When we can’t change certain circumstances, because they don’t depend on us, this thing doesn’t mean that we aren’t able to cope with those circumstances in an active way - we can change our perception and attitude towards that situation (look at it from another angle, give it a different meaning), we can manage our emotions and we can find new solutions to deal with the consequences resulting from that situation that isn’t in our control.
The difficult situations that we go through and that don’t depend on us can trigger us fear, anxiety or anger and they create a strong need for control, but precisely this thing can be counterproductive, because we will focus our energy and resources on trying to change what we can't change - it's like we're fighting windmills.
The death of a close person, the loss of a relationship (the person no longer wants us to be a part of their life), the way other people think or behave or the evolution of the current pandemic are just some examples of situations over which we have no control or our ability to influence them is limited.
Many people try to persuade others to change their thinking or behavior for their own benefit or they try to bring their partner back through various methods (including manipulation, emotional blackmail, victimization, threats, promises) although he/she doesn’t want to continue that relationship and, after countless efforts, they conclude that everything was in vain or that their attempts to persuade him/her worked only for a short period of time, but they didn’t cause a real lasting change.
What we can do instead is to focus on accepting the situation and accepting that we can only influence to a small extent or not at all those external circumstances, to choose a certain attitude towards that situation, to take responsibility for our emotions and find constructive ways to manage them.
Accepting a situation doesn’t mean to become victims, to complain and to adopt a passive attitude, to quit, to lose hope, but to give up our useless efforts to control what we can’t control, focusing instead on those aspects that depend on us, which are in our personal sphere of influence.
What depends on us? First of all, our attitude.
If we have a passive attitude, we won’t take action in any way and we won’t do anything to overcome the situation or to improve our condition. We won’t take responsibility for the way we handle that stressful or difficult situation, nor for the way we react or respond to that situation. We will say "it's not my fault", "there’s nothing I can do", "I can't change the way I feel" and as a result, we will feel helpless and hopeless. We will complain and victimize in order to receive other people’s compassion and help, but we won’t take action to take the matter into our own hands and not wait for an external salvation, while searching for people to blame for the way we feel.
If we have an active attitude, we will take action to manage and deal as effectively as possible with the stressful or difficult situation and its consequences. We will have a mentality focused on solving problems and finding solutions. As I said above, if we can’t change a certain situation, this doesn’t mean that we can’t manage that situation in an active way.
In this case, our strategies can be directed towards changing the way we perceive that situation and towards changing the way we feel, looking for information and solutions precisely in order to be able to better manage the situation. For example, if we tend to repeat to ourselves “it's awful,” “I can't stand it,” we will certainly feed within us that victim energy, and we will feel more and more helpless or angry. But if we are open to also observe the positive aspects or those aspects that have the potential to help us evolve, change, we will certainly perceive the situation differently. Any external stimulus is neutral and becomes positive or negative depending on our attitude and the way we relate to it. Any situation we are going through now, no matter how difficult it may seem to us, it doesn’t have only negative sides and is not 100% negative, even if maybe now we fail to see otherwise.
"Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem." - Virginia Satir
In stressful and difficult situations, instead of facing their problems, people may display avoidance behaviors or dysfunctional behaviors that help them in the short run to cope with stress and anxiety, but in the long run they amplify their problems. Among them we can list:
- alcohol and drug abuse;
- risky, dangerous behaviors;
- excessive worry, hypervigilance;
- self-blame or blaming others;
- avoiding stressful situations, avoiding facing our own fears that lead to the reinforcing of those fears;
- repression and suppression of emotions, emotional "numbness" – it’s also a form of avoidance;
- working excessively to distract our attention.
Denying or avoiding problems leads neither to their disappearance nor to their resolution. Instead, an approach focused on finding solutions, taking action and emotional management can help us break these dysfunctional patterns.
It’s up to us to replace negative, irrational, frightening thoughts with some healthy, rational or positive ones. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, irrational thoughts are called cognitive distortions, that is patterns of negative thinking that are not based on reality, don’t have a logical basis. It’s like our mind is trying to convince us that something is true, when in fact it isn’t. For example, catastrophizing or ignoring the positive are such cognitive distortions.
It’s up to us how we talk in our inner dialogue and what emotions we feed in our mind. How would it be if we say more often things like "I'm capable of facing this challenge and I'll do my best," "I'm strong enough to deal with this problem," "whatever happens, I have the ability and the strength to get over it" , "I will do my best, even if I have no guarantees that things will turn out the way I want", "I have gone through such problems before and I managed to overcome them, I will do the same now".
It’s up to us what attitude we choose to have - if we victimize and remain passive or if we take action and do our best to manage the circumstance and the situations that we can’t control and, of course, to change those that we can. It’s not the circumstances that dictate our destiny, but our attitude towards those circumstances and the way we choose to act, to behave.
Dr. Ursula Sandner