When You Feel Out of Control, Try Thinking a New Way

There are times when I feel out of control and helpless, overwhelmed by obligations I need to fulfill and expectations I need to meet. When that happens, I find it useful to remind myself that I have power over the situation. I am in control of my own life, the captain of my own ship, if you will. The feeling that you have control and can handle all situations and conflicts in your life is called agency. I’ve found that changing my self-talk in simple ways emphasizes my agency. Here’s how to do it.

Your self talk is a window into your inner state. If you’re using powerless language in your self talk, you’re limiting your power in your life.

There’s a simple fix for this. Listen to your self talk throughout the day. These three phrases are signs that you are ceding your agency. Replace these phrases with the suggested substitutions and note how it subtly changes your mindset from powerless to powerful.

Substitute “I can’t” with “I won’t”

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When you say, “I can’t _ fill in the blank _“, you’re saying that some higher power has declared that you just can’t, end of discussion. This is helpless talk. If you want to say no, say “I won’t” instead. With this substitution, you’re declaring that you’ve made a deliberate choice. Compare these two phrases:

“I can’t go to Europe because I don’t have any money.”


“I won’t go to Europe because I don’t have any money.”

When you say “can’t” you’re in the “woe is me” space. As in, don’t blame me, I just can’t. Feel sorry for me because there’s nothing I can do about it.

But, when you say “won’t” you’ve made a deliberate choice based on your finances. Feel how much stronger I won’t is?

Here’s another example. If I say, “I can’t leave the house because my mother can’t be alone”, I’m not exercising my choices or engaging problem solving. I feel kind of sad and helpless. But, when I say “I won’t leave the house because my mother can’t be alone”, my brain will automatically challenge that choice. It will say, “You won’t leave the house? Well, do you want to leave? If you really want to, then you will find a way to do it, right?”

Substitute “I should” with “I choose” or “I could but I choose”

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Another phrase to watch out for are the obligations or expectations in the guise of “I should”. As in, “I should go visit Aunt Norma in the nursing home.” I should exercise. I should get a 9-to-5 job. When you say “should” who is saying you should? Society? The internet? Your spouse? Remember, you are the captain of your own ship. The captain makes the decisions. There are no shoulds. There are only choices.

When you hear yourself say “should”, replace it with “choose” to emphasize your agency. “I choose to go visit Aunt Norma in the nursing home because it will make her day.” Or, if you’re not going to do it, use “could”, as in, “I could go visit Aunt Norma, but I don’t choose to do so.”

I choose to exercise because it makes me happy and healthy.

I could get a 9-5 job but I choose to continue freelancing.

Rephrasing these situations into choices instead of obligations puts you back in control.

Substitute “It’s not my fault” for “I’m responsible”

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When things go wrong, it’s tempting to deflect responsibility rather than to take responsibility yourself. For example, “It’s not my fault I lost my job. My boss was terrible.”

You may think that if you don’t claim responsibility, then you won’t be blamed for failures. But, if you don’t claim responsibility, you’re letting someone else captain your ship!

Imagine you’re in a ship that’s starting to sink. As a passenger, all you can do is sit and fret, and hope that someone will solve the problem. As the captain, you are doing everything possible to right the ship. You are so busy figuring it out you’re not anxious because you’re in action mode.

When things go wrong, give yourself the power to do everything that needs to be done. Accept full responsibility. To reassert your control over the situation, say, “Even though my boss was terrible, I’m totally responsible for the loss of my job.” It may feel scary to be in charge, but now you’ve given yourself the power to improve the situation.

Make it a Daily Practice

These word substitutions are a subtle change, but they make a big difference in how your brain reacts to situations and conflicts. If you make these changes in how you talk to other people, they will perceive you has having more power.

If you’re like me, you’ll start noticing these three phrases, especially “I should”, popping up in your brain many times a day. Use them as opportunities to practice. Over time you’ll notice differences in your overall feeling of agency as you assert your power and control.

I learned these substitutions from reading Susan Jeffers’s book, Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway (Not an affiliate link). Check it out for more inspiration to transition from pain to power.

I’d love to hear about your self talk hacks. Tell me about them in the comments.

2 responses to “When You Feel Out of Control, Try Thinking a New Way”

  1. I have a few instances in life where one pursuit has helped me learn more about myself, which allows me to deal with the more unfamiliar areas of my life. Running, for instance, has taught me that I can keep going even though I feel like I can’t take another step. And that’s allowed me to stay in unbearable moments no matter how near I feel to my breaking point. Love this post. Thanks for sharing!


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