When You're About To 'Lose It,' Ask Yourself This Question

by Ashley Johnson
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You’ve been there. That day when you overslept, your 3-year-old wouldn’t eat breakfast and flat refused to put on pants. The same day you barely made it on time for an important meeting or class and when you finally made it back to your desk, your brain nearly exploded with a never-ending stream of assignments, due dates, and all the things that must be handled in the next 5 hours. Angry, frustrated, overwhelmed – whatever word you choose to describe how you feel, you are this close to completely losing it.

Before you go over the edge and stuff your face with tiny candy bars or lash out at the grocery store cashier, ask yourself this: Is it in my circle of control?

This phrase probably sounds familiar. The most popular version comes from Habit 1: Be Proactive in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but therapists, counselors, and teachers have used some form of this concept for decades.

I learned about it from my therapist years ago when I was struggling to adjust to being divorced and having a 2-year-old by myself. I had so many worries about housing, day care, working, making new friends, and the thoughts were consuming me. In one of the very first sessions, my therapist pegged me as a person who likes, dare I say needs, control. I’m not talking about excessive control — just the strong desire to know what’s going to happen, when, why, what I am supposed to bring, and who’s driving. You know, the basics.

But if you’ve ever been in the middle of complete life upheaval, you know that there is very little control to be found there. That’s why completing a “circle of control” worksheet seemed like a great place to start putting my life into some kind of order.

Here’s the basic process as I remember it and according to a really old piece of paper stashed in my bookcase:

– Get a piece of paper and draw a medium-sized circle in the middle of the page.

– Name something that is worrying you or something you can’t stop thinking about.

– Ask yourself: Am I in control of this? Can my actions truly dictate the outcome or result?

– If you are really in control of that action, thought, or situation, write the name of it inside the circle you drew.

– If you are not in control of it, write the name in the space outside of your circle.

That’s it. Once you put your thoughts into or outside of the circle, you have created a priority list of what should consume your time, thoughts, and action. If it’s not inside your circle of control, let it go.

World hunger, poverty, volcanic eruptions – not inside the circle. You, by yourself, cannot control the world’s farming process or when a volcano decides to spit lava.

Taxes, the price of medicine, how much your kid is supposed to weigh before they can get out of a booster seat in the car – also not inside the circle. Even though these things affect your life directly, you don’t have ultimate control over the process or outcome.

Deciding what is in and what is out of the circle gets harder the closer you get to the edges. If my husband is mad, can I control that? Does it go inside the circle? Nope. You can’t control his feelings. Now, you can control your reaction, your words, and your response to his anger. That means “my husband is mad” goes outside of the circle and “what I say to my husband when he’s mad” goes inside the circle.

I told you; it gets harder. The edges of the circle star to blur and break apart if you don’t reinforce the boundaries. As a matter of fact, you might need to redefine the boundaries of your circle. You may need to examine what control really means and not what you want it to mean.

Example: Puberty

I want desperately for my 13-year-old son to shave his horrible, scraggly mustache. He’s my kid. I should be able to make him shave. Shaving goes inside the circle. Except that it doesn’t. That’s not my face and I don’t have control over the disposition of mustache hair. I want to control it but if I’m being honest to my boundaries, that peach fuzz belongs outside of the circle.

Each stage of life will present new challenges (i.e. my son’s behavior when he has a car date *hyperventilating*). The trick to surviving growth and change is to use your circle. If it’s not in your circle of control, let it go. Seriously, work really hard to let it go and get it out of your head. There’s only so much room inside that circle — and trust me, you don’t want to see what happens if it explodes.