Control what you can control: How to focus your energy in the right places


It’s easy to feel stuck in a rut when we focus on what we cannot control. Indeed, the more we focus on things outside of our control, the more likely we are to feel anxiety, anger, and disappointment. Conversely, when we focus on what we can control, we can feel good, confident, empowered, and a sense of achievement. But how do we recognise what is inside and outside of our control?

In this post, we will explore whether we can control our feelings and thoughts? How? We will look at why controlling thoughts and feelings can be bad and how to overcome things you can’t control. Finally, we will look at methods based on the practice of mindfulness to help you get better at controlling what you can control.

Can we control our feelings and thoughts?

It can often seem like the world believes we are capable navigators of our thoughts and feelings.  If you’ve ever been told to ‘not worry’ or ‘calm down’ then you will no doubt know where we’re coming from. It can lead to attempts to control elements of our lives that are actually outside of our control, resulting in frustration and disempowerment. However, when we turn out attention to what is in our control it can lead to a greater acceptance of that which we can’t.

While pushing unwanted thoughts and feelings from our mind is a desirable skill, controlling thoughts and feelings is not as straightforward as many make out. Imagine if someone told you they will give you a prize if you don’t think of flowers for the next five minutes. You try to put all thoughts of flowers out of your mind and try to think about something else instead. However, you find that your thoughts keep creeping back to the very thing you’re meant to be avoiding. And even when you do realise you’ve managed to stop thinking about flowers, there you are thinking about flowers again.

This is what psychologists call the rebound effect of thought suppression. When we try to suppress our thoughts, this thought subsequently returns often with increased frequency. Spending time and energy on attempting to put thoughts and feelings out of your mind can, therefore, give you less control over how these emotions affect you. In short, telling ourselves, or hearing others tell us, not to think or feel in a certain way is unhelpful, not to mention impossible. While we may all have strategies to temporarily forget painful emotions, they can unearth themselves when they reach a boiling point and shatter our illusion of control.

What can we control?

Now we’ve cleared up the myth that we are in full control of our thoughts and feelings, you can begin to cut yourself some slack for experiencing certain emotions and tell yourself ‘these are out of my control’. We’re sure that you are now wondering about what I can control. 

Letting go of the concept that you can control and suppress difficult thoughts and feelings gives you more energy to pay attention to them. This is something we can control. It is how we respond to our thoughts and feelings which we do have agency over. This involves taking the time to be mindful of how our thoughts and feelings are influencing us and take steps to alter this track. We will explore how we can use mindful practice to do this later in this post.

Equally, how we behave is more in the grasp of our control than our thoughts and feelings. For instance, we can feel anxious yet act with great courage. This comes down to how much we allow our emotions to affect and influence what we do. Of course, not all emotions are negative, but when feelings such as anxiety and fear are controlling our behaviour and dominating our thought patterns there are steps we can take to regain that control. This form of control is linked to our emotional intelligence – the extent to which we are able to detach our emotions from our reactions. Going through life on auto-pilot can mean that developing emotional intelligence can be difficult, and the persistence of stress, self-doubt, worries, fears, and anxieties remaining the predominating norm of our daily existence. In strengthening your awareness of how your mind works, you can get to the stage where you dictate the response to your emotions rather than indulging them.

Controlling what you can control: Practising mindfulness

An awareness that there are things that you can and can’t control is the first stage in empowering yourself and re-focusing your energy in those areas where control is within reach.

Regaining control can be achieved through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being present, self-aware, and engaged in what you are doing and where you are at that moment. In practising mindfulness, we train our attention to observe our thoughts and feelings and alter our behaviour towards them. Slowly, we can train ourselves to bring our attention to the present and be more open with what is going on in our minds and our response to the world around us.

We can all access the transformative power of mindfulness. Here are some techniques to get you started on your journey in regaining control of what you can control.

1. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings

The practice of mindfulness urges us to let go of the belief that we can control our thoughts and feelings. Instead, it teaches us to pay attention and grow our awareness of what we are feeling. By being in tune with the ebb and flow of your mind you will have greater control of the power your emotions have over your behaviour.

In this regard, mindfulness is a control process. As you grow your awareness of your emotions and how you respond to them you will realise that the voice in your head is not always to be trusted. Realising that your thoughts are sometimes unhelpful, and that they don’t have to dictate your actions is a huge step in regaining control of how thoughts and feelings can influence your behaviour.

2. Focus on the present

Mindfulness is something that can be drawn upon anywhere at any time. Keeping your attention in the present is a key practice in achieving a mindful state. The reason behind maintaining the mind in the present is because this is where calmness and peace of mind are most likely to be found. It is where we can be most in tune with our emotions, thoughts, and sensations and where our concentration is most acute. Alternatively, thoughts and feelings lingering on the past or the future can not only distract us, they can manifest in conditions such as depression and anxiety when your attention is focused on another place in time.

So, what does it mean to be in the present and how does this help us to regain control? Tuning into your senses and observing the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the world around us is a way of bringing your attention to the present. When your mind is focused in the present it is not obsessing over what could have been or what might be about to occur. It allows you to see your thoughts and feelings as fleeting rather than permanent. Being mindful of the present allows you to re-focus your attention when you find that you are getting caught up in unpleasant thoughts and feelings. This puts you in the driving seat of how emotions control you.

3. Take action for change

Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings and training your mind to focus on the present takes practice. However, the more you do it the better you will become and the result can have a dramatic impact on your well-being. Our final point about taking action refers to putting some achievable goals in place to get you started on your journey. Thinking about where you want your life to be and the sort of person you want to become is a sure-fire way of inspiring action to make positive changes in your life.

Final word

Fighting back against a world which tells you that you’re in charge of how you feel can seem impossible. It can also lead to self-blame for experiencing thoughts and emotions that you have no control over and a desire to suppress them. Acknowledging that there are things that you can and control in your life is an important step in focusing your energy and attention in the right areas.

Mindfulness is an effective practice in regaining control over your thoughts and emotions and how you react to them. With practice, the process of refocusing your attention to the present moment will go a long way in helping you to acknowledge that you’re feeling a certain way, know that it isn’t permanent, and take steps to move towards the life you want to lead.

Filipe Bastos

About the author

Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy). I've spent the last seven years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology. I've found that besides the known benefits meditation can bring to our lives, such as reduced stress and anxiety, improved quality of sleep, decreased blood pressure; the greatest benefit of meditation is the possibility to feel at peace, despite the external circumstances of our lives.

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