You-know-what is about to hit the fan.
We've all been in this frenzied, frantic, freaked-out type of situation before. The deadline is looming its monstrous head, the to-do list requires 25 hours a day to complete, and the angry faces are getting in your face. You're counting pennies, you're counting the minutes...
...you're counting on no one but yourself.
Because, well, having control gives most of us some much-needed peace of mind. Having a sense of control is actually an effective strategy for managing stress, especially in situations that aren't of our own making. Why's this, you ask? Well, the human body is built to release stress in a physical way. Remember the "fight, flight, or freeze" stress response that you learned about in your high school or college psychology class? Notice how those responses all reference a physical action. Yes, even "freezing" is a physical action: you're tensing your muscles in an effort to hold a posture; your reptilian brain is telling you to camouflage yourself so the perceived dangerous thing won't register your presence in the environment.
Bottom line: the human body is built to DO something when stressed. Exerting control--DOING something--is our biologically hard-wired way to respond to stress.
In addition to that, a lot of stress comes from ambiguity. Humans love fixing things. Humans love having all the answers and knowing what to expect: this is what the mindfulness experts call our "monkey minds". Our brains simply never shut up; our brains are creative and brilliant and constantly fighting for our survival... and consequently, the incessant brain chatter can become quite maddening.
When we don't have all the answers, our brain berates us for not having a plan, because it thinks we will literally die if we're not prepared to handle the hungry lions that are supposedly just around the bend. So having some kind of plan--some kind of control--effectively quiets our brains for a moment. When I see my Type-A family members nitpicking at my life choices, or I find myself overanalyzing those same life choices (a.k.a. Analysis Paralysis), I remind myself that we're all just trying to appease our overworked little monkey minds.
But what do we try to exert control over? Ourselves. Others. The situation itself. Only one out of these is truly within our control at any given moment.
Maybe you think you already know where this is going. Don't worry, I'm not going to do the whole "you can't control other people" lecture. You already know this. (Controlling others: co-dependence, much? I've been there, too, y'all.)
What I want to celebrate is the fact that you have choice in each factor. You have choice over how you respond. You have choice over what thoughts to hold on to, and which ones to let go of. You have choice over how you interact or communicate. You have choice over how you navigate whatever stressful situation you're in. You. Have. Choice.
Exercising conscious choice is having mindful control. Exerting this type of control is not compulsive or desperate; it does not try to subvert and it's not spurred by the feeling that you're losing control. When you make a conscious choice, you are taking ownership of your experience, and that is true power.
I practiced exerting this mindful type of control just last week. I've been watching my weekends dwindle into nothingness for the past several weeks. But last weekend was different: my nephew was turning six years old. I'd missed his birthday party because--guess what--I was working. And I love working, of course. But I also love him.
So I made a choice to go spend an afternoon with him. Many other choices stemmed naturally from my hard decision to visit my nephew: I chose to move a meeting to later in the week, I chose to take a rain check on an invitation to a free wine tasting (that one was tough to let go of), I chose to take another meeting virtually from my nephew's house so I wouldn't have to rush out of there.
I even chose to ask someone to help me run future meetings, and they said yes. The irony is clear on this one: I took control by letting go.
Each choice was deliberate.
Each choice was in my full control.
Each choice was thoroughly backed by Diana's official stamp of approval, as I'm the CEO of how my life unfolds, from moment to moment.
I spent a marvelous, leisurely afternoon with Nephew. I took him to get corn dogs for lunch and then we played with his Nerf gun for an hour. Did I still have a lot on my plate? Yes, of course. But did I feel in control? Definitely.
The point wasn't to have control over anything; the point was to consciously choose how I spent my time--even if it's only for a single afternoon. We each have the power to truly OWN the next moment in a style that's uniquely our own.
So, imagine this. When we're particularly stressed and our brain chatter is buzzing non-stop, what if we took actionable, mindful choices instead of going on survival-mode autopilot?
Don't get me wrong-- sometimes, mindless routine is necessary. Sometimes it simply makes life easier. But sometimes it BECOMES your life. That's when you can take a step back and do some honest-to-goodness reevaluation of who's really in charge, here.
When you're just getting started, identify just one specific challenge or stressor you're experiencing right now. (Just one, or it won't work! This is no time to be an overachiever.) For me, it was balancing family and work time, which I planned to tackle on one specific day between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. I limited myself to this time frame because I wanted to be realistic; there's no way I could go through an entire day with that level of consciousness and deliberation (nor do I really think it's really necessary).
The first thing to do is always to choose what you will prioritize in that particular situation or specific time frame (quality time with Nephew).
Then you can choose how you want to feel as you're actualizing your choice (not hungry, not rushed)...
...and finally, you can choose how you will set yourself up for success so that you can actually feel the way you want to feel (eat beforehand, adjust my schedule).
These aren't big, life-changing choices. They're moment-changing ones. They're immediate action-focused ones. And at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo: they're choices that can only happen if we're awake to our own power in the moment, and to the moment itself.
Go forth and make that mindful choice about how you will spend those last 10 minutes before bedtime, what you will eat for lunch to give you the energy to get through the afternoon, and how you will prepare for that hard meeting or that tough conversation. You may not have full control over the chaos of your life--that isn't really "living", is it?--but you can at least feel in control during these small, ordinary moments, by being in control of your choices. And if you string together enough consciously-chosen moments over the course of hours, days, or weeks, you might find that you feel different even when the shit is hitting the fan.
What's that feeling? Oh, it's confidence. It's self-efficacy. It's that steadfast belief that you've got this.