Understanding the idea of control to liberate ourselves from anxiety and despair


Introduction (if there is one thing you should remember…):

I often have to attend seminars and workshops as part of my ongoing professional development. As with anything else, they tend to be a mixed bag, some good, some bad, and a few on either end of the spectrum that are either atrociously terrible or life-changingly fantastic.

One of the things that often emerges in many of these seminars, especially the good ones, is a simple pedagogical philosophy around “if there is one thing you should take from this workshop, it is this…”

It’s actually not a bad strategy, especially around really important key aspects or strategies around any particular health issue or for that matter, any life possibility. Honing in on one thing to remember with specific issues is often very useful in terms of long-lasting life lessons and strategies for resiliency-building and a healing foundation for our lives. Vast volumes of information don’t retain well in the brain, and especially when things get tougher, it becomes more even more difficult to access that knowledge.

For example, take the specific life experience of crises or emergencies, even mini ones. We all have faced and will face such life situations. Maybe not all of us will face life-threatening crises or emergencies, but we will face times in our life when things escalate dangerously in mere moments, when the thinking side of the brain is temporarily disconnected, and the emotional side of our brain is either rapidly losing control or numbed into a state of shock.

During those times, we will remember nothing from any trainings we have undergone (if we’ve undergone any) and we will remember nothing from the various life-affirmations we might have instilled in ourselves to give us courage and strength.

I know because I’ve been in about six such dangerously escalating situations in my life thus far, four of which were genuinely life-threatening (like peeing in my pants kind of life-threatening), and there is only one thing that I can tell and have told myself during such situations:

Just remember to remain calm.

Everything else follows from there.

During a crisis or emergency, your brain and neural networks go on hyper drive and eventually overload in no time at all. During this flash of absolute chaos, the first (and at that point only) thing you need to worry about is not how you’re going to deal with the crisis or emergency with whatever mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual skills you have at your disposal (and we all have truckloads of them), but just getting yourself to a state of mind wherein you can process and use those skills.

All the skills, intelligence, and strategies are useless without first getting to as calm a state of mind as possible. Not sterile or numb, but calm and collected. And while one can never be totally calm, telling yourself to first and foremost remain calm can do wonders in getting you to a calm enough state wherein you can put those mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual skills to use.

So, if you remember nothing else, just remember this: tell yourself that in a crisis or emergency, the most important and vital thing you can do (and you will need to keep repeating this to yourself on occasion): just remain calm. Give yourself that moment to get your mind, body, heart, and soul stabilized from the shock it has just received, and then get them to work.

There is a golden rule when it comes to understanding the mind-boggling and potentially life-saving value of remaining calm:

Remaining calm and collected is always better than getting agitated and flustered. Always.

I will soon be writing up an article on strategies to remain calm during those times when it’s most needed, and specifically which strategies would work for different kinds of people, but for now, just keep telling yourself the above sentence to give yourself the mental strength.

Now, what about the day-to-day anxieties and worries that can often lead to despair and hopelessness. Is it better to remain calm and collected? Of course. Without first getting a sense of calm, very little else is possible. But what then?

That is where the idea of control comes in.

Indeed, I will go out on a limb and say that if there is one thing that is absolutely crucial for day-to-day mental health for you to remember, especially during those times when things are spiralling badly, it would be a liberated understanding of control.

Why understanding control in a liberated, anti-oppressive way is so important:

Just as in a crisis or emergency, where the most important thing to remember is to remain calm, so too in terms of anxiety and despair, if there is one and only one thing that you need to remember when things are spirally in bad ways, then remember this:

Get an understanding of control, and more specifically – get a clear, realistic, and grounded understanding of the things in your life that are in your control and the things in your life that are not.

Getting a sense of control can help liberate us from anxiety in many ways because a good chunk of anxiety stems from worrying and stressing about things we have no control over, which then also results in the double whammy of preventing us from working on the things we do have control over.

