My ten-year-old daughter, Rebekah, squatted beside me in the shade of the plum tree in our back yard. I was scrubbing my soaked and soaped hunting dog, Susie. My labored breathing and mumbling through gritted teeth made my attitude of exasperation palpable. I hadn’t planned on bathing my dog when I came home for lunch that summer day. But Rebekah had been insistent that I let her give Susie a bath. Then, unable to manage Susie, she had asked me to help her.
With my shirt sleeves rolled up and sweat stinging my eyes, I heard Rebekah, through the fog of my own feelings of frustration, ask a question that stopped me in my tracks. “Daddy, why is it that when I ask you to help me, you take over?”
In my stunned state a whisper of truth managed to filter through – when Rebekah asked for my help, she wanted me to influence her situation, not to take over.
Trying to recognize that line between control and influence has been a challenge for me. But several years ago I came up with a concept that proves helpful in keeping things in proper perspective.
In each person’s life there are two circles: a circle of influence and a circle of control. Inside your circle of influence you will find friends, family, coworkers, and people you come in contact with each day. Inside your circle of control you will find your thoughts, your feelings, and your behaviors. Essentially only one thing exists inside the circle of control – you. Everything else in your world resides in your circle of influence.
This technique makes it easier to recognize when you are trying to pull something from your circle of influence and place it inside your circle of control. Whenever I find myself wrestling over a particular situation or feeling frustrated with someone, I visualize the two circles and start placing the elements of my dilemma into their proper place.
Attempting to stretch your circle of control to include another person will produce a host of negative consequences. You will subject yourself to feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration. Why? Because they are not doing what you want them to do!
Ironically the person you are trying to control will experience those same set of emotions. Why? Because no one likes someone trying to control them!
On numerous occasions during my thirty years of work with families, both as a minister and a marriage and family therapist, I have seen the value of people recognizing their circle of control.
One such couple was John and Alice. As they sat across from me, John’s depression and Alice’s anxiety bore testimony to the years they’d spent witnessing their son, Todd’s, chronic battle with cocaine abuse and dependency. Out of the purest of motives they had spent nearly twenty years trying to find just the right thing they could do to help Todd clean up his life. They employed him in the family business, gave him money to buy a car, financed his house, forced him into counseling numerous times, and bailed him out of jail. As each attempt to rescue Todd proved unsuccessful, they were crushed with feelings of self-blame.
What was difficult for them to see was that all their efforts to “help” were actually about controlling Todd. They had to give up trying to “fix” him and recognize that Todd’s behavior was outside their circle of control.
Once John and Alice placed Todd in their circle of influence and realized that he was the only one who could control his behavior, they were able to release the weight of their feelings of self recrimination. By freeing Todd, they freed themselves.
Another person who was helped by this concept was Tonya. She came to see me after being referred by a hospital emergency room social worker. She had been married to Ken for fifteen years. During that time he had beaten her on numerous occasions, once even putting her in the hospital. She’d been forced to perform degrading sex acts. He’d called her despicable and vile names. And still Tonya plaintively wailed, “Why can’t I make him love me?”
By believing that she could control Ken’s love and treatment of her, she kept herself chained to a life of misery. Her repeated expectation that “this time will be different”, that he would treat her with respect and unconditional love, created chronic disappointment in Tonya’s heart.
At the point Tonya began understanding the limits of her control, she began focusing on her behavior rather than Ken’s. She started making choices about how she would allow others to treat her and what behaviors she would no longer tolerate. Accepting the truth that Ken’s treatment of her was his choice and beyond her control gave her the strength to begin a new life.
What parent hasn’t battled with their teenager over grades? Amanda, a single mom, spent nearly half the school year trying to make her son, Noah, bring up his grades. She offered money, took away privileges, shamed him, encouraged him, and threatened him, all to no avail. She felt totally defeated.
Then in a moment of clarity, recognizing her circle of control, she sat Noah down and told him that from that day forward she would never say another word to him about his grades. She told him he was in control of his grades.
Remarkably, Noah responded to this new-found freedom of control by improving his grades.
As time moves forward for me I sometimes get the sensation that my circle of control is getting smaller. The truth is, I’m simply recognizing how small my circle of control has always been. My sense of control over many things was simply an illusion.
I now embrace my small circle of control and appreciate how healthy it is for me because just “doing me” is a full-time job! I feel less burdened and weighted down. I spend less time anguishing over people’s treatment of me. I don’t expend so much mental and emotional energy trying to get people to do what I think they ought to do. I worry and fret less.
I focus more on being the kind of person I ought to be.
Recognizing your limits of control in life can free you.
*Names and characters are composites of real people, but modified to protect confidentiality.