What You Can Control (And What You Can't)

Jul 04, 2022

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Focusing on what we can’t control increases anxiety and stress. And there are certainly plenty of things we can’t control right now. That’s why I want to help us to all focus on what we can control. Focusing our energy on what we can do something about is empowering and freeing.

In this episode, I explore how we cannot control circumstances but we can choose what we think about all that is happening. By choosing how we think about things, we can help ourselves choose our emotions. And that has the positive effect of helping us choose how we react. When we can choose how we react, we can shape our experience. As added encouragement, I sprinkle in some quotes regarding control and our thoughts. I hope my recommendations help you change how you think as we face these rapidly changing times together.

“Know and remember that the most power you have is in your ability to make decisions… In times of chaos and uncertainty and stress, we often forget that we have the ability… We feel stuck or confused or powerless. But notice where you can make a decision… Start seeing all the choices you do have.”  – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn 

  • What we can control and what we can’t
  • React versus respond
  • Resist versus accept (Note: accept does not mean approve)
  • Blame versus understand
  • How to perform a thought download
  • Separate circumstances from thoughts
    • Process emotion
    • Ask yourself questions
    • Consciously choose
    • Put energy into what you can control

Contact Info and Recommended Resources

To learn more about:

Connect with Sara Dill, MD, The Doctor’s Coach


I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician Podcast, episode number 21. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. It’s so fun to hang out with you. That’s sort of how I think about it. It’s just me hanging out with you. Although I have to admit, sometimes people tell me that they’ve been listening to my podcast and it still is something that takes me by surprise. Having this podcast is something that I wanted to do for actually a couple of years. So one of those things that I thought about and knew I wanted to do, and then just really didn’t make the decision to make it into a reality for a couple of years, which I like to think is perfect timing. And I am also simultaneously working on being a person who takes action a little bit faster, especially when I know 100% that is something I want to do and will do, inevitably. So I’m now working on becoming the person who thinks about it, decides that they want to do it, and does it a little bit faster. Love that.

So today, I really wanted to talk about something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and a lot of my clients we’ve been talking about, which is what you can control and what you can’t. And I’m not sure when you might be listening to this podcast. I am recording it a few days after the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe vs. Wade in the United States, which has had just a big ripple effect, a lot of disturbance and upset here. And the stock market has been doing what it’s doing, which is going down and mortgage rates are going up and inflation is going up. There’s a lot of things happening in the world. And a lot of people are experiencing a lot of stressful thoughts, and traumatic thoughts, and there’s a lot going on. But sometimes the thought I go to there’s a lot going on in the world, which is usually true.

So I really wanted to talk about what we can control and what we can’t, both to see if this is something that might help you with whatever you might be struggling with. And also sometimes I talk about things that I need to remind myself up too. So this is for me, and hopefully for you. So I have some good news and some bad news about what you can control and what you can’t. So again, so many aspects of our lives feel or seem like they are out of our control right now. And so many aspects are out of our control right now. And have been maybe for the last couple years. Definitely. So the pandemic, the economy, the stock market, maybe our health, our careers, maybe even our plans for summer vacations. I talked to a lot of patients right now, actually, who are canceling vacations or debating whether they should take that vacation they were hoping they could finally take. And focusing on all of these things that we can’t control, often makes our worry and anxiety worse, right? It amps it up.

The world being out of our control is true. I’m not going to try to tell you that no, we actually can control all of these things and we just need to think about it in a different way. We don’t control the world. We can’t control in the moment, the pandemic or supply chain issues. We’ve been having to deal with a lot of medical supply shortages, staffing shortages, uncertainty about what’s going to happen next in the world or in our lives, or even that we can’t control in the moment, how the Supreme Court has just ruled.

One of the things that I want to offer to each and every one of you, and that does not depend at all on whatever your particular circumstances are, is that there are a lot of things that we can’t control, but there are also a lot of things that we can control. We can control and let go of our thoughts and our emotions. We can choose how we want to think, and thus feel, and act. And that is very powerful. That really is our power and the source of our power. And that is what this podcast is really all about. Letting go of what we can’t control and focusing on what we can. That is where our power is, that’s where our authority is. That’s where our ability to shape the world and our lives, to take responsibility and ownership, that’s where that all lies. This is how we can empower ourselves. And that is really the whole point of coaching and self-coaching, in my mind, at least.

