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How to stop worrying and obsessing about stuff you can’t change

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After I wrote my first book I decided to become a coach. I qualified as a coach back in 2019 and since then I have spent hundreds of hours coaching people. Something that has really stood out for me is that no matter who it is I am coaching, no matter the specific challenge they face, every single person I have coached is worrying or obsessing on some level about something over which they have zero control. Now that’s, bizarrely, absolutely normal human behavior. Most clients will come to see that they are in an unwinnable battle and eventually decide, albeit reluctantly on some occasions, to leave the fight. How freeing would it be though to learn how to do this sooner, a lot sooner? I wish I had learnt what I teach clients around this topic when I was back in school or college. It would have saved me a lot of time, and not an insignificant amount of heartache and frustration. 

I remember very clearly when I was in my late teens my sister described me as having “permeable ego boundaries” (she’s, perhaps unsurprisingly, a psychiatrist now!). That sounded very interesting and important to me at the time and I definitely wanted to know more. At that time I considered holding a grudge a totally natural, normal, and valid behavior. Indeed if holding a grudge were an Olympic sport I may well have harbored dreams of my day on the podium.

What my dear sister was pointing out though was that I seemed to obsess and get highly irritated when things didn’t go my way, or people didn’t behave in the way I wanted them to and precisely when I wanted them to. Later I just called this my attraction, and attachment, to righteous indignation. I’m right (of course), which means you’re wrong (well, naturally – duh!) and therefore I will point this out to you on occasion (you can imagine how well that would go) or quietly seethe or complain to others. This was my modus operandi for most of my adult life. Dammit I even went to Law School so I could really convince you how extra right I was! That’s dedication people – just saying! 

So I share this just to show you how very familiar I am with this issue from both sides. I wasted far too much time in this unwinnable battle and I don’t want you to waste any more of your precious time doing anything similar. Let me share with you some key learnings and practices that will help you gain the release and freedom you deserve, so you can experience your life, and all your interactions with others, with more ease and joy. 

Take Charge and Fully Own Your Life 

“Who’s in charge here? I want to see the manager!” 

I read a book several years ago called Extreme Ownership by Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin which really impacted me. Willink was the commander of Task Unit Bruiser, the most decorated Special Operations Team in Iraq. If you watched the movie, ‘American Sniper,’ which tells the story of Seal Chris Kyle, Willink was his commanding officer. Willink and Babin, who was one of Willink’s two platoon commanders, took what they had learnt in the military and specifically the battlefield in Iraq, and translated the lessons into general leadership training that they now deliver through their consultancy. At the heart of what they teach is ownership; letting go of any tendency to reach for an excuse, dressed up as a reason, and instead to fully own where you are and your actions, always. 

When you decide to adopt ownership as your operating system it doesn’t matter what the external conditions are, or who did what to whom and why. None of it matters. Ownership means you acknowledge and accept that you always have a choice and you seek out the best one in all circumstances. The weird thing though is just how resistant we are to this. It feels pretty unsettling to sit with the idea that we might in fact be resisting claiming full ownership over our own lives. I mean we’re all about freedom and independence and exercising our rights and all that good stuff – aren’t we?

In 1762 philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the opening to his book, The Social Contract, wrote the following words; 

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”

Today those words resonate still and, I would suggest, take on even more meaning. The question that comes to my mind is, to what extent do we truly exercise our choice and to what extent do we merely resign ourselves to an unhappy, unsatisfactory or simply sub-optimal state? When do we choose chains instead of freedom? At the most extreme is Viktor Frankl and his story (see his book Man’s Search For Meaning) of how he survived the inhumanity and horror of a Nazi concentration camp. At the core of his survival was an intentional, highly disciplined shift in perspective. He found too that he could predict fairly accurately who would survive and who would succumb in that horrific environment based on the level of ownership they took over their situation. Those that held onto the hope that they would be saved soon, or in the not too distant future, who hung on to hope of outside forces coming to their rescue, tragically succumbed and faded sooner. 

