Control and Serenity Don’t Mix (DE Wave)

Holiday festivities with family and friends can be fun. But increased interaction (and perhaps cramped quarters) can also create frustration over what some people may say or do.

Sometimes it’s hard to watch someone say things or make decisions that just don’t make sense. So how do you deal with it – short of creating a CSI-style crime scene strewn with bent-up tinsel and cranberry sauce? The short answer is to say to yourself, “What’s his point of view? What do I know about him that might explain his actions?”

First, it’s important to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse. For example, a woman cheats on her husband because he’s not very attentive. Maybe a good explanation, but not an acceptable excuse. Or, a man may molest children because he was molested as a child. A valid explanation? Maybe. But NOT a valid excuse.

People with strong moral standards often get frustrated because they can’t distinguish between explanations and excuses. If someone speeds by them in traffic, a mentally healthy person will think, “Maybe he has a valid reason; maybe he doesn’t. Either way, I’ll stay out of his way.”

However, a chronically frustrated person might think, “He shouldn’t be speeding! There’s no excuse. I’m so MAD!” Of course, it’s unlikely there’s a valid excuse, but the anger doesn’t do anything but shatter your calm. Accepting what you can’t change might leave things as they are, but it’s a lot better for your state of mind. Letting go in certain situations doesn’t affect the control you can exercise in other areas of your life. In fact, letting go of what you can’t control leaves 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 loved one to me, expecting me to “fix” something they (the doctor or family member) consider a problem. Oops, sorry: You can’t “fix” someone who’s indifferent to being fixed. Therapy isn’t a medical process like surgery or pills. The person must be willing to change errors in thinking. Dr. Phil puts it nicely: “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”

Sometimes the client is actively hostile to counseling. No matter what his doctor, a judge or a family member might think, therapy is a waste of their money and my time. A person can’t have her beliefs changed for her. A therapist can guide her if she acknowledges something is wrong and is willing to correct it. But a mind will not change without its own consent.

An unhealthy fixation on changing others can lead to a sense of isolation. 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, but I can’t help but think most people will be uninteresting or will reject me.”

I wrote back: “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 lump. There are many different personalities. How can you generalize them?”

In fact, it’s entirely possible that others, with insecurities of their own, are getting the impression that she doesn’t think much of them when she rebuffs them. If they don’t deserve to be rejected, the only way out is to take the initiative and be outgoing. The loneliness will only intensify if she turns away potential friends without even giving them a chance.

The secret to mental health is serenity. Serenity means accepting that you can’t change others, and that you can’t change yourself just for the sake of others. The good news is that you don’t have to do that if you stop trying to control the impossible. Good advice not only for the upcoming holidays, but for the rest of the year as well.