How to Control What You Can Control (The Daily Stoic)

Do you try to control the world around you? What can you truly control, and how?

Stoics view life in a certain way. At the center of their philosophy is recognizing what you can and can’t control. They contend that the only thing you can control is your way of thinking.

Continue reading for advice from the Stoic philosophers on how to control what you can control.

What You Can and Can’t Control

According to the Stoics, living a virtuous life starts with self-control. To practice self-control, you must actively make sense of life with reason. Through reason, you can control your view of life. The Daily Stoic explores how you can live virtuously by practicing self-control through reason.

To the authors, living this way depends first on recognizing a central Stoic principle we’ll call the basic division of control: You can’t control anything except the way you think. This belief lies at the core of Stoicism’s philosophy of viewing life and underpins all the practices described in the sections below.  

You can’t control external circumstances such as the actions of another person, the state of the economy, or whether you get sick or injured, but you can control how you view or understand those things with your mind. So, how do you control what you can control? The Stoics argue that reason is your main tool.

(Shortform note: Some philosophers argue that this account of the Stoic view of control is derived from a faulty translation and can lead to a misunderstanding. In their view, a proper translation implies that internal states (such as our character and beliefs) depend on us for their existence, but external states (such as circumstances and outcomes) don’t depend on us. The implication is that the Stoics didn’t necessarily believe you could control your internal state at any particular moment. If you’re sleep-deprived or drunk, for example, your internal state still depends on you—even if you can’t control it at the moment! The same is true of your thoughts: They depend on you, but, as neuroscience suggests, you can’t always control them.)  

The authors consider common experiences through this lens: Imagine you read of global turmoil in your news feed. Economic forecasters are predicting a recession unlike any before. You should recognize that much of this situation is beyond your control. You can’t affect the conflicts around the world and you can’t stop a recession from coming. You can’t even control what news stories reach you or how they frame the issues they report.   

However, you can control the way you understand the situation. You can view it circumspectly—recognizing that bad news sells, that your ability to live a virtuous life doesn’t depend on the amount of money in your bank account and that your thoughts alone are under your control. Understanding this, you can be unmoved by the news of the day. 

(Shortform note: Psychologist Albert Ellis (an admirer of Stoic philosophy) formulated a model of this Stoic approach to changing your thought patterns called the ABC model: Activating event (trigger) + Beliefs (self-talk) = Consequences (our response). He suggests that we change our self-talk when we encounter events that cause us stress. As we practice this, we’ll become adept at avoiding the negative (stressful) response. Ellis’s model of the approach complements the Stoic’s ideas by providing a very simple way to think through negative feelings and unproductive behaviors: You can’t change the activating event, but you can change the beliefs that lead to those negative consequences.) 

How to Control What You Can Control (The Daily Stoic)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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