If there’s anything that’s certain in life, it’s that things will happen that are outside of our control. Sure, we can change our environments to reduce the chances of certain things happening and do our best to prepare for worst-case scenarios, but we can’t predict if (or when) they will happen.
As a result, mindfulness experts and psychologists often tout the benefit of letting go of control and accepting uncertainty. An excessive need to control can lead to unproductive stress, because it often puts people in an extended “fight or flight” mode. As authors Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane previously wrote in Fast Company, operating in this state “exhausts our nervous systems” and “leaves us wiped out, jittery, craving an end.”
The importance of letting of control
When our brain is in this state, it’s fatigued and desperate to create certainty, so it tries to do just that. According to Pollack and Fox Cabane, we often try to do it in one of three ways. We jump into decisions quickly without thinking through the consequences because we want to “lock” something in, we become paralyzed and do nothing at all, or we rush to assumptions to fill the gaps in our knowledge. None of these responses leave us feeling more certain—in fact, they typically end up making us more stressed.
Deepak Chopra, a prominent alternative medicine advocate and author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential, says that one of his principles that he stands by when it comes to mindfulness is completely detaching from outcomes. He says he doesn’t have any goal or hopes on whether or not his teaching will result in positive change—he simply chooses to share his ideas with those who are interested in learning about them. “At my age,” Chopra says, “I am independent of hopes and despair.”
Helen Weng, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, mirrors this sentiment, suggesting that we’re better off focusing on the intention of our actions, rather than insisting on (or “clinging to”) a certain outcome. She says, “If you practice acting with intentions that align with your values (such as compassion, helping others, creativity), that may change what is happening, but you cannot expect a certain fixed outcome. Things rarely turn out as we expect them to.”
1. Identify your triggers
The first step of letting go of control is to identify what triggers your need to control things. Do you find yourself anticipating the reaction of your coworkers who have said hurtful things to you in the past? Does your friend’s success lead you to question your own life and make you stressed out about whether or not you’ll experience something similar in the future? Once you realize what they are, you can start to experiment with methods that prevent you from going down into a worry spiral. One simple method is to take a breath and remind yourself that the need to control doesn’t arise from a true “fight or flight” situation.
2. Do a “mental dump” of your feelings
Sometimes, the need to control is a reaction to unpleasant feelings. Emotions are difficult to regulate, and you might be craving a sense of certainty because you don’t want bad feelings to take over.
But unprocessed and suppressed emotions don’t help you feel a sense of contentment. In fact, they do the opposite by making you more prone to stress, anxiety, and irrational outbursts. One way to process your feelings is to write it all down and do a “mental dump” of what you’re thinking. This can help “get the negativity out of your system,” Sherry Case, author of Write for Recovery: Exercises for Heart, Mind and Spirit previously told Fast Company.
3. Employ some distance
Sometimes, your need for control is related to other people’s thoughts and actions. A coworker might continue to make jokes that rub you the wrong way, even after you’ve requested them to stop. You might have a strong disagreement with a friend, and you’re feeling frustrated that you can’t make them see things the way that you do.
As psychology professor and Fast Company contributor Art Markman previously wrote, you need to let go of the anger that makes you want to control other people’s actions in the first place. He wrote, “Often, when you’re angry with somebody, you tend to think repeatedly about the thing they did to you, which keeps you emotionally engaged with the way you were wronged. Psychologists call this repetitious thought pattern ‘rumination,’ after the term for how cows chew their cud.”
According to Markman, the best way to deal with rumination is to create some psychological distance. For some people, that may require physical distance, but if that’s not possible, Markman suggests turning your focus to other aspects of your life, or see it from the perspective of one of your friends. “By pushing yourself to see it from the outside, you’ll be coaxing your mind to think of the situation more abstractly. As a result, the specific details of what that person did will be less available to you, and so they’ll have less influence on your emotional state.”
4. Choose to deal with it in the future
If your need to control stems from what you know to be irrational worrying, perhaps one of the best ways to deal with it is to dedicate a time in the future to worry about it. When I was having trouble sleeping due to stress and anxiety, a sleep expert told me, “If the anxiety is producing worry, the best thing to do is to try to put that worry into a daytime situation or into an awake situation.”
Choosing to dedicate time to “worrying” actually made me less likely to worry, because I realized that it wasn’t worth filling my headspace with things that I don’t have any control over. In turn, it became easier for me to be more at peace with uncertainty and unpredictability.
5. Learn to see uncertainty as a part of life
We tend to ask questions and generate “what-ifs” as an attempt to introduce some certainty when we’re uncomfortable with the unknown. But as psychologist Simon Rego previously told Stephanie Vozza, a more mindful way to approach this is to build tolerance for uncertainty. Then, you can slowly identify which of your worries are “useful” and which are making you “unnecessarily miserable.” You can choose to let go of the latter and prepare “strategic solutions” for the former. For example, if you’re worried about a break-in, accept that someone attempting to burglarize your home isn’t something you can control. You can, however, take an action, such as installing a security system.
He goes on to say, “As we lean in, we can actually develop control over the worries. It makes it easier to let them go as they emerge, jotting them down for later, then returning our attention to what we were doing.”