I also would suggest that we strive to understand this idea of control in a truly anti-oppressive way. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and misogyny are all structures of oppression producing a socio-cultural ethos that makes us believe we have more control in our individual lives than we actually do, because it works to their benefit (especially in Western society and the more privileged parts of the Global South). It’s then easy to brush off poverty, marginalization, sexism, racism, abuse, violence etc. by merely stating that individuals have everything under their control and thus perpetuate the false paradigm of blaming them for their oppression and trauma.  Simultaneously, these same structures of oppression make us believe that unless we allow them to control our lives, our lives will fall into absolute horrible chaos. This kind of dangerous thinking needs to be undone, and we can start by undoing it in our own thinking first.

An understanding of the fact that the structures of oppression around us are monstrous, while we are all mere human beings can go a long way in understanding just how little we actually have under our control, which counter-intuitively is a good thing to know because it gives us a great understanding of what actually is in our control and thus use that which is under our control to liberate ourselves and give us a greater sense of agency in our lives. It can be useful to understand that we have way less under our control than we think we do (primarily because it’s the truth and the truth ultimately sets you free), but it’s useful only when we understand it in liberatory ways that help free us from our anxieties by ensuring that those things not in our control don’t have power over our hearts and minds, rather than oppressive ways that depress us when we realize how small we actually are. Let’s explore how we can do this…

Liberating ourselves from our anxieties and despair by simultaneously letting go and getting a grip:

Understanding our sense of control (as opposed to trying to take control of everything) is crucial to liberating ourselves from anxieties. As already mentioned, Getting a sense of what we can control is first done by understanding and letting go of the stuff we cannot control. Letting go of the (natural) stresses and anxieties about the things you cannot control is a lifelong endeavor, but the more one practices it, the easier it is to bust your stresses and anxieties.

Why is letting go of what we cannot control so important for healing and mental health? It’s quite simple really. If there are things you’re worrying about that are not in your control, there is literally nothing achieved by worrying about it because there is nothing you can do about it. It is emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy that is simply being flushed down the toilet. And we do so much of that without even realizing it.

But letting go of the stuff we cannot control can only happen if it’s coupled with getting a grip on the things we can. It makes it easier to let go of stuff you cannot control when you are more confident that you’ve done as much as you humanly can to get a grip on the things you can control. This is done by breaking down the things that are in our control into manageable daily tasks. The smaller and more immediate the tasks you are able to plan for and complete, the greater your sense of control will be, and simultaneously the greater your sense of liberation will be with the stuff you have no control over.

It is also very important to understand that there is always less actual control (and a far weaker sense of control) when one is alone, while there is a far greater sense of control (not to mention safety and security) in a liberated collectivity with your loved ones. You remember a few paras back when we discussed those structures of oppression that want you to believe you have greater control in your individual lives than you actually do? Well, those same structures of oppression simultaneously want you to believe that control is lost when a person is part of liberated, egalitarian, self-sustaining communities. Fight that thinking and prevent your alienation. Alienation and social isolation is very deleterious to us getting a healthier and more liberated sense of control in our lives.

Core life entities such as happiness, health, freedom etc. are particularly vital to understand what’s in our control and what is not, from a standpoint of one’s own personal self and the collectivity. These core life entities are strengthened in liberated community.

With love however, it’s important to practice the art of loving in liberated ways and with solidarity without the idea of control ever coming into it, because it’s never good to ever feel like one should get a sense of control over loved ones. Love can be true only if it’s accompanied by a commitment to the freedom and liberation of our loved ones. The idea of control is often rooted in very oppressive frameworks, especially around the idea of controlling others, however it’s possible, indeed vitally important, to have a liberated, anti-oppressive understanding of control, which more often than not has to do with getting a sense of control in our core sense of self, which comes from strengthening our sense of self in healing and liberatory ways. This art of loving in liberated ways, i.e. the art of letting go of a loved one for them to be free and happy as liberated individuals while still loving and supporting them, ironically enough, is a crucial element to getting a sense of control, grounded in real life conditions. It teaches us to let go of the things we do not or should not have any control over, while simultaneously focusing on healthy, healing, and liberated ways of taking control of our personal lives.