So I know I’ve talked before about one of the tools, really, sort of the essential tool I use for self-coaching, and for coaching. And this tool isn’t new, right? It shows up in lots of places, and in lots of different ways. It’s called lots of different things. I like to use it as the model, as described by Brooke Castillo, who is one of my teachers, and the way she describes this is really how we explain, how we understand the world, and how we function in it. And so this is the model in which you have circumstances or a circumstance. And that would be a fact, or something that’s happened in the world, what other people do and say, things that happen in the world.

Then we have our thoughts about the circumstances. So circumstances are facts, then we have our thoughts about them. It’s our thoughts about the circumstances in our lives that then create our emotions or our feelings. Our emotions or our feelings is what drives the actions we take or don’t take. So action or inaction, what we do or don’t to, and then it’s our actions or inactions that create the results for us in our lives in the world.

So this is the self-coaching model that I use: circumstances, thoughts, feelings, actions, results. And really, anything that happens in the world or in your life, you can sort of fit it into the model, and start to work with it, start to understand it. So this model is just a tool for awareness. It’s a tool to sort of understand why you might be feeling the way you’re feeling, why you might be doing what you’re doing, and why you might have a result in your life that you like or don’t like, or why you might not have a result in your life that you want, or maybe don’t want.

So if you think about this model that describes how we function in the world, and you think about that first line, the circumstance line, that’s the line we can’t control. So that’s things that happen in the world. Other people, the stock market, the pandemic, maybe war in Ukraine, might be things that are happening in your life, in your neighborhood, in your own family, in your own house, whatever it is. So the circumstance line is the line that we cannot control. It’s things outside of our control, outside of ourselves. But everything else in the model, we can control, so the thoughts, feelings, actions, results. Those are things in our power to work with, to control, to alter, to change, to believe or disbelief, to feel differently, to show up differently, to create different results.

So out of the five things here in the model, in our world, one of those things, and it’s a big one, and I’m not saying it’s not, we can’t control. So we can’t control our circumstances. But we can control our thoughts about our circumstances, we can control our feelings, in that, we can work on what we’re thinking that are creating those feelings, we can control our actions and our results, and what we decide to do with all of them. And that’s the good news.

And this is not new news, right? This is how life has always worked. I just think a lot of us were less aware of what we really could control. It’s like we are being asked to drop our belief in the illusion that we ever could control the world and other people and what happens in the world, what has happened in the world. And so for a lot of us, it feels like we’re suddenly out of control. And yet, we never had that control. And sometimes I like to remind myself of that. It was just a little bit easier to predict, for some of us, at least for myself and for a lot of my friends and colleagues, what the world might look like. And now there’s a lot more uncertainty, or at least, maybe we’re just aware of a lot more uncertainty, but that uncertainty was always there. You can just sort of check in with yourself there.

So again, when we think about what we can control and what we can’t, I like to also think about it in terms of, am I reacting to what’s happening? Or can I respond to what’s happening? And that requires some awareness, some self-awareness, and awareness of what is under my control and what isn’t under my control. Am I resisting? Or am I accepting what’s happening, currently? And I just want to say here that accepting just means, am I spending a lot of time arguing with what has already happened? Am I spending a lot of time resisting arguing with what is already a fact, in some sense, right? The past, or even just the recent past, with what’s just happened? Or can I accept like, this is how it is right now, this just happened. Okay, not my choice, may be not my favorite, but now what?

And I just want to say that accepting, in the sense accepting reality, accepting what’s happening, accepting the facts of the world, what’s going on, does not necessarily mean approving of it, condoning it, loving it, liking it, or any of that. It just means like, hey, this is happening. The example I always give is getting a flat tire. You can spend a lot of time and energy arguing about why you shouldn’t have gotten the flat tire, it’s a bad time to get a flat tire, you don’t deserve to get a flat tire, why me? Versus just getting to the point where you realize, okay, I have a flat tire, now what? How am I going to deal with it? Maybe, how can I prevent this in the future?

