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Choice v. Control – a Tricky Dance

Choice v. Control – a Tricky Dance

It’s a tricky dance between the need to be responsible for the choices we make in our lives and the desire to control the outcome of those choices.  If we’re going to put in the effort, we want our effort to be effective.

Even trickier is to recover from a disappointment or a failure, re-group, and find the energy and courage to try again.

Fall down seven times, get up eight is one of those proverbs that gets to the heart of cultivating resilience, but in practical terms, how do we do that?

I’ve recently come upon research that points again to the wisdom of cultivating a growth mindset.  To value effort over outcome (which is life’s funny way of making it more likely we will actually achieve the outcome we are seeking.)  Making the choice to try – to learn to communicate better with our partner, kids and colleagues, to risk asking for the promotion, or daring to dream of starting your own business, writing a book, or returning to school after 25 years.

Embedded in the practice of cultivating a growth mindset – looking for the lessons, pulling in the support of people who can teach us what we need to lear – is the commitment to stay steady in our intentions.  To not give up on the goal or vision, even as we’re learning to deal with obstacles and dead-ends.

In The Upside of Stress, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal summarizes the behaviors of people who act from this growth mindset.

“They view stress [aka adversity, difficulty, failure] as a normal aspect of life and an opportunity to grow.  They believe that difficult times require staying engaged with life rather than giving up or isolating. They also believe that no matter what the circumstances, they must continue making choices – ones that could change the situation or, if that isn’t possible, that could change how the situation affects them.  They build a reserve of strength that supports them in facing the challenges of their lives.”

Here’s an exercise from Resilience to help you hang on to your intentions and continue to conscientiously make wise choices even as you let go of control over how things will turn out.

Exercise: Letting Go of Control — Hanging On to Your Intentions

Letting go of control can be quite a challenge when we have our hearts set on something or when we’re faced with something that is disappointing, troubling, even breaking our hearts. Letting go of control doesn’t mean letting go of the capacity to think, choose, and act: it means letting go of trying to control what’s going to happen next or not giving up when the results go sideways. Life is bigger than we are, and we can’t always see or understand the larger forces at play. Letting go of control is about finding the courage to persevere, to be as resilient as we can be, moment by moment, when we don’t have full control of the outcome.

This exercise uses the practice of inclining the mind, using the intentional phrasing May I without adding the pressure or expectation of I will or I must. May I might seem overly gentle, inadequate for facing a challenge or crisis. But researchers have found that intentions phrased with May I, giving permission but not compelling, are more effective in motivating people to persevere.

1. Identify a challenging situation in your life right now where you can’t control the outcome, though you can hope to influence it and to manage your reactions to it. Here are some examples:

* Your insurance company has denied your claim in an auto accident.

* Your father was just diagnosed with prostate cancer.

* The company where you have worked for seven years was just acquired in a hostile takeover, and your future there is uncertain.

2. Identify your intentions for coping with this situation, including your intentions to influence it and to manage your reactions to it.

May I quickly find someone in the insurance company open to hearing my side of things; may I remember to breathe and stay grounded in my body when I talk with them.

May I help my father find the resources he needs to cope with his treatment; may I be compassionate and caring toward my father and toward myself in the coming months.

May I quickly find out how my job will be affected; may I be aware of, accept, and manage my own reactivity (including anger, fear, or shame).

3. Bring your intentions to mind first thing every morning for the next week. As you move through your day, notice whether you are acting on your intentions. (“May I act on my intentions” may become another intention; “May I have compassion for myself when I forget” may be another.)

4. As the situation evolves, reset or revise your intentions as you need to. Setting an intention, and then noticing yourself carrying out that intention, deepens your trust in yourself and in life, even in the darkest of times. Little and often is fine here. The perseverance is strengthening your resilience.

You hang in, you show, up, you stay engaged, you manage your responses. Because you are doing your part, no matter how things turn out, you rest in a deeper learning in the midst of it all. That deeper learning allows you to learn that you can be resilient and persevere, even when results are going sideways.

Faith is taking the first step,[and the next, and the next] even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

-Martin Luther King Jr.

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