By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.
With so much going on locally, in our country and abroad, it can be overwhelming when we realize how little control we have over events.
Last winter was unusually cold, with pipes freezing and bursting. This past summer, we experienced brutally hot stretches over 100 degrees. Political events have been making news constantly, with little hope in sight for collaborative functioning. Wars in the world are taking their toll both far away and locally.
Given that we have little to no control over any of those events, how can we manage these difficult times? One way is to acknowledge what we do have control over and work to maximize those situations.
We don’t have control over others. I think most of us of a certain age have come to grips with that realization. We can try to influence those we care about, be role models, cajole, persuade and entice, but ultimately, we have little if any control over others.
I also suggest we have little control over our thoughts and feelings. We feel whatever it is that we feel and, more often than not, our thoughts seem to have lives of their own.
So what exactly can we control? I suggest we have reasonable control over what we say and what we do.
We can consciously choose the words we speak and we can choose our actions. Those choices are what make us who we are.
If we can line up our words with our deeds, we develop a sense of trustworthiness, reliability, credibility and integrity.
When I would tell my boys that I would pick them up at school in a specific place and time and did so regularly, they knew they could rely on my words.
I think many of us can develop those traits, if we pay close attention to the words we use. We often tend to be vague, placating, saying yes halfheartedly and may not think carefully before agreeing to do something.
For instance, if you are invited to lunch with a friend at 1 p.m. on Thursday, but are not sure if you can make it at that time, don’t say “OK” but rather, “Yes, I’ll be there, but it may be closer to 1:20.” It takes extra effort to do that thinking but clarifies the expectations of the person who may have to wait for you.
Before you agree to something, think carefully about what else you may be saying “No” to, instead of just assuming you’ll find the time.
Work hard to be as clear as needed, but no more precise. Oftentimes we are vague in our answers or opinions, when we haven’t taken the time to think through our positions.
As a physician, I’m used to being extremely clear with my patients about medication instructions and that has probably bled over into my personal life. I strive to be clear about times and commitments. My sense of integrity is one of the most important attributes I value. I want my family and friends to know they can trust my words.
It takes practice and conscious thinking about what we believe and want. It takes active thinking, not feeling, to decide what to say and what to do.
Far too often we go with our feelings and when feelings conflict with what we think, going with our feelings may be a recipe for bad results.
Feelings are integral in our being human and yet they can also be a source of bad decisions if we don’t engage our brains in thinking.
So, during this time of uncertainty, I entreat you to practice thinking. As with all new exercises, it takes time, practice and constructive feedback to hone our skills. It’s worth the effort to gain control of our lives.
Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UTSW Medical School in Dallas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.