So again, this idea of noticing what we can control does not mean that we show up helpless, or give up or surrender to maybe the actions we want to take in the future, to create a world that’s a little different. That’s maybe better, in our opinion, that has more of what we want to see. And also, when we’re really thinking about what we can control and what we can’t, you can just notice, are you blaming a lot? Are you complaining a lot? Are you venting a lot? Those all come from a place of feeling disempowered, of feeling a lack of control? Or can we get to a point of understanding why this is happening? Again, we don’t necessarily have to approve of it. But can we understand that the things that are happening in the world are the result of often so many things that have gone before? So can we understand that, and actually use that information as a way to make future decisions, and continue to show up and control what we can control?

And I know I’ve quoted this before, and I will probably continue to do so because I love this quote, which may be from Viktor Frankl, it’s usually attributed to him, but there’s some question. And that quote is: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. And in our response, lies our growth and our freedom.” I like to add, in that space is our ability to choose, that space is our control. That is what we control.

So how do we start to do this work? How do we start to notice when we are sort of arguing with what we can control or when we’re feeling disempowered or out of control? So I’ve talked about this before, I usually start with what’s called a thought download, which is basically just getting all your thoughts in your head out on paper so you can work with them. And I find this helpful to do sometimes when I’m feeling upset or stressed, or about a particular situation. If I noticed that I’m having a lot of negative emotions, like stress or anger, frustration, irritation, maybe despair, maybe rage, whatever it is, what’s going on? I might just write it all down.

And then where I would start, is by separating out the circumstances, the facts from your thoughts, because so often, we don’t even realize that something we think is a fact, is actually our opinion about a fact. So this can sometimes be helpful to even get help with this. I do this a lot with clients is sometimes point out that, you know, that’s actually not necessarily true. That’s how you’re thinking about it, but someone else might think about it differently. So if two people think about something differently, then you know, the something is the circumstance, but their thoughts are not.

So start by separating the circumstances out from your thoughts. And then I also want to say that allowing our feelings and processing our emotions is super important, especially right now. And I’ve seen so many people trying to deny what they’re feeling, or sort of pretend that they feel differently, trying to deny or suppress their emotions, or not allowing themselves the space to feel them, honor them, allow them, notice them. So I’ve talked about this before—it’s that you can’t thought work your way out of your feelings in the moment. The process is to acknowledge and identify what you’re feeling, to allow it, to explore it. You don’t have to love it, right? You could get curious about it. And always to know, that you are creating however you’re feeling with your thinking. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just how it works. So can you explore those thoughts that are creating the emotions? Especially if it’s an emotion you don’t particularly want to continue to feel, that’s totally fine. Probably will happen, but it’s good to know. So explore your thoughts, get to know them, put them on paper, study them.

And again, we work on our thoughts, not the circumstances. So can you just see if you can release the circumstances and stop arguing with them? Just like we don’t try to work on our feelings, we don’t try to delete them or push them away. We know they are coming from our thinking. Our emotions are really just information in that sense. Just like an indicator light on a car, right? It might be like the check engine light. Just take a look under the hood, see what’s going on. Not a problem.

So I’d invite you now to maybe identify a stressful or a painful thought, something that’s particular for you. It’s good to always work with actual concrete examples. So for me, a personal situation would be that there is apparently a shortage of lidocaine in the country. I have other clients who’ve told me in the medical field about shortages of IV contrast, lots of other supplies, we’ve had problems getting face masks, again, that we like, there was a shortage of gloves for a while. My neighbors and I have talked about going into our local pharmacy and grocery store and seen empty shelves still. So separating out, what are the facts? The fact is that I’ve received an email stating that lidocaine is in short supply, and we’re being asked to dilute it in certain ways. And then I can look at all my thoughts about it, and how I’m feeling about it.

So you want to identify a stressful or painful thought, and make sure it’s a thought and not a fact, not a circumstance, where you can always ask why. Why is this a problem for me? That can help you identify some more thoughts. And then you can ask yourself, is it true, this thought? Is that thought even true? Is it serving me to think this? Do I really want to keep thinking it? Could I let it go? What might happen? What would be different? Is this thought current, or is it outdated? Sometimes we believe things that don’t even make sense anymore, but we’ve just sort of believed them for so long, we haven’t really paused to check them out.

