By Monty Cholmeley, Contributing Writer.
Picture the scene: ten years ago, climbing up the glass hospital stairs, awash with vivid feelings of fear and worry whilst surrounded by smells of disinfectant and disease there I was, trying to fix my dad’s terminal cancer in my head.
Mid-way up, I remembered reading something:
“We try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory.”Matthieu Ricard (Former Molecular Scientist, and Now Buddhist Monk)
Despite knowing we can’t generally control what’s going on around us, we still waste hours trying to do so – in our heads. Making mental stories to fix situations or sending ourselves postcards from the future full of ifs, maybes, and supposed solutions.
Why do we try and control things when we’re feeling overwhelmed?
Back in the hospital, I wasn’t in control. I couldn’t fix any of what was going on. I just felt that to survive the situation; I had to control it. It’s a pretty common coping mechanism; we all grab onto the feeling of control when the shit hits the life-shaped fan. Striving for control makes us feel safe: If we can control what’s going on we can also determine the outcome – meaning nothing bad can happen. Many people reach for the illusionary controls when unpleasant feelings are present. Perhaps it’s cleaning or tidying things when you’re stressed at home, or scrolling through social media at work looking for a break from feeling overwhelmed by an approaching deadline (this is a ‘thing’ BTW, it’s called cyberloafing). Or perhaps it’s simply a case of trying to think about something else, or control your thoughts, so whatever’s worrying you is wiped from the mind.
It’s likely that this urge to reach for the illusionary controls stems from our evolution: when still living inside caves and saber tooth tigers still lived outside, doing out best to control things was a case of life and death; controlling our surroundings was first on the menu if we didn’t want to be on someone else’s.
It’s still happening now: during the 2008 credit crunch, It was reported that the sales of ties went up (people trying to keep jobs by controlling their look). Furthermore, a set of experiments run at this time by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky demonstrated that people were more likely to make up patterns where there aren’t any (e.g. seeing images in noise or developing superstitions) to help them feel in control during turbulent times – and good for them – a sense of mastery over one’s fate has long been seen as key to psychological health.
The problem is that no amount of new ties or superstitions are going to save you from reality: You are not in control. You can’t change what’s happened. Although it may be nice to feel like you are, trying to control everything isn’t going to make you feel better as it won’t work. And kidding yourself that you can effectively means that you’re avoiding the reality of the situation – missing out on whatever is going on.
Back on the stairs, when I accepted that I wasn’t in control, I felt a weight lift in my chest; rather than feeling overwhelmed, the situation became bearable; giving me enough strength to spend time actually with my dad – rather than spending the time in my head, consumed by worry, with my dad.
This experience taught me some valuable lessons.
Although it might feel nice to be in control, more often than not, we’re not – and this is mightly stressful. Responding to this situation by trying to control everything, although logical, just makes matters worse – leaves us with feelings of overwhelm. When you’re conscious of this pattern playing out, accepting that you are not in control of it all not only makes the experience less horrible, it also allows you the quality of mind to make the most of the situation. Because, when you’re not consumed by thoughts of the past or future you’re able to do something more powerful – control your present.
Shortly after, I figured the Buddhists must be onto something and started meditating after that. It helped me understand my grief; my love that had nowhere to go. It almost made the unimaginable, manageable. I carried on practising and realised something pretty big after that – anything that gets in the way of life becomes manageable when you meditate.
Mindfulness takes the notion of not being in control one step further by training the mind in the art of letting go; allowing you to drop everything that’s not immediately relevant to you at that moment, allowing you to think with more clarity and make better decisions.
Feeling overwhelmed? Here are some things to remember:
- Accept that whatever is happening is, well, happening. Although you might want to resist it, blocking out reality won’t make you feel better.
- Whenever you notice that you’re lost in thought (perhaps fixing, or planning), as best you can, realise you were lost in though, let them go, and return to what’s real.
- Accept that although you might want you, you simply can’t control everything, instead focus on making the most of what’s around you right now.
- The last one is a biggie: Meditate. The more you do it, the more you’ll be able to get out of your head and into whatever is going on – with less and less effort. By shining a light onto the inner workings of your mind, you’ll start to understand the kinds of things that lead to feelings of overwhelm, enabling you to act before it gets to much.
Reality check: You and I are not in control of our lives. Markets will crash, jobs will be lost, relationships will falter and break down, life won’t go as you planned – this is life in all its technicolour glory. The solution? When you’re well-meditated and well-versed in the art of acceptance and letting go, you’re giving yourself the quality of mind to be better able to make the most out of any situation – not necessarily by controlling, but by adapting to it.
Monty Cholmeley is a meditation teacher, app developer, and founder of Minding Life, a mindfulness consultancy based out of the U.K. Find out more at: https://www.minding.life/