Control and Serenity Don’t Mix

Holiday festivities can often include increased time with family and friends. For many, this can be enjoyable and satisfying, but this increased interaction can also bring frustration over (or questions about) the rationale behind what a person says or does. Sometimes it’s hard to stand by and watch someone make decisions that just don’t seem to make sense. The short answer when dealing with somebody’s apparently misguided actions is to say to yourself, ‘What’s his point of view? What do I know about his needs, his wants, and his motivations that might explain these actions?’

First and foremost, it’s important to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse. A man may molest children, for example, because he was molested as a child. That may be a valid explanation, but it’s NOT a valid excuse. A woman cheats on her husband because he’s not very attentive. A valid explanation, perhaps, but not an acceptable excuse.

People with strong moral standards often get frustrated because they can’t distinguish between explanations and excuses. For example, someone recklessly speeds by them in traffic. A mentally healthy person thinks, ‘Maybe he has a valid reason for being in a hurry. Maybe he doesn’t. Either way, I’ll stay out of his way. My personal safety is what counts.’

A chronically frustrated person thinks, ‘He SHOULDN’T be speeding. He’s wrong! There’s no excuse. I’m so MAD!’ Of course, it’s unlikely there is a valid excuse for the bad driving, but that anger doesn’t do anything but shatter your mental and physical calm. Accepting what you cannot change might leave things as they are, but it’s much healthier for your state of mind. Letting go in certain situations says nothing about the control you can exercise in other areas of your life. In fact, letting go of what you can’t control leaves mental and psychological ‘room’ for achievements in areas over which you DO have control.

Does it ever make sense to try and fix other people’s problems? Shouldn’t we exercise control when we can? Be careful! Sometimes doctors or family members refer an unmotivated patient or loved one to counseling to fix something they (the doctor or family member, that is) consider a problem. Oops, sorry: You can’t cure someone who’s indifferent to a cure. Therapy isn’t a medical condition that can be eliminated by passively submitting to surgery or pills. The person must think, and be willing to change her errors in thinking. As the popular Dr. Phil puts it, ‘You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.’

Sometimes the client is actively hostile to counseling. The doctor or family member reasons, “Well, that’s OK. The therapist will fix him.” Wrong again. A person cannot have his beliefs changed FOR him. He can only change them through his own reasoning. A therapist can guide him if he acknowledges something is indeed wrong and is willing to correct it. But a mind can’t change without its own consent.

An unhealthy fixation on changing others can lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness. A reader once wrote to me, ‘I feel conflicted about my loneliness. Sometimes I think the people who appear to be rejecting me are not worth knowing anyway. I want to know more people and feel less lonely and isolated, but I can’t help but think most people will be uninteresting or will reject me.’

I replied, ‘With respect to ‘other people,’ are you giving them a chance, or are you rejecting them before they can reject you? These are things that shy and lonely people often do. ‘Other people’ is a pretty large group, and it’s a mistake to view them in one large lump. There are many different personality traits. How can you generalize them?’

Because of the way the reader feels, it’s entirely possible that others (who have their own insecurities) are getting the impression that she doesn’t think much of them. She won’t necessarily know what they’re feeling when she rebuffs them. If it so happens that they don’t really deserve to be rejected, the only way out of it is to take initiative and be outgoing. The loneliness she complains about can only be intensified when she turns away potential friends and connections without even giving them a chance.

The bottom line is this: The secret to mental health is serenity. Serenity means accepting that you can’t change other people, and that you can’t change yourself in impossible ways for the sake of other people. The good news is that you don’t have to if you stop trying to control the impossible. By remembering this during the holidays and for the rest of your life, happiness and that elusive serenity can be yours.