How To Feel Calm When You’re Not In Control

Trying to control the future is exhausting. It’s also impossible. Learn how to feel calm even when things are out of your control.

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Pam: [00:00] You’re listening to Not Bad Advice, where we provide advice on topics all over the spectrum. Our goal is to offer perspective that helps you improve one aspect of your life at a time.

[00:15] I’m Pamela Lund…

CK: [00:16] And I’m CK Chung.

Pam: [00:16] And we hope that after listening you’ll think, “hey, that’s not bad advice.”

[00:27] Whether you think you’re a control freak or a go-with-the flow kind of person, your brain is constantly trying to feel in control. You probably don’t even notice the majority of the things that it’s doing to make the world around you seem like a cohesive place, but our brains are constantly predicting patterns in everything we see and hear to make things make sense.

[00:58] If our brains didn’t do this, we’d have to think about what we were seeing every single time we saw a tree or what we were hearing every time we heard a bird chirp. We would spend so much time trying to figure out what was going on around us, that we wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

[01:15] In order to not go crazy, we need to feel like everything going on around us makes sense and that we have some control. But our brains can’t actually see or hear. They’re just taking electrical impulses and pattern matching that information to essentially guess what’s going on around you.

[01:35] The fact that our brains use patterns to predict what we’re seeing is why optical illusions work and also why we can’t see that they’re illusions.

[01:45] Now, optical illusions are harmless fun, but today we’re going to talk about how this need to predict what’s going to happen affects our day-to-day lives in ways you might not realize, and strategies to feel calmer when you’re in a situation that you can’t control.

[02:01] So CK, you and I have both worked for ourselves for over a decade, but do you remember when you had a boss? Did they ever ask to speak with you without telling you why? And do you remember how that felt?

CK: [02:15] Well, I can’t really think of a situation like that right now. I’m sure it’s happened. But I can relate to it with a recent episode with an old high school friend who called and left a voicemail and said, “Hey CK, call me. I need to talk.”

Pam: [02:37] Oh, that- yeah, the “we need to talk” is one of the worst phrases ever to hear.

CK: [02:42] Yeah… And those might not have been the exact words, but the gist of it was that I had no idea what they wanted to talk about. So, you know, there’s the notion of “when should I call them?” “What are they going to want?” “So do I want to call them now and have to deal with it now?”

[03:04] So there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Pam: [03:06] Yeah, you go into a lot of thoughts about, you know, “what is this?” “Why are they calling?” “Is it something good?” “Is it something bad?” You have absolutely no idea.

[03:15] Right.

[03:16] And that happens with bosses, that happens with your significant other. That’s the kind of cliche phrase with a relationship, right? Is “we need to talk,” and you’re like, “oh my God , what are we going to talk about?” And it could be nothing, but it could be a breakup. It could be this whole spectrum. You have no idea.

[03:30] Exactly.

[03:30] And you want to know why they want to talk to you so that you can prepare yourself. So that you can feel more in control of the outcome.

[03:38] But you can’t control that outcome any more than you can read their mind, so you just spend time spinning out and trying to figure out what they want, what you did wrong, if you’re getting fired, if you’re breaking up. Like, on and on and on. And you might even settle on what you think that they’re going to say and convince yourself that that is definitely what’s going to happen.

[04:00] That need to feel in control sends you into a tailspin, trying to have control over the situation in the future that you have absolutely no influence over. And like we just said, the situation happens in all kinds of different ways all the time.

[04:16] For example, my dad was recently taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital. And I live 1400 miles away, so I couldn’t be there and I would get infrequent updates maybe once or twice a day.

[04:28] And before he was stable, it was really hard to not be able to do anything. I would be working, and I would start thinking about all the possible outcomes and what I would do in each situation. It didn’t do anything to alleviate my anxiety. It made it worse. It ended up being a complete waste of time anyway, because he was fine.

[04:47] But this is what we do when we feel out of control, because our uncertainty and lack of control feels dangerous to our brains. It makes us very uneasy and we feel stressed and anxious.

[05:00] And this happens to everyone to varying degrees, whether they realize it or not, and whether they think they’re a person who needs control or not. It’s a completely normal and natural thing.

[05:12] Uncertainty bothers us so much that we tell ourselves stories that make us think that we’re in control or that at least make us feel comfortable without having control.

[05:23] That’s actually a lot of what religion is. It’s a way to soothe our need for control by giving control over to another being that you believe has your best interest in mind. Like, if you can’t control something, at least whatever deity you worship is controlling it for you.

[05:39] But outside of religion, the irony of these stories that we create in our own minds to make it seem like we’re in control is that they are usually what fuels our anxiety.

[05:50] Just like in the example of my dad being in the hospital or your boss unexpectedly asking to meet with you, that thought spiral creates more anxiety than just sitting with the reality of the situation.

[06:03] And we do this constantly, even though it doesn’t help. And it doesn’t even make us feel better. We’re always trying to control things that we can’t control, but we spend a lot of time in situations that we have no control over. And the more you try to control them, the more stress that you’ll feel.

