Here’s a really good question I was recently asked: why would you feel distressed over a situation you can change? Why worry about something that can be fixed? Just fix it. If you plan on fixing it later, then do that. But don’t waste time with worry. Good point.Obvious, right? But here’s the follow-up question: why would you feel distressed or worried over a situation or problem you can’t change? If it can’t be fixed, changed, or altered, why spend your time being worked up about it? Good point. Obvious again. But it turns out, those are the only two types of situations that exist: things you can change and things you can’t. So there’s nothing to worry about. Right? Of course, it’s easier said than done. But helping kids see the difference can steer them towards contentment.
The serenity prayer wisely says that I need to “accept the things I cannot change; change the things I can” and that it takes “wisdom to know the difference.” But either way, according to the two questions, there is no need to feel distress. Either something can be done, or it can’t.
Scientists say stress is a trait left over from the hunter-gatherer survival days, when the fight or flight response could save your butt. Now this response is still activated by more mundane situations, like when taxes are due and kids are whinny and the boss is mean. But none of these problems will be improved by an emotional reaction. In fact, stress can make the situation worse, and it shortens your life. Neither fight nor flight will help with taxes, kids, or bosses. If taxes are due, you do them. If kids are whinny, you chose to change the situation or let them be whinny. If your boss is mean, well, let him be mean or get a new job.
Either change, fix, or let go. But there is no need to feel distressed over a situation you know you can fix, nor over a situation you cannot fix.
I’ve really tried over the last few months to apply this philosophy to my own life. It is most useful when I’m already feeling distressed; when I recognize the feeling of stress, it triggers the question: is this a situation that I can fix? If yes, then I get up and do it (most of the time, even jumping out of bed if necessary). If I can’t fix it, then I walk away or let the situation be what it is.
It’s amazing how just answering the question can help change the situation. For example, when I answer in the affirmative (yes, I can fix it), I’m suddenly motivated to do it. In fact, I feel silly if I don’t. Why would I stay in a bad situation that can be fixed or let an issue fester that I can solve? If my kids are going crazy and I’m getting annoyed and the day is turning sour, in the past, I could get trapped in a negative cycle and be swept away with annoyance and grumpiness. But then the question arises. Can I fix it? Well, actually, I can. I can steer the course, build the fort, get the books out, play a game, change what needs to be changed to make the day turn right.
I’m not just a leaf blowing in the wind.
But often a situation arises–usually at work–that I can’t fix. There’s the illusion that it’s my responsibility, but truthfully, there’s nothing I can do, even with a million dollars and a seven nation army. My circle of control is only so large when it comes to many of my students, who often come to me with severe emotional issues, drug problems, entrenched behavior.
Once the question is answered– can I really do something about this?–and I realize the answer is no. Then it’s dropped. Everything feels a little better, even if spitballs are still being hurled at me. And it doesn’t necessarily mean I give up. I just deal with the part of the problem that is workable.
It’s worth a try. Next time you feel distressed, ask yourself the question: is this a situation you can fix? Yes = fix it. No = walk away or let the situation be what it is. Either way, the stress is unnecessary.
This can be especially helpful when dealing with other people’s personal problems and life issues. When people share their problems, they typically don’t want you to fix anything (some people enjoy their problems), but they want you to listen. This is hard for us. We want to jump in with the solution. But if we are honest with ourselves in those moments, we know we cannot fix the problem. We’re not even supposed to. We’re supposed to listen, to be present.
Here’s a simple organizer I made for my teenage students, to help them sort their problems into the two categories of things they can do something about and things they can’t. It might be useful for adults to: Two Questions That Will Change Your Life.
Now I just need to decide which category a flooded basement falls into.
A lot of this applies to our love life, too. Learning to give up trying to control your partner was part of the inspiration behind our newest single, Witness, which is on the album we are releasing May 30. You can hear the song and check out the video that goes with it right here.