Frankl wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning; 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

and

“When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves”

This is ownership in extraordinary and extreme circumstances and yet here, in all its rawness, lies the lesson that so many of us ignore, and at our peril. Looking away from that lesson costs us our peace because we end up in an un-winnable battle where we are resisting what is and waiting for some other, outside force to come and change it, or save us in some way. 

I recognize this one only too well because I don’t think I truly believed and accepted that I had to take 100% ownership of my own life until relatively recently. I have been married for over 20 years and have 3 children. I have moved several times, mostly to accommodate my husband’s career, which caused significant impact on my own career opportunities. I held the belief, for a whole lot longer than I care to admit, that it was my husband’s job and responsibility to assume responsibility for a large proportion of my life. It was, in my mind, his “fault” that my life had been interrupted and with that kind of story-telling I was off the hook so to speak. 

Well that felt massively uncomfortable to admit and to put in writing but there it is and it is true for me. The longer I held onto that story and that non-ownership stance, the unhappier I became. I was shrinking. I was taking up a lot less space in the world than was meant for me. I’ll come back to deal with this theme in more detail in future posts but, for now, let’s move on to assholes!

Allow Other People To Be Assholes!

Not everyone is as awesome as I’d like them to be all the time. I too am an absolute asshole on occasion and have to sigh and shake my head at my own poor behavior. If you are looking to find a flaw or shortcoming in anyone, you absolutely will find it. Is that not the definition of the human condition; that we are beautifully imperfect. How you choose to respond to that fact has a big impact on your life and well-being.

I had a client once who was really upset that his sister was in, what he saw as, an emotionally abusive relationship which she refused to leave. It was an extremely challenging situation for him to see his sister, a grown woman, frequently unhappy in her relationship but refusing to leave. He wholeheartedly disapproved of her choice of partner and wanted her to leave him which she refused to do. As intelligent as this man was, he just dug his heels in and totally resisted the idea of “giving up” and allowing his sister to live her own life the way she wanted. He knew better. He was “right” and surely that was the signal to persist. He was agitated constantly just thinking about the situation. 

Other people own their lives even if they, to our minds, are making terrible decisions. Concern for those we care about is not something we abandon but I suspect we all know there is a point when concern has been expressed and demonstrated and yet we go beyond that point and enter the domain of attempted control. I strongly believe that we are all, always, creating the reality we are most committed to experiencing. I know I have made some really poor decisions in my past and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought at the time. I was in charge of me so I made some, hmm…suboptimal decisions perhaps.  I dated the absolutely completely and totally wrong for me guy. I took the job I really shouldn’t have because I knew I’d hate it but it paid the most money. I didn’t listen when advised to start paying into my pension fund at 25 (Hey, I know you won’t listen to me because this is all about allowing you to do you, and personal freedom and all that good stuff but for heaven’s sake please do start contributing to your pension/401K early – ok?!). 

It doesn’t matter that you think you’re right about someone else’s situation. Just as we don’t like others interfering in our own lives, unless our advice is sought out or we offer it with no attachment to it being actioned, others typically feel the same way. They want to independently direct their own lives – go figure! Allow other people to be assholes, to be unhappy, to be who and what they want to be, whatever that is and whenever they want to be it. Allowing is a practice of honoring another person and their autonomy. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about them. It means you recognize them in their full humanity and power – even when they choose not to exercise that power in a way that, we feel,  would best serve them.

For many years I had an “ex-best friend”. She was an ex-best friend because I had a wee bit of trouble with this Allowing stuff and had insisted that she was making a mistake in her choice of husband. You can just imagine how well received that was. Needless to say I was not invited to the wedding and it took a lot of years to recover from that massive overstep. I am thankful that she is no longer an ex and that our relationship has been restored. It did take over ten years though so this non-allowing habit is very, very costly indeed. 

