Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions. – Epictetus, from The Enchiridion
Understanding what’s in your control and what is not is one of the core principles of stoicism. And truly understanding this principle paves the way to freedom, inner peace, and happiness.
Take a pause for a minute. Is there anything in your life at the moment that you feel frustrated about or anxious? Or maybe something has you angry or sad. Got it?
Now ask yourself, in this situation what’s not under your control? Hint: if it’s not something inside yourself, then chances are it’s not fully under your control.
Now ask yourself, in this situation, what is under your control? Hint: if it’s anything other than what’s generated in your own mind, chances are it’s not under your control.
The lesson here is this: if it’s under your control, you can do something about it. If it’s not, and you subsequently try to control it, then you are headed down the road to frustration, anxiety and inner turmoil.
What Epictetus and the other stoic philosophers teach is that we should not focus on the things we can’t control, and instead put all of our focus and attention on the things we can control.
As Sharon Lebell writes in her interpretative book, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness:
“Remember: The things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrance; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others. Remember, too, that if you think you have free reign over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.”
I think this is important. It’s so easy to bounce through the day letting other people and outside forces affect how we feel. We have a tendency to surrender our ability to choose how we feel to the whims of others. How we feel affects how we think, which in turn affects how we behave. If you truly want to achieve self-mastery, you have to make conscious choices and those choices have to be focused on what you can control.
If you focus on what you can control, you become free of restraints and step into your power. If you choose to focus on the things you can’t control, you give up your power and become dependent on the whims and actions of others.
Think carefully about this and really digest its meaning. Nobody but you has control over what happens inside your head!