Do I have control over this situation?
One of the fundamental components of Stoicism is that there are things that we can control, and things that we cannot control. Stoics believe that the main thing over which we have control is our mind, and almost everything else — our career, our health, our relationships, etc cetera — is outside of our control. At first thought, this may seem trivial. “I do have control over my career” you may think. However, your boss one day could dismiss you due to the firm downsizing. You may think you have control over relationships — indeed, you need to put effort into them for them to continue — but someone may move away and your relationship will suffer, or your romantic partner decides to break up with you. These are outside of your control — there is nothing you could have done.
I have been working over the last months to try and adopt this mindset. Indeed, it seems rather cynical, but actually, it is very realistic when you think about it. We have control over very little in our daily interactions. The key lesson to take away from this idea is not that we do not have much control over our lives, but rather that most of the things we worry about are outside of our control. We may worry that our romantic partner will break up with us, but ultimately, that is outside of our control. We can invest time in the relationship and be the best person possible, but the relationship still may end — we do not have control over the decisions of others, or outside circumstances.
This is an important fact to internalize because most people use a lot of their energy worrying about matters which are actually outside of their control. They do not have the ability to change what is going to happen. In the situations over which we have no control, we should stop worrying about what will happen — we will not be able to do anything anyway. This is a common state of mind for one main reason: we don’t want to think that we have very little control over our lives. We like to stay in control, because the more control we have, the more we can shape our life to be in our favor. It may be a difficult mindset to adopt, although there are a few major benefits of investing in developing this mental model.
Not worrying about what is outside of our control allows us to save mental energy, and therefore focus more on the things over which we have full control — our mind. Focusing more on what we can control gives us the freedom to invest more resources in the things that we can influence, rather than the things outside our control. This significantly increases our chances of success in a particular situation because, rather than focusing on what we cannot control, we have used our time and limited mental energy contemplating what we can control.
The Stoics teach that because we have full control over our mind, then we have the ability to control how we see every situation. Let’s say you were fired from your job due to the company eliminating your department. You could indeed wallow in despair and spend weeks trying to think about what went wrong. Or you could spend those weeks thinking that it wasn’t your fault, which would give you the ability to focus more on finding a new position. Why should you blame yourself when your losing your job was outside of your control? I try to spend as much time as possible focusing on the things over which I have control at that time, rather than the outside factors which I will not be able to control, no matter how hard I try.
Adopting this mindset has made it easier for me to stay in the moment because I am always able to focus on the things which matter most — the things that I can control. I am present and can control everything that happens to me because I can control my mind. If my regular coffee shop is closed, I could get angry because I miss out on my favorite coffee, or I could just go to the one next door that I have never been to and get my morning fix there. I would have wasted a lot of energy being annoyed at the fact my regular coffee shop was closed, but it wouldn’t have done anything. Rather, I could divert my attention toward where else I could go, and end up with a better outcome.
This is a difficult mindset to adopt, as aforementioned, but I think it is worth the investment. On occasion, when something is particularly stressful, I tend to worry more than I perhaps should. This only demonstrates the need to practice this model — nobody will be able to ignore every bad thing that happens outside of their control at the very start. Epictetus, a famous Stoic, asked himself one question when deciding how to react to a situation: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.”
Stop worrying about what you can’t control — outside circumstance. Focus on what you can control — your mind.