Whenever we try to hinder another person’s freedom, it will at a minimum, cost us our peace and that’s not a bargain I’m prepared to make anymore. The effort to control what we cannot control, the act of judging someone or something as bad or unsatisfactory in some way, entangles us and depletes us emotionally. On seeing me entangled in judgement and ranting in all my righteous indignation about how I had been so deeply wronged and this other person was clearly wrong and needed to apologize immediately, a very dear friend once said the following to me;

“Eimear, holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to suffer. While you’re ranting they’re out dancing!”

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My attachment to being right was very costly!

That advice was given to me over 20 years ago and as sage as it is, it took me, many, many years to stop drinking the poison and ranting. 

That’s all very interesting Eimear, but what can I actually do now?

OK, let’s get practical! I’m going to introduce one journaling exercise and two practices with audios you can download that I think will help you to take more ownership in your life, stop resisting what is, and instead allow. They will help you to allow situations to not be to your liking without them permeating you and directing your emotional response. Notice that I use the word “practice”, which is vastly different from “magic pill”!  And like your mommy, daddy, teacher or coach probably drilled into at some point along the way, as mine did, practice makes perfect*. I more advocate that practice leads to ease and mastery, but you get the idea. It’s not a once and done, quick fix because, as we all know, that’s just what the snake oil sales peeps say. 

Journaling Exercise

If you’ve read my first book, The Little Book of Good Enough, you’ll know I love journaling exercises. I’m going to give you the same instructions I give in my book for a writing exercise. Choose a place that is quiet, where you can be alone and undisturbed for at least 30 minutes. Remove all distractions and commit to this time, to fully engage with the exercise (close tabs on the computer if you’re typing and put your phone away). Don’t get up from your seat until you are complete, even if it feels really uncomfortable. Commit to getting something down on paper for each question. Begin.

What would owning my life fully look like?

In what areas of my life am I not claiming full ownership?

How do I feel about those areas where I do not claim full ownership?

Why am I not claiming full ownership?

Do I want to change and, if so or if not, why?

If the answer to the previous question is Yes then proceed to the next two questions.

What is one area of my life where I can make a change in the next 7 days?

How will I hold myself accountable to make this change?

Meditation Practice One – Leaves On A Stream. 

If you’ve been coached by me you more than probably will have done this with me. This practice helps build what I call your “Zoom Out Muscle”, which helps you get out of your judgemental, non-allowing thoughts and make space for ownership and choosing a path towards more peace and purpose. 

I recommend that you try to practice this daily so that you will become aware more quickly when you are caught in judgement, obsessing, worrying, and resisting something you cannot change. It will help you to zoom out and observe the unhelpful thoughts for what they are, simply mental products of your mind, and gently release from them. When you learn to do this through practice, you place yourself in a very powerful stance of ownership where you release what is unhelpful and unwanted at will. You can then connect with who you are choosing to become on your journey to the fullest version of yourself. It’s a small practice in service of a very big impact. 

Accessing the download is available on signing up for my email list which requires a double opt-in so make sure you check your inbox to confirm your email address. 

Meditation Practice Two – The Breath of Light

I use this practice throughout my day when I notice that I’m feeling a little off emotionally. When I notice that I check in with myself to see what thoughts are swimming around in my head that are triggering the emotional weight that I’m experiencing. I typically find that I’m ruminating and judging something or having fear-based thoughts which is typical for me when I’m resisting ownership. I take a moment to get centered and focus on my breath.  

I then imagine, on an exhalation, that I am breathing out the doubt, fear, or judgement and visualize it as thick, dark, grey smoke being released and leaving my body. I do this for a few moments until I feel release and sense that I am now free of it. On a slow deep inhalation I then visualize breathing in a bright white light, representing inner peace or anything else I want to connect to and identify with, such as confidence, excellence, the full power of my true self. 

I have also recorded this as a brief audio download for those who find it more helpful to be guided in this process initially. Click Below.

Final Thoughts

It can be very uncomfortable to reflect upon and recognize where we might have unconsciously or indeed purposefully ceded ownership of our lives. There is treasure to be found though if you will extend to yourself the grace to be with that discomfort. From that place you can choose. From that place you can begin to take more ownership. From that place you can take the path to freedom and true purpose. What have you got to lose? 

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