When You Don’t have Control

When we don’t have control, most of us feel unsettled, angry and strive to get control.

Whether it is a naughty child, an illness, financial problems or relationship issues, we all strive to be in control, to fix the situation. Yet our striving for control and solutions can make the situation worse instead of better. On the other hand,  passively accepting everything is not healthy.  In the words of the prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, what we need is

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference

Recently, I have had several calls from very unhappy people, angry about an unfair situation. In several of the cases, there was very little that the individual could do because they had no power or control over the people or situation. This blog was written for people like them.

It’s not about giving in. It’s about those situations where life sucks and there is not a lot that you can do to change reality.

I’m not saying give up if there is a chance, however small, that you might just win. It’s about those times where deep down you know it isn’t right to carry on.

Acceptance is not surrender. It is about acknowledging that we don’t have control over other people and events.

Helping when others don’t have control

Let me tell you a story which is an amalgam of several situations I’ve come across in my mediation work and voluntary work in supporting dying and bereaved people.

Carly and her brother Ron were very upset. Some years ago, their parents gave their sister, Trudi power of attorney for health. At the time, Carly and Ron agreed with this because they both lived abroad and Trudi lived nearby. After their dad died, their mother’s dementia progressed, and Trudi felt that the safest place for their mother was in a nursing home. Carly and Ron disagreed, and contacted various authorities (Office of the Public Guardian, Social Services, the Care Quality Commission). The authorities found no safeguarding issues, but Carly and Ron felt that the situation was wrong for their mother. A family friend recommended me. Not sure what I could do, they still called.

What I do 

The first thing I do in situations like this is listen.  When someone pours their heart out, they start to put things in order to help the listener understand. This helps them understand the situation better themselves. It also gives them a chance to explore their feelings and feel heard.

people start to heal when they feel heard

When people feel heard, they start to calm down and are able to see the situation more objectively. If one tries to make people see things objectively before listening, they will become more upset and less objective.Don’t be tempted to offer a solution or advice, just let them talk.

When they pause for breath, I ask

“And what else?”

I ask what they really want.Most people know what they want most. They also know deep down inside whether that is achieveable or not. I give them time and space to talk this out and work out what is most important to them.

Then, I ask how they think they could get what they want or at least move towards it. When they say what they think they should do, I ask “And how do you think that will work?” Other questions that make people think are “And what would you have to give up to get what you want?” “How has doing x worked out for you in the past?” “What else might help?

Finally, we look at what things they cannot change or control, and how they can factor this in.

The answer is different for everyone

In situations similar to the story above, each case had a different outcome. That is the beauty of mediation–it is a process that allows people to figure out what works for them and their situation. In one case, the people felt that the relationship with the sibling was important so went forward with the mediation. In another, they felt that the happiness of the parent was so important that they went forward with legal action. In others, just talking the situation through was enough to gain a new perspective or think of new ways of managing the situation. If you want more on this topic, read my post on when caring for elderly parents can become a source of conflict.

What you can control

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J RR Tolkein, Lord of the Rings.

Denial of reality stops us taking steps to improve the situation. If we cannot change something or someone, being angry about it only harms us. Trying to control a situation when we can’t makes us even more unhappy. But letting go of control is hard and scary. This post from Lauren Stahl has 10 useful suggestions that might make it easier.