So start really asking yourself these questions. Do you want to keep believing what you’re believing? Do you want to keep thinking what you’re thinking? It does not mean that you have to find the positive in every situation? That’s absolutely not what I would say this work is about, however, you can notice is the way I’m thinking about it, serving me, is it helping me to take effective action? So often, when we’re feeling disempowered, or we’re feeling despair? Or we’re feeling hopeless, what happens is we don’t take any action. Or when we’re feeling confused, or thinking thoughts about how it’s just going to be futile to try to change anything, what can I do? I’m just one person. You’ll notice the result that it creates is that you don’t actually go take any action, just proving that, yeah, it is futile for you if you don’t do anything.

And so that’s where this work can be so powerful, is to notice what we can control and use that to then show up how we want to show up. So again, another quote from Viktor Frankl from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning is a quote I love, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So everything can be taken from a person but one thing, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And that’s what this work is doing.

So you get to decide, right? Do I want to choose a different attitude? Why or why not. And then you will start to know and remember that the most power you have is in your ability to make decisions. And this is important because when we’re in times of chaos and uncertainty and stress, we often forget that we have the ability to make decisions and choices, right? We feel stuck or confused or powerless. But notice where you can make a decision, notice what actions you can start taking, or actions you can stop doing. Start seeing all the choices you do have, start seeing all the decisions you can and are making. So start by finding some painful or stressful thoughts. And then again, you can ask yourself, is it true? Is this thought true? It might be true, then you can ask, is it serving me? Do I want to keep thinking this? Do I want to have this thought repeating in my head? Is it outdated? Is it old? Is it current? Do I need to upgrade? Sort of like an operating system.

What if it is truly a choice, what thoughts you decide to keep in your brain? I don’t think we can always just delete a thought or get rid of it. But we can choose to believe it or disbelieve it, to have it lose sort of its ability to hook us in. What if you have more control than you realize? So maybe notice something you want in your life that you don’t have yet, or something you do have that you no longer want to have? How can you create the result you want for yourself? Start there, right? So you can start with thoughts or you can start with results. Maybe you can decide to believe that it might be possible for you to have this thing you want and don’t yet have, maybe.

So this work of coaching and self-coaching is all about empowering ourselves, taking responsibility for ourselves, and about controlling the one place we can control, and that only we can control, which is our own mind. It’s about deciding consciously how we want to see and understand the world and our place and our role in it. And this work can allow us to consciously choose how we make meaning of the events in the world and in our lives. It can help us decide consciously how we want to show up, and how we want to experience our lives. So the good news is as well, that we don’t need to control the world. We can’t.

       What if all we need to do is be aware of what we are thinking and what we are feeling and that we are the cause of everything we feel. Trying to work on and change all of our thoughts can be a full time job. Most of us already have full time jobs. So can we just start by being aware of them and maybe not hold so tightly to believing everything we think. Maybe everything we think isn’t 100% true, or isn’t useful. And then we can start to spend our time pursuing whatever is our particular work in the world, and bringing about the changes or improvements in the world, or in our lives that we particularly want to see that we feel strongly about.

So I, for one say, let’s not waste precious time and energy, trying to control what we can’t control. I, for one think it’s good news that I can’t control the world, and I never could. Now I get to stop trying, I can notice where I think I might have more control than I do and really check in. So when I stop trying to control things I can’t control, I get to take all that energy and channel it into focusing on what I can control, what’s going on in my head. So I can create and contribute and experience my own life to the fullest. And I hope you will, too.

I can’t wait to talk to you next week. Please send me an email. If you have any questions, any thoughts, I would love to hear from you at [email protected]. My next small group coaching programs start soon, so make sure you’re on my email list. Go to [email protected] and let’s stay in touch. Bye.

If you are a busy practicing physician ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more, and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at www.saradill.com. That’s S-A-R-A-D-I-L-L.com. It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.

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