Overcome Anxiety with the Circles of Control

Written by
Michael Wells

Overcome Anxiety with the Circles of Control

Written by
Michael Wells

Overcome Anxiety with the Circles of Control

Written by
Michael Wells

This article is part of the series 


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How often do you feel frustration, or anxiety?

When you feel these emotions, why do you think you're feeling them?

How do you react to them?

  • Frustration is about feeling disappointment- even anger- at our inability to make something the way we want it to be.
  • Anxiety is about feeling fear that bad things are going to happen, that we don't want to happen.

Both of these can be immensely useful. They can inspire us to develop a skill, or to prepare for a difficult time ahead, or to change our environment.

However if you're feeling those emotions often, it's likely that you're dealing with a conflict in your concept of control.

What Do We Really Control?

The Dichotomy of Control

For millennia, philosophers understood that a big part of our unhappiness, stress, and ineffectiveness as humans was caused by focusing our energy and attention on things that we cannot change.

In 55 A.D., the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus exhorted us to-

"Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.
Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
- Epictetus

Stoics divided the world into "things we control", and "things we don't," and understood well that the ability to tell the difference between the two required sound judgement.

This perspective became known as the Dichotomy of Control.

In modern times, you've probably encountered the Dichotomy of Control in the form of the popular "serenity prayer";

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr

Although the Dichotomy of Control is incredibly simple, it will take you a long way towards understanding how to approach life in a realistic and practical way.

But, since its inception, this concept has since been expanded...

The Circles of Control, Influence, and Concern

In Steven Covey's book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he introduced a variation on this concept, which reframed the Dichotomy of Control.

It's probably one of the most useful things you will ever encounter.

Let's break it down.

Imagine a bullseye archery target, with you in the yellow center.

  1. There are a few things in your world that you control, like your decisions. That’s the center yellow circle, called the Circle of Control.
  2. There are a lot of things in your world that you cannot really control- but you can influence- such as your health, or your career prospects. This is the red circle, and is called the Circle of Influence.
  3. There are even more things that you have zero control of whatsoever. This is the blue circle, and is known as the Circle of Concern. You are concerned about these things, but you can do virtually nothing to control them. Much of your relationship life exists here. Your genetics. Your future, in general.

Outside of that blue circle is the rest of the Universe. Here lies all of the things that you really don’t care about them, or you aren’t even aware of. That does not mean that they're not important, but they're simply not on your radar.

Our diagram looks like this;

Does This Really Matter?

Yes it does. Understanding how your life arranges into these 3 circles matters far more than you may realize.

Covey made the observation that successful people tend to focus their energy and attention into the Circle of Control first, and the Circle of Influence second. They're aware of the Circle of Concern, but they don't waste any energy there, because they know it's useless to worry about those things.

People who are unsuccessful at life tend to focus their energy on the Circle of Concern, where there is nothing that they can do.

And therefore... they are perpetually frustrated, and anxious, and often feel like helpless victims of Life.

Is that you?

How Successful People Do It Right

Think about the most successful people you've met.

Are they fairly happy and relaxed people?

Chances are that you'll answer "yes," and that you've always assumed that this is because they've "made it" and therefore they have nothing to worry about.

But what if that's backwards?

What if they're successful because they've never wasted time and energy worrying about useless things?

In this growth mindset, they're less limited by fear. They have more energy to apply to the things they love, and that energy is applied usefully- carrying them in a straight path towards the future they desire.

The distinction in these two mindsets is big... because it's the difference in being proactive, v. reactive about life.

Neat trick, eh?

You can do it too.

How to Apply this in Real Life

Usually we look at Life- and the situations we face- as indivisible chunks of reality that we have to wrestle into submission.

This is not an accurate view of reality. In reality these things are divisible into smaller things, which fall into all 3 circles of control.

Here is a rough outline of how I look at my own life currently;

Reframe Your Life Goals & Challenges

When I look at my past, I can identify all kinds of things that I have wanted badly at one point or another.

I felt enormous frustration and anxiety over these things.

Here are a few...

  1. I wanted a romantic relationship.
  2. I wanted self-confidence, and to like myself.
  3. I wanted good friends.
  4. I wanted to overcome stage fright.
  5. I wanted a more stable, happier relationship- when my partner was unhappy and was talking about breaking up.
  6. I wanted job security, when the company I worked for wasn't doing great.
  7. I wanted to be in good shape.
  8. I wanted my business to succeed.
  9. I wanted to be healthier.
  10. I wanted my kids to become wonderful people, and live wonderful lives.

At first I felt "stuck" because I couldn't control much in these situations... but eventually I realized that there were lots of things I could do.

All I had to do was to look at each challenge accurately, unpack it into its component parts, and organize them into the 3 circles of control, influence and concern.

With that done, it was easy to see what I needed to do next. I'd simply start ticking off tasks in my Circle of Control and my Circle of Influence, and changes started to happen.

Not only do I feel far happier at taking practical steps, but most of my "impossible problems" just melted away. It's an amazing experience to achieve things that you once believed were impossible.

Let's Try an Example

Let's take a popular one, that I hear a lot in coaching...

"I want a romantic relationship."

Can you make that happen?

Well, no... because it involves someone else making a decision too.

But there is a lot that you can do towards your goal.

Let's unpack this problem into constituent parts- each of which can be subdivided into smaller and smaller parts.

Yes, it's that easy.

In 5 minutes, I've reframed a seemingly impossible problem- something that most of us feel very little control over- into an easy set of steps.

You can apply this same approach to any problem or goal in your life.

What are you waiting for?

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This article is part of the series 


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This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

First published on 
. Last updated on 
January 7, 2021

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