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4 Things We Can’t Control and Need to Accept

How to let go of the things you cannot control to find inner peace.

Key points

  • We tend to focus on and worry about the things we have little to no control or influence over.
  • There are things we cannot control and need to accept for our well-being and inner peace.
  • Tightening our grip on the things that we cannot control just fuels feelings of helplessness and despair.
Source: mavo/Shutterstock

What do you spend most of your time worrying about or fixated on? My guess is that you worry about the future and the uncertainty that life brings—the things that we have little to no control over.

Me, I used to be consumed with worries about life milestones and other people’s perceptions of me. I would obsess and spiral in my thoughts, thinking about all the “what-ifs” and worst-case scenarios that I could maybe avoid or somehow change and manipulate. Of course, this approach was not very helpful because the things I would worry about were either (a) almost always impossible to predict or plan or (b) things I could not directly influence—or both.

In our fear-based society, we often try to do everything in our power to take control. We like to be “on it” and one step ahead, trying to troubleshoot everything. We don’t like to feel unprepared or vulnerable and will go to great lengths to avoid stress and things that are hard and uncomfortable.

But this is a losing battle. Tightening our grip and expelling energy on the things that we cannot control just fuels feelings of helplessness and despair.

Let’s make a shift, then, and let go of the need to control those things that are outside of our control. Start with these four things.

1. The Future

So many of us struggle with the uncertainty of the future—we want to know when, where, and how things will happen. We make plans and want to see them through in the exact way we had envisioned them.

But as much as we try, we can't always plan for the exact timing of things or how they will unfold. Life happens, and there are external factors that make it impossible for us to have complete certainty about the future.

Whether it’s a global pandemic, losing a job, or a family member becoming sick, sometimes we must pivot and take things as they come. This isn’t to say that our goals and pursuits are not worth pursuing, but that we need to practice having more cognitive flexibility—a mental shift that encourages us to be more open to the fluidity of life and timing.

Additionally, while we might not know what the future holds or what tomorrow brings, we do know that in this very moment, we are breathing and alive and that there are things we do have control over—things we can do to take care of ourselves and cope with uncertainty.

2. The Past

While this one may seem obvious—being that the past is quite literally in the past—we tend to voraciously cling to it.

When thinking about our past, we tend to focus on the things we could have done differently (the “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve's”) or try to find a “why." Whether it’s replaying a conversation over and over again in our heads, trying to make meaning of a significant life event, or simply thinking about how life “used to be”—it’s hard for us to let go. And while it is healthy and normal to engage in self-reflection, grieve, and learn from our past experiences, there's a difference between being reflective or nostalgic and becoming consumed or obsessed with the past.

So the next time you find yourself stuck in the past, try grounding yourself in the present moment. Notice your current environment and surroundings, and remind yourself of the things you are grateful for and the people you have in your life right now.

3. What Other People Are Thinking and Feeling

We focus way too much on the internal processes of others—what they're thinking and feeling—typically due to our own insecurities and need for external validation. We worry about how other people perceive us, whether they “like” us or not, and their judgment and opinions.

As a result, we frequently jump to conclusions and make assumptions based on very limited information—like a momentary facial expression, or our own past experiences and trauma—which can cause significant distress. Think about how many times you've interpreted an ambiguous text as someone being “mad” at you, or attributed another person’s bad mood to something you said or did (without any true evidence of this).

In reality, we cannot read minds and we cannot control the perceptions of others. What we can control are our own internal processes.

If you notice yourself consumed by thoughts about another person, ask yourself, “How helpful is it for me to spend time worrying about this person and what’s going on in their head?” or “How much control do I actually have over what this person is thinking or feeling?” If you find yourself obsessing over being “liked" or seen in a favorable light by another person, focus on how you view yourself. Ask yourself, “Do I like myself?” Do you think you are a good person? And if the answer is “no,” what are some things you can do to be the best version of yourself?

At the end of the day, the longest and most meaningful relationship we will ever have in our lives is the relationship with ourselves.

4. Other People’s Actions and Life Choices

We can become overly invested in the decisions of others—especially the decisions of the people we love and care for most. We may find ourselves worrying about a loved one’s lifestyle and habits, their relationship patterns, or even their belief system and personal values.

Whether we dislike a close friend's partner or have a difficult time interacting with a parent because of their opposing political beliefs or stances, the life choices and preferences of others are typically things we cannot control. While we can always try to have a respectful conversation and express our concerns, it is important to remember that we cannot impose our own beliefs and expectations onto others. Accepting others as they are is crucial for our own mental well-being.

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