Do you ever wonder who or what is in control of your life? Have you ever been in a situation where you thought you were in control and then realized you weren’t?

Lately, I’ve noticed that many people around me are in situations where they aren’t in control and they’re finding it very hard to deal with. For example, I have a friend whose husband just received a terrifying diagnosis after a long illness. A client is waiting to hear back from a company she interviewed with a couple of weeks ago. Another’s spouse is wondering if they will keep their job after a major management shake-up at work.

What can we control?

So, naturally, I’ve been coaching and talking about control a whole lot. And here’s what I know. We can’t control other people, places, or things. We can only control ourselves. We can control how we react to the situations we find ourselves in. When we feel shaky and out of control, we can pause. We can examine our feelings about the situation, and then decide how we can use our own behavior to change the situation.

Here’s an example. It’s the holidays. Many of us will be around our families. Now, these are the same families we’ve had our whole lives. And, guess what? They’re pretty much the same people they were last year. So we have 2 choices. We can decide to respect our family members just the way they are or we can struggle to control them. Guess which is going to have the best outcome?

Forget changing other people!

Imagine this. You’re going to a family gathering. You know your Aunt Luna is going to ask if you’ve met someone new yet. She’s been asking you this question since you got divorced 5 years ago. Do you really think you’re going to keep her from asking that question? Didn’t think so. What if you went into that gathering acknowledging that Aunt Luna is going to ask you that question? And what if you decided how to react to it? You decide to say something like “Wow, Aunt Luna! It’s so nice that you care about me and want me to be happy. There’s no news on this front. Thanks for asking!” And you walk away. You control your actions.

Do you see how that works? You give up the illusion that you’re ever going to change Aunt Luna. You take control of the situation by choosing how you react to the question. You’ve set a boundary for yourself, and boundaries are key to controlling the things you can control, namely you.

Boundaries = Control

When we set boundaries and enforce them, we exert control over our own lives. They are a socially acceptable way to demand respect. So, we take control of our lives when we show people how to respect us. For example, we can insist that our friends respect our time. If we have an engagement with a friend who is chronically late, we can let them know we’re going to leave at a certain time whether they are present or not. Then we do it; we leave without them. We enforce our boundary.

We can also set boundaries around how people talk to us. If Aunt Luna won’t let go of that conversation about your dating life, you can let her know that you’re done talking about it. You can politely (you control your attitude) tell her “Aunt Luna, I’m really through talking about this.” Then you have 2 choices, walk away or change the subject. Since you came prepared for this conversation, you probably have a backup topic ready anyway – preferably about something she loves to talk about. You’re showing her respect by letting her know what respect looks like to you (which is exactly what boundaries do).

Regain control.

Then there are the situations which cause us even more anxiety because we have so little control over them. Scary health issues, uncertain job prospects, waiting for answers from someone else can leave us feeling like we’ve totally lost control of our lives. How do we regain some feeling of control?

Just for the record, most of my clients struggle with my answer to this question, because it’s counterintuitive. We regain control by surrendering the outcome to the universe.

Let it go.

We’re not passive. We do our footwork/homework/whatever you like to call it. We explore alternatives. We hash it out with our significant others and friends. And then we let it go. Let. It. Go. Surrender the outcome to the universe. Because, after all, most of the amazing things that happen in our lives happen when we loosen the death grip we have on our expectations of how things should turn out.

I’m struggling with having no control of an outcome right now. My son, Ken, has been looking for a job for several months. He’s living at home, which is lovely, most of the time! So, why am I struggling with control issues?

I can’t fix the situation!

As a career coach, it’s so frustrating that I can’t make a job appear out of the blue for him. Ken is doing all the right foot work. He’s even been through 4 interviews with one company that really liked him, and then the job fell through. He was to the point of meeting with a CEO of another company when they decided to hold off on hiring til January. Torture.

Of course, I could do the mom thing and quiz him every day about what he’s doing to find a job. I could make it miserable for both of us, or I could realize that he asks for help when he needs it and that’s about all I can do in this situation. Except for one more thing.

My “let go” mantra

Deploying my “let go of control” mantra. It goes like this: “Keep my eyes, ears, heart, and mind open to what’s out there for me today.” For years I have used this mantra to turn over control to the universe; it’s how I get out of my own way. It’s also one of the techniques I teach my clients to help them let go of the outcomes of their work.

So I did. I worked on letting go of believing I had the right answer (aka control). Once I did that, I realized I have a couple of contacts who might be able to help him. So I emailed them. One of them immediately set up a meeting with Ken. She met with him and she changed his life. Her insights into his skills and how to deploy them effectively changed how Ken looked at his career path. He’s pursuing an even more powerful path than before. And, when he called me after their meeting, he sounded like new person.

Get out of your own way and soar.

You see, I relinquished control. I got out of my own way and an amazing thing happened. Control is thinking we know the best outcome. We don’t. We have control over our attitude and our choices. That’s it.

When we choose to respect the curve balls that life throws at us instead of fighting them, we open ourselves to insights that we would miss if we were engaged in trying to control everything. When we surrender the illusion that we can control others and concentrate on controlling the things we can, we soar.

Click to get more info on the Women's Technology Conservatory.