Control What You Can and Let Go of the Rest
Take a lesson from the ancient Stoics.
Posted July 2, 2019
As evidence that one is not defined by their station in life, the great Stoic philosopher of first-century Rome, Epictetus (circa 55 – 135 AD), was born into slavery, which likely affected his general outlook on life. Among his teachings was the importance of knowing what we can control and what we can’t. His general prescription for a good life was simply this: Control what you can and let go of what you can’t control.
This ancient prescription has resonated through the ages and is embodied in the famous Serenity Prayer by 20th century American Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), expressed here in its briefest and best-known version:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Whether said as a prayer or expressed as a philosophy of life, psychologists recognize the wisdom of knowing the boundaries between the things we can control and those we can't.
Taking a Lesson from the Ancient Stoics
To Epictetus and the Stoics, the challenge of living a balanced and serene life involves accepting our place in the natural order of things. We live, we die, and the world goes on. We should measure the quality of our lives not by what we acquire, but in how we lead our lives. The Stoics believed in enjoying the good things in life while cautioning that we shouldn’t become slaves to our desires and wants. Nor should we become so invested in things that we believe we couldn’t possibly survive losing them. Truth be told, everything we have in life is eventually lost during our lifetime or finally relinquished upon our death.
The Stoics remind us to be happy with what we’ve got, with our lives as they are, rather than spending precious time chasing every possible want or desire. We shouldn’t spend our lives dwelling on the “if only’s” but instead come to appreciate life as it is. There’s a word for this—acceptance. This does not imply we should adopt a demeanor of resignation or passivity. Rather, it calls for us to embrace living our lives day-to-day and appreciate what each moment has to offer. By contrast, spending precious time wishing, wanting, and demanding that things be different is a prescription for personal misery.
Stoics famously practiced self-denial and steeled themselves in the face of adversity, but they also believed in savoring the simple pleasures of life, such as enjoying family time, spending time with friends, and having a good meal. But they drew a line between enjoying a meal and gluttony. You can put Stoicism into practice in your daily life by enjoying the simple pleasures of life and not fretting about what you don't have.
Stoic philosophy, expressed so succinctly by Epictetus, is embodied in the precepts of what is today the leading form of psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Some two thousand years ago, Epictetus wrote what could well be a maxim today for CBT, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” Although the Stoics were deterministic, believing that events are fated, Epictetus taught that we can at least control our mental attitudes toward life experiences and how we react to them.
Epictetus taught that psychological well-being is not determined by the vicissitudes of life, but rather by the judgments or interpretations we impose on events we experience. This principle is put into practice countless times each day by CBT therapists who help their patients restructure how they think about themselves and their life experiences, to separate facts (external events) from opinions (thoughts and beliefs). The very first sentence in the Enchiridion, or handbook of Epictetus—a collection of his teachings compiled by one of his disciples—aptly depicts the challenge of coming to terms with our place in the scheme of things: “Some things are up to us and others are not.”
It is easier to change ourselves, the Stoics teach, than to change the world. Easier, yes, but I would add, not always easy. Stoicism teaches yet another enduring truth, that we can only expect of ourselves to make our best effort and accept whatever happens. However disappointing the outcome may be, we need to face reality in the light of reason and be prepared to move on.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD), himself a renowned Stoic philosopher, was heavily influenced by the teachings of Epictetus. Among his best-known sayings is also something of a maxim in CBT, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” In tribute to the teachings of Epictetus, Marcus also wrote, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
As a CBT therapist, I work with patients to help them stop beating themselves up for not being able to control what is beyond their ability to control. Patients learn to recognize what they can and can’t control, as in these examples:
- You can’t control other people’s responses, but you can control what you say or do when responding to others.
- You can’t control the thoughts that pop into your head, but you can control how you respond to those thoughts.
- You can’t control everything that happens in life. What you can control is limited, just how limited is hard to say.
- You can’t expect other people to always meet your needs or put your needs first.
- You can’t expect to succeed in everything you do. Even all-star baseball players make far more outs than hits.
- You can’t control what other people think of you, but you can control how you respond to criticism.
- You can’t expect to get out of life alive, so it’s best the make the most of the time you have.
- You can’t directly control how you feel, but you can control how you deal with your emotions and the thoughts that trigger negative feelings. (Check out other entries on this blog for ways of handling negative emotional states like anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and worry).
The Stoics teach that we should clearly distinguish between things within our power to control and things not in our power. Realize this and will you find strength. Wisdom comes from recognizing what you can control and what you can’t. Many people today take a broader view of what we can control than did the classical Stoics. I submit there are many things we can control. We can control our actions, the goals we pursue, the values we adopt, and our mental attitudes. Yet we also need to recognize we can’t control that which lies beyond our reach. So, paraphrasing Epictetus, what things are up to you and what aren’t?
© 2019 Jeffrey S. Nevid