Circumference of Control
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
As humans we can end up creating a habit in which we spend time and energy focusing on things we cannot control while neglecting the things we can.
This habit creates a great deal of stress and anxiety.
This is because trying to control things that we have no control of leaves us feeling powerless and at the mercy of our environment. It is both exhausting and terrifying.
To get a picture of what living in this way feels like imagine that you are standing at the beach watching a wall of water build in the distance. A giant wave is coming towards you and instead of using your energy to run or prepare yourself to duck beneath it or surf with it you decide to try to stop it.
You can guess what will happen if you do this-- you will get tossed around by the wave and ploughed into the sand. In this scenario you have no control of the wave but by trying to stop it you miss the opportunity that you do have to control your own body so that you can maneuver with, away from, or around the wave to avoid getting hurt.
When it comes to taking responsibility for your own life it’s important to keep this idea in mind, because even though you can go to an extreme and try to take responsibility for everything or nothing, there are some things that you will inherently have more influence over. What exactly those things are and how much power you have will fluctuate depending on the time and circumstance, but as a general rule it is much more effective to line your level of responsibility up with the things that you do have power over instead of those that you don’t. Effort spent attempting to control things outside of your control is a waste of energy that simultaneously distracts you from exerting influence over things that you do have power over. This is why a side effect of focusing on what you can’t control is that you start to lose the power you did have, while focusing on what you can control tends to make it so that you have greater power over more aspects of your life.
Over time focusing on what you do have power over gives you more power and focusing on things you can’t control takes your power away.
One way of thinking about how this works is by imagining a circumference of control. A circumference of control is simply a diagram-- it can be viewed as a ring or aura. Inside this ring are all the things you have control over in any given moment. For the average person on an average day this might include things like: some thoughts, certain feelings, your own actions, words, responses, and certain aspects of your environment. The closer items are to the center of this ring the more complete control you have over them but as they move further out the amount of direct power you can exert is reduced. When something reaches the edge of this ring you might find that you have some influence over it but not direct control. Along the outer perimeter—the perimeter of influence—you might places things like relationships and other people’s reaction to you. Technically you do not have control over these aspects but you do have a decent amount of influence. If you are famous or in a powerful position you will have more items in this perimeter, you might influence a sub-culture, for example, or the policies in a company.
Outside of this perimeter are things you have significantly less power over. This doesn’t mean that you have no power over them or that you cannot influence them at all (especially if you believe in the law of attraction which points out that we have a great deal of power over everything), but these items are further away and the influence is less direct so results can be harder to control.
To provide a visual let’s say that an average person’s circumference of control looks something like this:
The items within the body are near the center of the circumference of control, those near the rectangular perimeter are in the perimeter of influence and those further out are extending beyond that individual’s direct level of control.
One way that people will create stress and anxiety in their lives while also undermining their circumference of control is by focusing exclusively on things in the perimeter of influence and beyond instead of those that are in the circumference of control. People who do this might be extremely concerned with other people’s thoughts or reactions to them or worried about things in their environment that they cannot change (i.e. whether or not there might be an earthquake or flood). As people focus on these things, they take their attention away from things they can actually control and in doing so they take the power they could have in their lives and give it to circumstances and people that they do not actually have as much influence over. A common example is someone who worries significantly about what their boss or friends will think of them. This worry could cause them to try to shape their behavior in a way that will get a certain response, but by doing this they are taking something they can control (their behavior) and using it to try to control something they cannot control (the thoughts and feelings of others).
This reduces their overall level of control and over time can lead to a circumference of control that looks more like this:
In this diagram the person has a smaller circumference of control. Many of their thoughts, feelings, and actions are no longer under their direct control because they are so concerned with others that they have given them the power to influence many of these other aspects.
On the other hand, if a person starts to take more responsibility for the items within their circumference of control that sphere along with the perimeter of influence is likely to expand:
As you focus more on controlling the things you can control you are able to set yourself up for a greater level of influence in the future. This could partially be explained through energy dynamics, but it also has to do with habits and patterns over time. To illustrate, lets say that you start to take radical responsibility for your thoughts. You might not be able to control all of your thoughts but you start to notice them and re-direct them in ways that feel better and better to you. These thoughts will lead to a better mood as well as new ideas. You can then use these ideas combined with the good mood to take specific actions, the actions will likely have an influence on your environment and those people along the perimeter of influence. If you keep thinking these thoughts, feeling better, and acting on new ideas other people are more likely to notice these changes and respond to them and at the same time you are also more likely to set yourself up to try out even more ideas in the future. By doing this you are taking your power back from external circumstances and giving it to yourself. In this way you influence your decisions based on reasons that you decide are valuable to you. Instead of making choices and taking actions based on an attempt to control something you cannot fully control, you are able to make choices and take actions based on whatever values or processes you choose to use. The choice and the reason both become your own and your life shifts to a place where you recognize that you alone can choose how to handle any given circumstance and why. This is how you start to take responsibility for your life while accepting that even though your words, actions, and energy might influence others you are not directly responsible for their response (only your own). Focusing on your response takes you out of reactivity and again expands your own circumference of control.
Energetically this also means that you stop wasting effort trying to exert your will over things that are beyond your direct influence. You are then able to use that extra energy to do more things that you want (and can control). A more concrete way of understanding this is to think about how exhausting it is to constantly feel stressed over what someone might think about you, now imagine what you could do if you were not exhausted from worrying about that? You might use that extra energy to learn a new skill or do something you enjoy—this would expand your circumference of control because you would be mastering new aspects of your life instead of using up energy needlessly.
These diagrams (both visual and verbal) are just some examples of how this principle works and there are many variations to them. What you have direct control will change based on a given circumstance, but overall understanding this idea can help in long run because learning to take responsibility for the things you can directly control and focusing your energy and attention there is one way of empowering yourself to fully engage in your own life instead of chasing after the approval of others or giving your power to things like fear. Over time if you focus on what you can control—primarily your own thoughts, actions, words, and responses—your ability to move through life in the direction you choose will allow you to make choices based on what you want and value instead of based on hiding from fears or seeking approval. This will open up new possibilities for you and lead to a greater sense of stability and freedom.
Taking responsibility for those small internal things over a long period of time can make a huge difference in how you navigate through life.
Learning this and remembering to focus back on the things I can control in a situation that feels overwhelming has helped me a lot. I hope that it is helpful for you as well.