When Everything Feels Out of Control

stick figure overwhelmed by colored lines. When everything feels out of control.
Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay

Ever look around and think, “Everything feels out of control?” This is very common, especially  when we’ve experienced a significant life event (e.g., a serious illness, a new housing situation, a new baby). This feeling can also take over when we attempt to get things in order, but someone else quickly undoes our work. Ultimately, we can end up feeling discouraged and frustrated. So, what can we do?

There is an old phrase that can help us navigate these overwhelming situations: “Control the ‘Controllables.’” I love this mindset because it acknowledges the balance we are constantly striking between taking action to make things better and finding contentment in our current situation. As much as we would like to think that we have the power to control all our circumstances, we honestly do not. We operate in a world where our sphere of influence is limited by external forces such as:

  • Hours in the day
  • Work responsibilities
  • Regulations and restrictions
  • Finances
  • Demands of care receivers
  • Weather conditions
  • Traffic
  • Actions and opinions of other people
  • Physical and mental health status

When we are beleaguered, it is easy to fall into the habit of blaming others for what is making us unhappy. Unfortunately, this approach can end up making us feel even more powerless, deterring us from further attempts to make things better. Fortunately, while we cannot control everything, we usually have the ability to make at least some choices in most situations. By taking charge of the “controllables” in our lives – no matter how small they may be – we empower ourselves to positively impact our daily lives.

I was reminded of this concept by a personal experience I had last week.

I had made an appointment to meet with a roofer to discuss a leak we had been having in the roof of our porch. I had scheduled to meet with the roofer at 9:30am, before I headed out to my client appointment for the day.

The night before the appointment, I wrestled with whether to take my shower before the roofer arrived or after he left. If I showered after the visit, I could sleep a bit later and still have time to shower and exercise before he came. At the same time, I realized that if he was running late, I might be hard pressed to get showered and off to work on time. I had no reason to believe that he would be late, but in my experience, this happens frequently.

In the end, I decided that I would be more at peace if I set the alarm early enough to get everything accomplished before the roofer arrived.

As it turns out, I was so glad I did! The roofer was delayed. I will give him credit for texting me and letting me know he was running late and on his way. Still, he showed up about 45 minutes past our scheduled time. Had I delayed my shower, I would have run out of time.

To me, this was an example of “controlling the controllables.”

I had no control over:

  • the existence of the leak
  • the damage the leak was causing
  • when the next heavy rainfall would come
  • when the roofer would arrive
  • how long the consultation with the roofer would take

I had control over:

  • when I scheduled to meet with the roofer
  • the time I got out of bed
  • how I used my time in the morning

Of course, I realize that some people reading this may not have control over their own time in the morning (I hear you parents!). Nonetheless, in my case, this was what I could control. By doing the “hard work” of getting up earlier, I was much more relaxed as the minutes I spent waiting for the roofer ticked by. I had given myself enough margin to minimize stress. It was a small decision, but it made for a better day.

The principle here is to do what you can to make your life better, even if it doesn’t make your life exactly as you would like it. Taking control of some aspect of our lives is feels good, and often gives us the patience we need to endure those situations over which we have little to no control.

Let’s look at a few examples of things we can and cannot control.

We CAN control what we do to prepare for the day ahead before we go to bed (e.g., clear the sink, prep lunches, pack our bag, set out clothes to wear, charge devices). We CANNOT control what awaits us when we get up (e.g., pet accident, sick kids, lack of electricity, work emergency, weather advisory).

We CAN control whether we put things away after we have taken them out. We CANNOT control whether others sharing our space will do the same.

We CAN control what we choose to remove from our space. We CANNOT control what others choose to release. (Although, if asked, we can certainly offer a perspective.)

We CAN control whether we take on a voluntary role. We CANNOT control all of the obligatory responsibilities that are put upon us.

We CAN control how much gas we keep in our tank. We CANNOT control the traffic in which we may burn fuel.

We CAN control what clothes we keep in our closet and dressers. We CANNOT control fashion trends, aging bodies, and social pressure.

We CAN control how we react when criticized. We CANNOT control how others choose to speak to us.

We CAN control when we arrive for appointments (in most circumstances). We CANNOT control whether others show up.

Are you getting the idea?

Of course, just because we theoretically have authority over a variety of tasks does not mean that following through is easy. In fact, when it comes to organizing and productivity, many people struggle with decluttering, time management, focus, follow through, and more. That is why there are professionals to help in these areas, especially when a situation is severe or pressured by impending deadlines. Seeking and receiving the help we need is actually one of the ways we exercise control.

I’m reminded of a verse in the Bible where Paul tells his readers in Rome: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:28) In other words, do whatever you can to maintain peace. In this example, this may include using kind words, choosing not to retaliate when harmed, offering to help resolve conflicts, etc. Notice that it doesn’t say, “Make sure everywhere you go there is peace.” That would be an impossible command to fulfill.

All we can do is take responsibility for what is “ours.”

The good news is, when we do this, our admirable actions often have a trickle-down effect on others. This is especially true with children. I’ve noticed that one of the best ways to encourage family members to declutter and maintain order is by doing these things ourselves, quietly and without a word.

If you feel like everything is out of control, I encourage you to consider what small action you can take to make life better.

Can you think of a “controllable” over which you would like to take control?

Seana's signature

20 thoughts on “When Everything Feels Out of Control”

  1. I love that phrase, “control the controllables.” Implicit in it is the fact that we cannot control everything. But we do have agency over some things and if we focus on those, we can make the chaos a bit calmer. Much of this has to do with our attitude or state of mind. Feeling like we have no control over anything can create a defeatist attitude. But identifying those few things we can decide about, can change everything. Instead of feeling lost or like nothing positive will happen, we can change that internal conversation by doing something to help the situation.

