Control What You Can and Ignore The Rest

I’m sure you’ve heard the Serenity Prayer? It goes like this:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Nieburh came up with it around 1934. The Stoics were preaching that basic idea… oh… about 2000 years earlier.

The Stoics were really big on control. But they weren’t control freaks at all. A key part of Stoicism is just asking yourself: “Can I do anything about this?”

If you can, do it. If you can’t… then you can’t. But worrying achieves nothing but stress.

What the Stoics are saying is so much of what worries us are things that we have no control over. If I’m doing something tomorrow and I’m worried about it raining and ruining it, no amount of me stressing about it is going to change whether it rains or not. The Stoics are saying, “Not only are you going to be happier if you can make the distinction between what you can change and can’t change but if you focus your energy exclusively on what you can change, you’re going to be a lot more productive and effective as well.”

Here’s a quick visual to help get the point across:

So, next time you’re worrying, pause and ask yourself: “Do I have control over this?” If you do, stop worrying and get to work.

If you don’t have control, worrying won’t make it better. And going back to the first point, it might be a good idea to ask yourself what your belief is that’s causing all this worry… Yup, it’s probably irrational.

So sadness, anger and worrying are irrational responses and they’re not the right way to react when things happen. So what is the right way to react to stuff that doesn’t meet your expectations?

Accept Everything — But You Don’t Have To Be Passive

This is the bit everybody has trouble with. Nobody likes the word ‘accept’ — we think it means ‘give up’ — but it doesn’t.

Let’s look at it this way: what’s the opposite of accept? Deny. As in ‘denial’ — and nobody ever recommends denial.

Albert Ellis told people they’d be much happier if they removed the word ‘should’ from their vocabulary. ‘Should’ is denial. You’re saying your expectations deserve to override reality:

  • “My kids shouldn’t be misbehaving!” (News flash: they are)
  • “Traffic shouldn’t be this bad!” (Um, but it is)
  • “It shouldn’t be raining!” (Say it louder — complaining might work this time…)

Denial is irrational, and as we just learned, irrational beliefs are where negative emotions come from. So the first step is to accept reality. But that doesn’t mean you have to be passive.

You accept the rain. It’s here. Denial and shoulds won’t change anything… but that doesn’t mean you can’t grab an umbrella.

Acceptance to us means resignation but to the Stoics it meant accepting the facts as they are and then deciding what you’re going to do about them. The problem is that because we have expectations about how we want things to be, we feel like acceptance is settling, when in reality we have no idea what could have happened instead. This awful thing might have saved us from something much worse. Or maybe this is going to open us up to some new amazing opportunity that we can’t yet conceive. The Stoics are saying, “Let’s not waste any energy fighting things that are outside our control, let’s accept them, let’s embrace them and then let’s move on and see what we can do with it.”

So, next time things don’t go your way, don’t deny reality. Accept it. It’s here. Then ask if you have control over it. If you do, do something. If you don’t, ask if your beliefs are rational.

That’s how you go from: “It shouldn’t be raining! We can’t go to the park! The day is ruined!” to “Yeah, it’s raining. No park today. Let’s watch an awesome movie.”

Alright, we’ve covered a lot of Stoic methods for beating bad feelings. That covers defense. Let’s talk offense. In the next article we’ll look at how you can improve your life…