Posted on 1 September 2016 by Michael Dahl

Control, concerns, and mental health

Yesterday my therapist asked me to name my concerns. I wasn’t too talkative, feeling very introverted and my mind was hurting, so she started listing things: “Your health, your safety, your family.”

I chimed in “my wife, my puppy.”

She wrote those down and kept going, “the prevalence of poverty, the anxiety you experience.”

I sputtered out, “the Election, my memory.”

She continued, “your future, your financial security.”

Then she stopped, looked at me for more, and nodded as I stayed silent.

She drew a circle around those words and wrote, “Concerns” above the circle.

“Okay Michael. Now tell me what you control.”

Silence.  I tried to think, but nothing came out.

She wrote “Your behavior” and “Your personal attitude,” drew a circle around it, and wrote “Control” above it.

I shook my head and said, “Well that’s rather limiting. There’s more.”

I named several things. She refused to write any of them down. Instead, she said, “You do things (active behaviors along with you personal attitude) to get those things. But all YOU can personally control are behavior and attitude.”

“For example, you can be concerned about your future and your financial security. You can behave and act in certain ways, like put money in an investment fund or squirrel away money in a mattress. Maybe those things will keep you financially stable. But what if things beyond your control happen? The economy may tank, you could lose your job, and your health could take a serious turn for the worse because of your genetic makeup. BAM, there goes your financial security.

I kept shaking my head. “Listen. I work for social justice. There are systemic things we can change.”

She said, “Yes, you do work for social justice and achieve systems’ change. You behave and act like a better world is possible. Thank you!”

“But as you know, sometimes things like elections, a terrible economy, and leaders’ biases keep the change you want from happening.”

I was squirming. I thought of retorting more. But I could predict her answers. I also basically believed that: Yes, getting what you want out of life is greatly increased if you work for it. And sometimes, as much as you try, things still don’t work out exactly as you hoped. External factors get in the way and / or impact things a bit.  Or worse yet, systems keep you / others down.

That said:

  • I want love. Love matters to me. So, I should behave in a manner worthy of love. But I can’t guarantee I will always be loved.
  • I want financial security. Financial security matters to me. So, I should keep working and try to be as effective at work as I can be. But I can’t control the economy.
  • I want personal health. So, I should stay away from bad food, I should continue exercising, and I should also steer clear of smoking and drinking … plus many other things. But my genetic makeup really does suck. My efforts for health could be overridden.
  • I want social justice.  So, I should keep working for it and giving to causes I believe in. But … (you get the picture).

In other words, few things get handed to you on a silver platter. You’ve got to work for what matters to you. And you need to do them because they matter to you, not because you are always going to get what you want. In fact, most of the time you won’t get EXACTLY what you want.

So, let’s say I agreed with my therapist at about a 85 percent level.

“Michael, I’m glad your meds are helping you out. I hope they continue to do so. But you can also do things to reduce your Anxiety.”

(I have, in fact, listed several of these things in an earlier post.)

Truth be told, my mind was swirling at this point.

One of my Strengths Finder strengths is “Vision” and my vocation has always been to make the world a better place. These are future-oriented things. So I do believe that these two separately drawn circles of “Concerns” and “Control” should intersect … at least some. (I’ll leave that for a different post.)

I’m paraphrasing, but as I got up to leave my therapist said, “Okay, I’ll see you in about a week. But here’s what I want you to think about and do: Think about your motivations, and do what motivates you. If things beyond your control get in the way, be satisfied that you followed your personal compass. Garbage happens. Accept that, but don’t let the garbage consume you. Keep at what matters to you.”

I left accepting the challenge but deeply troubled. I’m curious about next week’s visit.