    Thinking of you and the roof situation. I’ve been there too. The joys of home ownership. 🙂 I hope it will get patched soon before the next rain.

    1. Yes, that feeling that we have no agency makes us reluctant to even try. I love that point! Even seeing that we can maintain a small area of keep our own schedule feels so good!

      Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear back from the roofer, so we will see. The saga continues!

  2. Seana, I am always empowered by your posts. This is another example of how we can control some aspects of our day and use that wisely. Inadvertently you also shared an example of what we can control when things don’t go perfectly, which is leaving more white space in our time blocks for when things don’t go as planned. I am grateful for you sharing what we CAN control and how to use this knowledge well.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and CONGRATULATIONS on your recent NAPO honor. So well deserved, my friend!

      More than once a bit of white space has saved the day for me. I know we can’t always have it, but when I CAN, I plug it in!

  3. Terrific advice here, Seana. It is truly frustrating to try and control everything. I love the way you point out that we have control over our personal actions and reactions. We have NO control over the actions of others. I also like the way you illustrate ways in which we can maintain control over our environment. When you stop to think about it we have control over many things and it’s pointless to try and control those things outside our reach.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…3 Ways to Honor MomMy Profile

    1. I think there is a bit of emotional release to realize that we won’t control everything, but we can still have joy and peace “in the midst.” A bit of control can be an island to which we can cling in the midst of chaos, right?

  4. A very good reminder! Some days I feel like the old saying, ” We make plans and God laughs.”
    Keeping control of what we can control and letting the rest go is powerful.

    1. Yes, I love that phrase as well! Reminds me of another old saying, “Plan for worst and hope for the best.” My plans often don’t go as I think they will, but it sure helps to be doing whatever I can to stack the odds in my favor, right?

    1. It does release stress to think ahead and consider what I can be doing to make my day run more smoothly. I would have loved that extra bit of sleep, but it would have backfired and caused me a lot of stress if I had gotten it. I’d rather do what I can now to make my “later” better.

  5. Thanks Seana,
    Focus on the things that are within our control.
    What can I do about it?
    Can I do anything?
    Do I want to do anything about it?
    What will happen if I don’t do anything?
    Is it somebody else’s business?

    1. Ooooh, I love these additional questions to help figure out we can, and cannot, control. Maybe we do not want to do anything about a situation. Even acknowledging this reality then frees us to move on from being upset about it!

  6. Oh, I felt this post! From childhood, I’ve spent my life trying to mitigate (control the controllables). I very rarely procrastinate on anything that has a deliverable. I prep everything possible the night before because a) I’m useless in the morning and b) you never know what’ll happen. (Still, we have water main breaks in our neighborhood all the time, and it’s hard to control for that when only showering in the morning will do.) I feel like everything I’ve done in the last two years has been about controlling the controllables; it’s why I didn’t go to conference this year, because (especially with all the mask mandates dropped), because unlike getting stuck in traffic without a full gas tank or rushing to shower in the morning, the impact could be immense and lifelong.

    There are two problems, of course. When you try to control for everything you CAN control, it’s tempting to try to control what (and whom) you cannot, and that doesn’t make for a very serene life. And second, it’s anxiety-provoking when the things for which you cannot control, for which you could never have anticipated, happen and you are so used to being the proactive fixer, you feel bereft. I just heard a story this weekend about someone who went for a medical procedure and a fluke error by medical professionals had somewhat catastrophic results. You can pack your own lunch, but you can’t give yourself a colonoscopy! At some point, you have to trust that enough of the things you can’t control will still be OK, and that can be really hard!

    Thanks for providing wisdom and such an inspiring framework!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Adds a Pop of Color with Bright & Sunny Office SuppliesMy Profile

    1. Ah, such good insights, Julie! I agree that when we have the ability to control much of our circumstances, it propagates the illusion that we have more control than we actually do. Even those who are focused, future-aware, and skilled in planning cannot account for every possible development. I don’t remember any of us worrying about a worldwide pandemic five years ago. Frankly, not sure what we would have done even if we had!

      I think it helps to strengthen the “I can be joyful and ok even when things aren’t as I want them to be” muscle. Doing so can only enrich and facilitate our contentment.

  7. Hi Seana,

    Yes, you can only control what you can control for sure!

    Can definitely identify with this this week as we have my husband’s parents coming to stay with us and have something broke in our house that needs someone to come fix. So lots of cleaning, shopping, coordinating, etc. to be done! But of course there is only so much that we can do and control about the situation.
    Jessica recently posted…Guide to Visiting Galeries Lafayette in ParisMy Profile

    1. I hope you have a wonderful visit with your husband’s parents. I think people who travel are particularly skilled at finding that balance between preparing and going with the flow. You have learned to enjoy the journey, and to glean value from the unexpected. That said, I love all the help you give travelers, and the wonderful details that help us avoid unwanted misadventures:)

    1. Having a routine like unloading the dishwasher while brewing coffee also frees your brain to think about other things. You don’t spend time trying to decide when you will unload the dishwasher, right? Definitely helps us feel more in control when we are faced with fewer decisions to make things run smoothly.

  8. There is so much I can’t control! For me today, it was traffic. I can leave with a “cushion” of time, call ahead if that cushion diminishes and then let go!
    While stuck in traffic I received a call I would not have picked up during my appointment, so I like to think it worked out for the best, there was a reason I “ran late.” I was where I was supposed to be to take that call!
    Cat Stravino recently posted…Got Joy?My Profile

    1. I love this comment! It broadens our mindset to the possibility that sometimes things happening beyond our control may end up being to our (or someone else’s) benefit. The realm in which we live is much more complex than we can possibly realize, right? Even if we cannot see an upside to a situation feeling out of control, we can CHOOSE to believe that there may be an upside. Thanks so much for this!

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