Uncertainty and Control (or stop shoulding on yourself)
In my article on Power and Responsibility, I talked about the need to stop giving away your power, to take back responsibility for yourself. I want to talk now about what power and responsibility are NOT, and how, conversely, we need to start to give up control, over others, ourselves and life, and learn to live in an uncertain world.
As part of my history of depression, one key element that was integral to the way I viewed life during this time was control. In order to feel empowered, because I had given so much of it away, I instead attempted to control everything – my feelings, my behaviour, what happened in my life, and, most importantly, all of these things in other people.
An aspect I noticed in myself at this time, and that I notice now in others with depression, is the number of rules and standards by which we measure ourselves, judge others and determine life. These are most often categorised by the word ‘should’:
“I should go to the gym”
“He should call me”
“My friend shouldn’t tell her children off like that”
“It should be sunny on my wedding day”
Honestly, my list of shoulds went from here to the moon. And it made me thoroughly miserable. I really believed that if I/others/life did/felt as I believed they should, then it would all be OK. And that it was because I/they/life didn’t do as they should, that this was why I was miserable. Notice how I had made it everyone/thing else responsible for my happiness! Of course, all these rules and shoulds create a very stuck place to exist. Every place you turn, there is another should, telling you or someone else what to do.
How many shoulds do you have in your life? You can write them out now – or keep a Should Diary. Every time you hear yourself say “should”, you write it down on your phone or in your journal. Review your list often, every day or week. How many rules do you have about life, yourself and other people? How do these rules actually make you feel? In my case, it was angry, impotent, frustrated, disappointed and completely lacking in compassion towards myself and other people. I did not like myself or others very much at all. No wonder I was depressed! In the Bible, Jesus talks about not judging your neighbour. We are used to thinking that this is a moral thing – how to be a ‘good’ person. It actually has nothing to do with this. Jesus talks about not judging others, quite simply, because when we do judge, we suffer.
Make no mistake, these rules and shoulds are our ridiculous attempts to try and control and make certain in a world where such a thing is not possible. And what do we do in reaction to these futile attempts at control? That’s right – we lurch completely the other way and get out of control with alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, eating/not eating, sex, relationships, working, exercising.
The only way to come unstuck from this madness is to start to break all these rules and let go of control. But how? Byron Katie (http://www.thework.com/index.php) talks about her depression lifting when she started to accept life, herself and the people around her exactly as they are right now. Not how she thought they should be. This resistance to reality, or what is, is one of the key causes of suffering, and of being stuck.
Recently, and rather randomly, I’ve been reading some of the blog posts on the World Race (http://www.theworldrace.org/mosaic/). This is an 11 month long global Christian mission trip, where volunteers complete charity projects in deprived communities. However, in order to do this Racers, as they’re known, must raise the $16,000 needed themselves – and more importantly, they are encouraged NOT to use their savings. Racers must ask for donations and sponsorship either through direct contributions or via fundraising activities.
Imagine having to ask other people to contribute amounts towards $16,000! If the amount isn’t raised, either you don’t go, or your trip is cut short. Even for you to do something worthwhile like help orphans and victims of sex trafficking, many of us would baulk at handing over our destiny to others like that. However, there is a reason for this. It is a spiritual exercise designed specifically about learning to relinquish control and trust the universe (or for Racers, God) that you will end up where you are meant to be; about learning to deal with the uncertainty that comes from wanting to do something, in this case serve others, but not know whether you’ll be able to do it.
Sound familiar? This is a very, very specific example of something that has been designed to lead its participants into letting go. But the message applies to us all. Here in the West, and especially in the USA with its proud history of pioneers and self-made men, there is a culture of self-sufficiency and independence. It is encouraged in us from a very early age, and of course self-reliance is vital for developing a sense of self, for esteem, for growth and empowerment. However, this generates a false sense of certainty and control, as well as a reluctance to ask for help when it is needed. Because, really, certainty is only ever fleeting, and we actually have very little control over anything – except ourselves. One thing is certain, however – we cannot control other people or events outside of us, and to attempt to do so, through should and rules, is one very short road to suffering.
When I was depressed I loathed uncertainty. I didn’t handle it very well and I did everything I could make everything and everyone as it/they should be. And when it wasn’t (which was often), I was depressed, anxious and unhappy.
The prevalence of anxiety and depression in our society is evidence that I am not the only one who feels that way. Mindfulness approaches, for example hatha yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, are designed to increase our acceptance of, and resilience to, uncertainty. They do this with a focus on the moment, through breath work for example. They also help us to increase our tolerance of discomfort, by holding a strong yoga pose or sitting for a long time. We develop an understanding that all things shall pass, an understanding of ‘what is’ when you cannot make your body do something it doesn’t want to do (without injury). These practices also alleviate symptoms such as anxiety and depression by taking you out of your head; by enhancing the parasympathetic nervous system to counter our ‘flight or fight’ response. You may sign up for yoga because it relaxes you, but look at how else it may be helping you in learning to let go both physically and mentally.
I started to overcome my depression when I ditched all my shoulds, and started to allow people and life to be as they are. Of course, many of my shoulds were directed at me and they do still exist (“I should finish this article before dinner”). But I’ve learned to treat myself with greater compassion, that I’ll do chores when they need to be done, that I’m not perfect, but good enough. And the more I felt that way about myself, the more I felt it about other people too, and could allow them, and life, to be.
Certainty is fleeting
You cannot control anyone or anything – except yourself
Stop shoulding on yourself