An exercise to get a liberated sense of control in our daily lives:

Ok, now that we know how important it is to have a liberated and healthy understanding of what we can and cannot control in our lives, let’s discuss an easy way to actually implement this in our daily lives. The below exercise can be modified and adapted. It should be repeated as many times as needed for any and all of your stresses and anxieties. Here goes:

First, pinpoint one major stress or anxiety that far too easily leads to despair and hopelessness in your life. Perhaps it’s related to how you might sustain yourself, such as finding a job or a secure place to live, or it’s related to health and healing, such as a chronic health issue or past trauma, or it’s related to your social relations, such as an abusive relationship or unhealthy friendship. Whatever it is, zero in on it and name the stress. Be as specific as possible. The more specific you are, the more you will get out of this exercise. It’s important to know what the different sources of stress and anxiety are in the first place before we can start addressing them.

Now that you’ve named the stress or anxiety, get a sheet of paper and a decent writing instrument.

Write down the name of the stress or anxiety at the top of the sheet. Then draw a line across the middle of that paper. In one column write “In My Control” and in the other write “Not In My Control”.

Next, think very hard and list, again in as much detail as possible, all the things that are reasonably and realistically in your control in the first column. Be specific. For instance, let’s take employment – we often think finding a job is in our control (and to that we think we can determine where we will work, what kind of job we will have, and even what kind of people we will end up working with). In reality, there’s a lot less in our control than we think there is. What really is in our control when searching for employment is just that – searching for employment and not actually receiving employment. We can seek out potential employers, search for jobs in a variety of forums, apply for those jobs in a variety of ways, and try to keep learning and improving in those efforts. But that’s about it. It’s just keeping at it from then on out that will hopefully land us decent employment. We cannot control how employers will react to our application. We can give our best effort in applying, but we cannot actually control the mind of someone looking at the application to make them look at it favorably. For starters all those structures of oppression, you know, the sexism, racism and all? All that plays a major role in determining how employers might react. So, despite our best efforts, things can often go nowhere. We cannot control when we will get a job either. This is different than needing to find employment by a certain time to prevent a potentially detrimental situation such as being evicted. We might need to find a job by a certain time, but we have no way of knowing that it will assuredly happen by that time. Need, even desperate need, should never prevent us from focusing on what we can control and actively trying to stop worrying about the things we cannot control.

Next, on the second column, list all the things that are not in your control. If you can’t think of any, think harder, because as sure as the sun rises in the east, you can bet your life that there are a whole load of things about this particular stress and anxiety that are absolutely not in your control. Furthermore, they are all things you are wasting a lot of emotional and mental energy worrying about. As you get more practise doing this, you will soon find out that the second column listing the stuff not in your control will be much larger than the first column listing the stuff that is in your control. That’s a good thing as you’ll shortly find out.

Once you’re thoroughly satisfied that with populating the two columns for this particular stress or anxiety, you would have listed the few specific things that are in your control and the many, many things that are not.

Now, take your writing instrument and gently put a giant “X” on the second column, i.e. cross out all those things listed that are not in your control. This is a symbolic gesture telling yourself to not waste emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy worrying about those things.

Is it going to work? No. Not right away at least. But as you do this exercise repeatedly, you will find yourself, over time, slowly remembering and internalizing the symbolic crossing out of the things in your life that are not in your control, and your brain will slowly adapt to it, building a greater sense of resiliency and grounding.

Ok, now look at the first column with all the things that are under your control. Take each one and come up with some simple daily or regular tasks that will establish that sense of control. You know you have control over these things, but that doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily come up with daily life activities in taking control of those things. Once you’ve come up with a list of those simple, daily tasks, start doing them right away. Don’t put it off for the next day. At least do something small right away and get a sense of achievement by doing that. The next day do something more. They don’t have to be gargantuan tasks. A foundation for an awesome life is really built in small but regular 10, 20, or 30 minute tasks or bursts of activity, with long periods of basking in the victory of those mini-achievements (preferably with a robust red and some good quality indica, but that might not be for everyone). Thus, it’s really crucial that you take a solid crack at some of those daily tasks. This is an important end step to this exercise because it grounds it in your reality and completes it with a very simple motto: work on what is in your control and forget about what’s not.

Repeat this exercise as needed for as many stresses and anxieties as you can. Keep at it honestly, be patient, and over time you will find yourself getting more grounded, developing a healthy sense of agency, and slowly liberating yourself from anxieties that so easily lead to despair.

Don’t let the vile forces of hopelessness defeat you my friend. Here’s wishing you much health, happiness, and freedom.