[06:19] And when you’re stressed, you aren’t able to think as clearly. So you’ll make decisions that are not in your best interest or that actually make the situation worse. Not only does it cause more stress, but trying to change things that you don’t have power over simply isn’t worth your time and energy.

[06:40] You have much bigger and better things to do with your resources. And the more that you believe that, and the more mindful that you can be, the more you can train your brain to let go of the things that are out of your control.

[06:53] And this need for control will never go away no matter how much you work at it. But having the awareness that this kind of anxiety spiral is actually an attempt for you to feel in control can help you step out of it.

[07:09] I actually visualize it like that sometimes. Like, I see myself in a thought spiral, and when I recognize that’s happening, I picture myself physically stepping out of it – physically moving away from it. And that visualization kind of helps me create a separation between the thoughts that I’m having and my reality.

[07:30] So the basic concept that we’re talking about here is one that you’ve probably heard, which is that if you can’t change your circumstances, you have to change how you think about them. Those are really your only two options.

[07:42] You know that you can’t control the outcome and have no idea what’s going to happen. So rather than spinning out on it, you have to stay in a constant conversation with your brain. To change how you think about a situation, you have to have this conversation with yourself over and over. You can kind of think of your brain like a child that keeps asking questions and you have to keep responding to get them to leave you alone for a little bit.

[08:07] But the same response won’t work every time. So you have to mix it up until you find what does work for the toddler in your brain. So every time you start to spin out, you can use one of the following approaches to talk yourself down.

[08:20] The first is that you can try compassion. You can say to yourself like, “hey, I know this is scary and I know you feel threatened, but let’s not make it worse.” “We can’t do anything about it, so let’s focus on something else.”

[08:33] Just be kind to yourself. And that won’t be magic. You’ll have to do it a million times, but if you can stay with that thought and not go into an anxiety spiral, you’ll feel better than you would if you spun out.

[08:45] And if compassion stops working or didn’t work in the first place, you can try being rational. You can think of examples of times when you went into a thought spiral over something that you couldn’t control and consider, how often did your worst case scenario actually happen? How often did something totally uneventful or totally the opposite of what you were afraid of happen? How often was all of your fear and anxiety worthwhile? Probably not very often. You will likely find many more examples of when you spun out for absolutely no reason.

[09:22] And if that doesn’t work or if it stops working, you can just try being factual. State what the situation is and how you feel about it, but not what you’re projecting. You can say, “I’m waiting for the results of a medical test and I’m afraid it will be bad news.” “I can’t change the outcome or do anything to speed up how quickly I get the results, so I’m anxious.” Saying it out loud can actually help. And just giving yourself the permission to not be in control can relieve some of the anxiety.

[09:53] You might need to try all three of these angles. You’re going to have to repeatedly call your thoughts back to the present. And changing how you think about something isn’t like flipping a switch. It takes work. But so does being stressed out. It’s exhausting to try to predict and control the future.

[10:14] So, let’s transition to the part of the show where I shuffle a deck of Oracle cards and pull a card to see how it can relate to what we talked about today. And I like doing this because it gives me a visual to associate with the topic. And when I have a visual, it makes it easier to remember the perspective.

[10:53] So let’s see what the Nocturna Oracle deck from the Creeping Moon has to offer us as a visual for staying calm and present when our brains try to control something they can’t control. This card really loves to come up during these recordings.

[11:31] So I pulled the slug again today, which we got last time we talked about slowing down and being intentional. So slugs are, if you’ve never seen one, basically gigantic snails without shells, and they move very, very slowly and calmly. I don’t think they have the ability to panic and run away. Everything that they do is very, very slow.

[12:03] So, keep the slug in mind, when you start feeling like you’re going into an anxiety spiral. Can you embrace your slugness and bring yourself back to a place of calm and slowness and presence and know that wherever you’re going, you’re going to get there. And you’re not going to change the outcome of any situation by trying to speed up or trying to control what is happening. You will only get there when the time is right to get there.

[12:41] And you will have the best outcome and you will feel the best about it, if you stay present and stay calm and don’t try to control any outcome that you don’t have control over. Stay in your strength, stay in your power, and stay present and slow.

CK: [13:04] Slow and steady like a slug.

Pam: [13:06] Exactly.

CK: [13:06] I kinda want to see a slug panic and run away though.

Pam: [13:12] Yeah, actually that would be pretty fun.

[13:14] All right. So if you were listening today and you thought, “hey, that’s not bad advice,” we would love if you shared the episode with your friends and rated it in iTunes. It really does help. You can also get in touch with us on Twitter, where I’m @Pamela_Lund and CK is @cKdisco.

[13:31] To find us on other platforms, visit, and there you can also contact us if there’s something you need advice about. We’d love to hear from you.

Practical life advice delivered with a sense of humor and a side of intuition. Is it good? It’s definitely not bad!

Pamela Lund

Pamela Lund

The Linchpin


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