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How to Let Go of Control

Life is unpredictable. For those of us who are prone to anxiety, this is a very uncomfortable fact. Many people cope with the fear of what could happen by always trying to be in control. You might try to plan every possible outcome in your mind, thinking of everything that could go wrong. You might keep a tight schedule and lots of lists to stay in control. Of course, the feeling of control that comes from ruminating or endless worrying is largely an illusion. In fact, most things around you are not in your control.

Some things we can’t control

  • Traffic

  • Weather

  • Knowing what will happen or how things will turn out

  • What already is, such as being late for something

  • Things that have already happened

  • Other people, including their what they say or do, their thoughts, feelings, reactions, expectations or what they think of us

  • Our own thoughts and feelings that arise spontaneously

"You can’t flatten the ocean, but you can learn to ride the waves."

You can think of the things that are out of your control like waves on the ocean. Often, it feels like, "If I can just get past this thing (whatever the wave is today), then everything will be fine." We forget that there will be another wave along shortly. And 100 more after that, all the way to the horizon. Unexpected experiences and difficult feelings are unavoidable. In fact, they are part of a rich, human life. Many times, we add to our own stress by struggling against what we cannot control. We can learn to let the “waves” pass by: our thoughts, our feelings, unexpected circumstances, and other things out of our control. Then we are freer to focus our time and energy on what is within our power. Instead of constantly reacting, you can intentionally focus on what's important to you instead.

Practice "Willing Hands":

We can practice being willing to let go of things we can’t control. Experiment with approaching life with “willing hands.” To practice, place your hands face up on your lap loosely to remind your body to have a posture of acceptance. This is the opposite of the clenched fists we might make when struggling against something. Try these steps when calm, and then try applying it in situations that normally make you anxious or frustrated:

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your hands face up on your lap. Close your eyes.

  • Turn your attention to your breathing.

  • Bring to mind a situation that you find stressful and see if you can identify what aspects are out of your control. See the list above for suggestions.

  • Slowly say to yourself, “I am willing to not be in control of…..” or “I am willing to accept/allow…” or “It’s ok that I don’t have control over…” or “I am willing to not know how everything will turn out right now.” Eventually you may be able to say: “I don’t have to be in control of…” or even “I am free of having to control…”

  • You might ask yourself, “Will this matter in a year?” If not, remind yourself, “I can let this pass by like a wave, knowing there will be many more waves behind it.”

  • You can imagine yourself floating gently downstream rather than struggling against the current.

  • You can imagine yourself high up on a cruise ship, looking out at all the waves stretching to the horizon…allowing them to pass by far below as you’re free to focus on doing what you enjoy or what is meaningful to you.

  • Imagine yourself in situations where you might practice letting go of control or letting things pass by like waves, or even enjoying the letting go.

  • If uncomfortable feelings come up, practice simply being with those body sensations, and letting them pass like a wave as well. (Download my Calming Difficult Feelings meditation for practice.)

  • You can choose a mantra that represents the most positive aspect to you such as “Allow” or “Free” or “Floating” and repeat to yourself each time you breathe out.

  • To close, breathe in for a count of 5, out for a count of 7 three times. Each time you breathe out longer than you breathe it, it slows down your body.

  • Practice as often as needed. You may need to practice with the same issue many times before you start to automatically feel more acceptance and less stress.

Letting Go in Your Life

Once you've practiced Willing Hands when calm a few times, you might try applying it to situations in your life. I decided to try Willing Hands as an experiment on a roller coaster. As I went up to the top, I sat with my hands relaxed face up in my lap, closed my eyes, and told myself, "For the next 3 minutes, I am willing to not be in control." As the car sped sped around the track, I kept my eyes closed, let myself be pulled to one side or the other, listened to the screams of joy and fright around me, and let my body stay relaxed. Riding the roller coaster this way completely changed my experience of it. Instead of being exciting and scary at times, I was surprised that it actually felt relaxing!

Our lives are often like this. Circumstances take unexpected turns and dips. The more we can meet the things that are out of our control with acceptance, the more we can let go and focus on the things we can do. Next time you're sitting in traffic, try laying your hands face up and say, "I am willing to be here." If you're already late, try loosening your hands and saying, "I'm willing to be late." Maybe next time you can do something different, but since you're already late today, you might as well be willing. Rather than beating yourself up, figure out if there's anything in your control you'd like to change in the future. Then, letting it go for now, refocus on what you'd like your life to be about right here, right now. If you're in traffic, you might put on your favorite podcast, try an audio book, or listen to some music you love.

With practice, you can start letting more and more of the unexpected waves pass by. That way you're free you to focus on what's really meaningful. Rather than living in constant reactivity, live with intention.


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