by your actions. But it is also determined in part by the actions of others, which you can't know ahead of time, let alone control. Instead of focusing on what everyone else will think or do, focus on what you think and what you are going to do. Taking the focus off the uncontrollable variables (other people) and putting on a more controllable variable (yourself and your decisions) will greatly reduce your anxiety.
How to stop caring
There are many strategies for learning to stop caring about so many things you can't control, and as a result, reducing your stress.
Of course we can influence others. And one of our best opportunities to do so, is to ensure that we are being the persons we want to be. Often, the characteristics which are the most frustrating and offensive to us, are those of which we are guilty ourselves. So it is always a good practice to turn our attention to ourselves, as soon as we realize we are annoyed with someone else. Awareness is critical to our even having the option to make changes in ourselves. That about which we are unaware, we cannot control. Stated another way, that about which we are unaware in ourselves, will control us. Sometimes, just gaining awareness of a tendency in ourselves is all we need to choose to think, or act, differently.
Another helpful concept is that while it is pretty impossible to simply change our feelings, we do have a much greater capacity to change our thoughts, perspectives, the meaning we attach to specific events, our conclusions, expectations, etc. It may be safe to conclude that much of the disappointment, hurt, offense, sadness, anger, etc. we experience, is a result of unmet expectations. So if we can change our expectations, we will be able to dramatically decrease the negative feelings that result from experiencing unmet expectations, right?
You may have heard it said that thoughts are rational and feelings are irrational. I understand why people say this, but I submit that is exactly the opposite of reality. While there are some biochemical exceptions to this rule, the majority of the time, you must have a 'cognition' (thought, interpretation, evaluation, perception, expectation, belief, etc.) BEFORE you experience any feeling. So while you, and certainly others, may not initially understand why you feel the way you do, if you track the feeling back to the cognition, the feeling will make 100% sense!! However, the same cannot at all be confidently stated about the cognition which informed the feeling. Our thoughts, impressions, conclusions, etc. can be astoundingly inaccurate, illogical, based upon incomplete or flat out wrong information! Thoughts inform feelings, which lead to actions. Therefore, there is a very logical progression from what we are thinking, or telling ourselves, to how we feel, to the behavior we choose.
This is really great news, because while it is impossible to simply tell ourselves to not feel the way we feel; we can absolutely change the way we think, and how we talk to ourselves. We have far greater ability to dramatically impact our own internal reality than we usually realize. But as we raise our awareness of what we are telling ourselves, to ensure that it is accurate, reasonable, rational, optimistic, etc; that will, automatically, change how we feel; which, of course, pretty automatically changes how we behave.
Another option, which is related to our ability to control how we interpret a given situation, is accepting that life is uncertain and recognizing that some unexpected surprises are actually positive. In truth, you're just as likely to be surprised by a positive outcome as a negative one. You just have to learn to recognize the positive when it happens instead of focusing on the negative all the time. Accepting a situation does not mean that you have to like it, rather it means that you stop fighting it. And that release you from the suffering.
Sometimes you'll run into a problem that's simply out of your control. It can be easy to think "This isn't fair" or "I shouldn't have this problem", even though those ways of thinking only make the pain worse. Radical acceptance refers to a healthier way of thinking during these situations. Instead of focusing on how you would like something to be different, you will recognize and accept the problem or situation as it is. Remember, accepting is not the same as liking or condoning something. Learning to accept the problems that are out of your control will lead to less anxiety, anger, and sadness when dealing with them. (Therapist Aid)
Mindfulness and meditation are other strategies that will help. Rather than projecting reactions, practice staying in the present moment. When your mind is on the present, you aren't worrying about the what if's. Stress is harmful to your mental and physical health. If you need assistance following these strategies and reducing your stress, contact a mental health professional trained in handling stress.
The 'Worry Box' strategy can be quite helpful in effectively addressing ruminating thoughts about something over which you have no control.
First, clarify whether the issue about which you are worrying is one over which you actually have any measure of control; and about which you should do something. For instance, you have an important assignment due for work or school tomorrow, which you have not completed, so are feeling anxious, it would not be appropriate or helpful for you to try to help yourself stop feeling anxious in this situation. Rather, you need to take the necessary action to appropriately complete the assignment, right? So these sources of anxiety or worry might be entered on a 'To Do' list, and completed.
But when you identify that you are worrying about something over which you have no control, or about which you should not take any action, then you have confirmed that your anxiety or worry is completely nonproductive and unhealthy. For these types of worry, you might try an activity called the 'Worry Box.' These are the steps for this activity:
- When you realize you are worrying about something for which there is no action you should take, jot it down on a small piece of paper, about the size of a post it note, or a 3 X 5 card, cut in half.
- Place all of the little slips of paper into a special box you have affectionately dubbed your 'Worry Box.' This should be a small enough box to be kept out of sight, like under your bed, in the back of your closet, or in a drawer.
- Assign yourself specific times to have permission to pull out your Worry Box, and obsess over all the slips of paper you have collected since your last allowed Worry session. It is important to schedule these at least slightly less often than you typically find yourself engaged in nonproductive worrying. So, for instance, if you tend to have a few times each day when you notice yourself worrying for no good reason, then you might allow 15 minutes every other day to pull out your Worry Box contents. Be sure to set an alarm, so you do not spend more time than you have allotted for this activity.
- Then be careful to extend the scheduled times out farther and farther as you notice you are worrying less each day.
- Once you come across a slip of paper with something written on it that no longer concerns you, dispose of it.
While not an exhaustive list, hopefully one or more of these suggestions will be helpful for you in managing your thoughts and feelings about situations you cannot control.