The only times I worry are when I’m thinking about an issue that I don’t have any control over. The fact that I can’t control it means that anything could happen, and that makes me feel vulnerable, powerless, and at the mercy of others. When I worry, I try to solve the potential problems of the infinite variances on how an event could playout. This only adds to my mental load and stress with trying to solve all the options simultaneously, rather than dealing with the one reality that actually happens.)

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within your control. And some things are not.” ~ Epictetus

Clear Thinking Quotes - Epictetus

We notice more of what we focus on

Is our fear and anxiety culture so strong because we spend so much time looking at and focusing on other people’s lives, on things that are outside our control, through social media and the news?

I learned several years ago that our brains work on selective filtering. The subconscious takes in all of the data about the world around us, but only makes us consciously aware of things that we’ve told it are important to us. As part of a self experiment, I started paying attention to the brands of cars on the road, taking special notice of luxury cars like Bentleys, Astin Martins, and Teslas.

Today it’s quite normal for me to suddenly notice that the car next to me is a Tesla, or to pay attention to the cars just as a Bentley drives past. My subconscious is aware of it all, and has taken note that luxury cars are important, so now I notice them. The opposite is just as true.

Life-wealthy and Life-poor perspectives

There’s a clear difference in attitudes between clients we have who are emotionally and financially stable, and those who aren’t. Our “life-wealthy” clients are delighted when we do a job well, and they’re quick to compliment us. They’re not after perfection – they’re simply delighted with a job well done. They’re wonderful clients to be with, because their enthusiasm is contagious and leaves us all feeling proud and happy with what we’ve achieved. When anything’s not right, they just say so, and let us do what we do to fix it.

By comparison, our “life-poor” clients will spend ages scrutinising our work, looking for things that might not be perfect. They’re more likely to complain about anything that’s not right, rather than just let us fix it, and are in general more difficult clients to please. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because they believe that nothing good ever happens to them, so when we do a decent job, they feel it’s too good to be true.

Do our life-poor clients have a habit of paying more attention to the things they don’t have any control over (the work that we do), rather than on the things that they can control (attitude, appreciation, and honesty)? We do our best, and we always, always set it right if we didn’t get it right the first time. But that’s our job, and not anything that our clients have control over. Is that why so many people live with anxiety? They’re focusing their attention on the part of life that they have no control over – other peoples actions – and then as a result trying to anticipate and plan their actions and responses based on all the ways that other people’s actions can impact them.

Learned Helplessness

Trust me, this is a stressful way to live, and doesn’t make anything easier to handle when it happens. The fatigue and stress of constantly trying to anticipate and correct for other’s mistakes, actions and judgements drains our psyche faster than almost anything else I can think of. All it does is leave us feeling helpless, out of control and scared of all the possibilities of life that can be thrown at us. This feeling of helplessness, once learned, becomes the dominant behaviour regardless of circumstances.

Martin Seligman famously worked with dogs, where he gave half of them electric shocks regardless of what behaviour they tried. The other half of the dogs could do something to stop or avoid the pain. After a while, he put all of the dogs together in an enclosure where they could easily escape by jumping over a low wall. The dogs that had been given pain regardless of their actions just lay down. They’d learned that nothing they tried would stop the pain, so they’d stopped looking and stopped trying. They’d given up. This was coined “learned helplessness” and was subsequently shown to be as true in humans as it is in dogs.

So focusing our attention on things out of our control, things we have no way to escape or avoid, serves no beneficial purpose. It simply reaffirms the messages that are so easy to find today in social media and on the news that we’re helpless against the relentless barrage of everything that’s happening in the world.

Focus on what you can control

But we can’t live in our own little bubble, completely removed and blind to what’s happening around us. So, how can we handle knowing that people do stuff, but not being able to control or fix it?

I think, maybe, it comes down to perception again.

It’s not the actions of others which trouble us, but rather it is our own judgements. Therefore remove those judgements and resolve to let go of your [anxiety], and it will already be gone. How do you let go? By realising that such actions are not shameful to you.” ~ Marcus Aurelius.

Clear Thinking Quotes - Marcus Aurelius

What other people say and do is not a reflection on you, your values and beliefs, or your integrity.

Their mistakes aren’t yours

It’s easy for me to live and breathe this philosophy when it comes to politics, teams I’m collaborating with, and friends that I catch up with on a (semi) regular basis. However, that last quote made me realise that maybe I could behave differently with my own team: my employees.

What if I practice a new habit of consciously reminding myself that their actions are not shameful to me. I can’t control their every action, and as a responsible employer I shouldn’t be trying to. What’s interesting is that this creates a subtle change in focus. If I’m not worried or fussed over their behaviour anymore (things I have relatively little control over), then it frees my mind and mental space up to focus back on my own thoughts and behaviours.

Maybe, if I practice this thinking habit I’ll be able to notice and praise progress more easily. Maybe, I’ll also have the mental space to find teaching and training opportunities for each of them. These are all things that are in my control.

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