Dr. Wall Says

Speak up, listen up, bridge the gap


Imagine this, you are driving down the freeway, minding your own business, paying attention to your speed limit and the other cars, and feeling good. Suddenly you get stuck behind a slow car.  You come up behind it, not too close, but still it is clear you are hoping they will pull over so you can get by. You could pass on the right, but hey, you paid attention during driver’s ed. and you know that is not how you should be driving so you wait patiently. A mile or two go by and this person is not moving. Eventually you give in and pass them on the right. You make sure to look at them, hoping a nasty glare from you will trigger some kind of awareness and who knows maybe even a nod of apology. What you end up noticing is that they are chatting away on their cell, oblivious to you, the road and their speed. Now you are furious. You would like to just shake it off, you try to talk yourself down from it, and despite your best efforts this clueless person just ruined an hour or two of your day. Why is it that you just can’t get over it?

Omnipotent (adj): Having unlimited power, authority or influence; all powerful. Quality often attributed to gods especially in monolithic religions. What many people think is possible for them in life.

Okay, I will admit that that last sentence doesn’t come from any dictionary that I know of, but is something I see time and time again both in an out of my office. Let me be more specific; many people I come across believe that they should or do have the ability to control all aspects of their lives. Although most people don’t actually believe they are omnipotent, time and time again they find themselves frustrated, anxious or distressed when faced with events beyond their control. Cognitively and verbally this attitude is reflected in the use of the word “should,” as in: “I should be able to get over this, ” or ” I should have known better,” or “I should be able to do/achieve/overcome X!”

Believing we are omnipotent leads to frustration, anxiety and at times anguish

Why is it that we crave control? The shortest answer is that is decreases anxiety. Anxiety, fear, stress etc. are an interplay between two though processes: 1) perceived danger and 2) perceived control. Naturally, when we come across a situation we automatically evaluate it for potential danger and then quickly asses our ability to control or avert said risk. This is a survival mechanism, and one we do all day long without noticing it. The truth of the matter is that most situations present little to no danger, and if they do we are quite capable of averting these dangers. Crossing a road, turning on the gas to make breakfast, coming across a neighbor while walking the dog all present inherent risks, most of which we can control; thus they do not trigger much if any stress or anxiety. But what happens when a situation presents some amount of danger that we cannot entirely control for? At that point we react with an anxiety or stress responses. Let’s assume for a moment that our perception is correct, that we have accurately evaluated the risk present in the situation, then the only way of immediately reducing anxiety is by trying to control for it. When this is done appropriately we feel relief. When we try to take control over things we cannot control we end up feeling both more responsible and more helpless as we struggle to manage the unmanageable.

So lets go back to our initial example of clueless drivers and lingering frustration. Why is our protagonist unable to let go of his frustration? Because ultimately he wishes he could control others. He is probably going over all the things he should or could have done had he realized earlier why the car in front of him was slow. He is also probably going through a list of wishful thinking regarding what laws and regulations should govern the issuance of driver licences, and ultimately he wishes he could control that person in some way so they would either not have dones this in the first place, or at the very least would receive some kind of appropriate consequence for their actions. Our conscientious driver is dreaming of omnipotence, and the lack thereof is fueling his sense of helplessness and his anger.

By now you are hopefully asking yourself what you can do about all of this given that it’s an automatic process, and that trying to gain control is part of what can help soothe anxiety and stress.

First, when you notice you are stressed and you have properly identified what the issues are, your initial goal should be to define the problem clearly and identify which elements you actually have control over nowNote, not the events you think you should have control over, nor the ones you wish you could control; the ones you do have some amount of agency over RIGHT NOW. 

Second, you need to formulate a plan of action for those elements (this is a situation specific task so I will not go into any more detail about the plan of action, other than to say it should be both realistic and feasible). Doing this should reduce some of your anxiety, but what about the parts of life that are actually out of your control? How should you deal with those? In the case of our driver, he did what he could. He paid attention to his  own driving, he proceeded carefully and he himself doesn’t phone and drive. I guess he could call 911 and give a license number and describe the issue to highway patrol, but is it even worth that effort?

Letting go requires a cognitive shift
Letting go requires a cognitive shift

Finally, this is going to seem simplistic, but trust me when I say it is not: you need to accept that you are not omnipotent. You cannot, will not ever have control over all aspects of life. If you can grasp this not only intellectually, but at its core, emotionally you will save yourself enormous amounts of grief. In mindfulness practices we like to say “it is what it is” meaning that life happens, that each moment is what it is, that you cannot control nor change things just because you want to. So my next piece of advice would be to adopt this as a mantra when faced with elements you cannot control – repeat it a dozen times a day if you have to “it is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is, it is…” I guarantee that part of the stress people feel when faced with situations that are beyond their control stems from implicit assumptions that they can actually control these events. This belief drives their anxiety because they are trying to problem solve for the impossible and are failing, and in doing so end-up feeling helpless. Again with regards to our driver my recommendation would be this: 1) Remind yourself you can’t do anything about it (breathe slowly and evenly). 2) Acknowledge that there are good and bad drivers and you can’t change that, not now not ever (breather deeply). 3) Ask yourself why you are so frustrated and you will realize soon enough that you feel helpless in the face of what you believe is an unfair sitation. Acknowledge that fact, it is unfair you are partially helpless to change this situation, but realistically what is the ultimate consequence (what is your danger here)? In this case there was no real danger except potentially being late (breathe slowly, evenly and deeply). The more you practice this the better you get at it. This is the cognitive shift that is required to “let go” but the shift can only occur if you are aware of the initial cognitive fallacy (omnipotence) and you actively correct for it.

In summary, to best handle the aspects of life that are beyond your control:

  1. Understand and remind yourself that you cannot control everything- you are not omnipotent
  2. Properly take action where you can – be realistic and make plans that are feasible
  3. Understand that stress and anxiety are normal healthy emotional response that deserve to be managed accordingly – future blog about anxiety management skills to come soon, but these might involve using relaxation, distraction, seeking support and help from friends and family…

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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