‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’.
Being able to recognise the difference between the things you can change and those you can’t will help you build your resilience. At times we all focus on things that impact on us but over which we have no influence and control, sometimes getting obsessed with or fixated on helping or fixing things outside of our control. Not only can this lead to self-neglect, but it’s also frustrating and largely a waste of time and energy. Instead of focusing on things that we can’t control or influence, we need to focus on what we can control and learn to accept what we can’t.
However, recognising when we need to stop exerting control or influence isn’t always easy. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses a helpful framework to make it clear that we can’t influence or change many of the things we’re concerned about. And he explains that by focusing on things that we can do something about we can be more effective, get more done, and feel more satisfied in our work and personal lives.
Covey’s idea is pretty straight forward. We each have a Circle of Concern which includes everything we care about and a smaller Circle of Influence that includes those things that we care about and can do something about.
The Circle of Concern
If I asked you to make a list of all the things you’re concerned about, you’d probably come up with a pretty long list. You might be concerned about your mother’s health, your finances, your child’s aggressive behaviour, the potholes on your street, climate change, etc. There are a lot of things “wrong” in the world, so much that we’d like to change.
There’s nothing wrong with having a long list of concerns; it’s a reflection that you care. However, it’s not helpful to worry or dwell on problems that you can’t fix or to force solutions on other people. We need to focus on those things that we’re concerned about and that we can do something about.
The Circle of Influence
According to Covey:
“Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about…Reactive people, on the other hand, focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weakness of other people, the problems in the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. Their focus results in blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increased feelings of victimization. The negative energy generated by that focus, combined with the neglect in areas they could do something about, causes their Circle of Influence to shrink.”
Covey wasn’t talking about those with codependency issues in his description of reactive people, but it certainly describes codependency quite well! We are reactive rather than proactive and spend too much time in the Circle of Concern and not enough time in the Circle of Influence.
Codependency and the Circle of Control
As Covey describes, it’s important to distinguish our concerns from our influence. The problem is that most of us overestimate our influence – we think if we try hard enough, we can convince people to change and adopt our point of view. Therefore, for codependents, it’s especially helpful to add a third circle, the Circle of Control. This is the smallest circle, a subset of the Circle of Influence.
What you can control is very limited, but we certainly aren’t powerless. Your Circle of Control includes what you say, do, think, and feel. This might not seem like a lot but it actually encompasses quite a bit. This is where the majority of our time and energy should be spent.
Focus on your Circle of Control
Do you spend far too much time in the Circles of Concern and Influence and not enough in the Circle of Control? We try to fix, help, rescue, and change people and situations. We obsess about their problems and how to solve them. We confuse influence with control and overestimate how much we can do. We lose sight of the fact that we have no control and often little influence to be able to change others and their choices and circumstances. We act as if we can control (or at least influence) everything that concerns us, but we can’t!
This is often the case with family members. Due to our close relationship, we have some influence. But we all know that in reality that doesn’t mean our kids or spouse are going to want or accept our suggestions for how we think they can improve their lives. So, even within your Circle of Influence, you need to be realistic about what you can do and accept that the Circle of Influence is not in our control.
When we put too much focus on the Circle of Concern and not enough on the Circle of Control, we hurt ourselves and our relationships. We neglect our own needs and we undermine other people’s right to self determination, the opportunity to solve their own problems and learn from their mistakes. This leads to self-neglect, controlling, enabling, nagging, frustration, anger, etc. We want to shift this so our time, energy, and resources are well spent, so we can solve our own problems, and keep ourselves physically and emotionally healthy.
You always want to be expending the majority of your time, energy, and attention in your Circle of Control. You can use the following questions to clarify what’s in your control and what isn’t.
Questions to help you recognise what you can change and accept what you can’t
To get started, draw your own set of circles and fill them in with your concerns, things you can influence, and things in your control.
- What concern or problem is bothering me right now?
- Do I have direct control, indirect control (influence), or is it out of my control?
- If I have direct control, what actions can I take?
- If I have no control, what can I do in my Circle of Control that will help me accept what is?
- If I have influence, how much? (rate from 1-10)
- If your influence is less than a “5”, focus on acceptance.
- If your influence is greater than a “5”, consider:
- Does this person want my help/advice/guidance? How do I know?
- Do I really have as much influence as I think? What’s the evidence?
- How much time, energy, money, or other resources does it make sense to devote to trying to influence this person/situation?
- How can I still keep the focus on my needs so I don’t get burnt out or obsessed with other people and their problems?
I hope these questions and Covey’s Circles of Concern, Influence, and Control will help you focus positive energy on yourself and grow greater acceptance for those things that are out of your control.