How to cope when things feel out of your control

When you’re going through a tough time and everything seems out of your control, you might feel like screaming in your car, or be wondering what you did to deserve this, or thinking that it will never get better… any of this sound familiar?

It turns out, though, that a more helpful way to cope with things that are out of our control is to practise acceptance. Instead of seeing ourselves as victims or our situation as negative, acceptance makes us feel empowered about the things we can do.

What’s the deal with acceptance?

Accepting something that’s shitty doesn’t mean you’re giving it a big thumbs-up. You accept your friends for who they are. You know you’re not responsible for their actions, and you defs can’t control them, so when they do things you don’t agree with, you mostly just get over it.

It’s the same when you’re going through a hard time in life. Things can happen that are totally out of your control – whether it’s a relationship break-up or the death of someone you’re close to.

It’s normal to feel sad, angry and seriously pissed off. The thing is, if you refuse to accept these things and stay angry, it can just lead to more hurt and upset. If you can manage to accept that this is what’s happening right now, your mind can focus on what you can do to make things better.

One thing’s for sure, acceptance ain’t easy. Think about something you’ve been struggling with, and give these three tips a go to see if you can come to accept it.

1. Imagine what a role model or admired friend would do in the same situation

It’s normal to be upset if you don’t score that job you’ve applied for. But sometimes we get so caught up in being upset, we lose sight of the actual situation. We can judge ourselves super-harshly in ways we would never judge a friend.

A more helpful response is to try giving yourself the advice you might give a friend. What would you tell them to help them out? Would you judge them or accept them? If you’d accept them, try using that acceptance on yourself and treat yourself as your own good friend.

2. Write down your thoughts

Stress can make us think negative thoughts about ourselves. These might be things like ‘I always say the wrong thing’, or ‘I suck at this’. Once you’re thinking these things about yourself, it’s easy to think even more negative thoughts and to focus on all the bad stuff.

It’s important to understand that we are not our thoughts. Thoughts may come into your head for a whole bunch of reasons. By accepting that thoughts aren’t facts, they lose some of their power to upset us.

Try writing down the words that are going through your head, especially when you’re in a tough situation. Then read them back as if someone else had written them. This can help you to realise that your thoughts aren’t you, and to accept them for what they are: just thoughts.

When you’re going through a break-up, it might feel like your heart is actually breaking in two. We’ve all been there, thinking stuff like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m going to end up living with my cats’. Writing these thoughts down acknowledges that they are simply thoughts. You can even try reframing them with ‘I just had the thought that…’ beforehand. ‘I just had the thought that I’m not good enough’ is less upsetting and more truthful than the thought itself.

3. Talk to others about how you’re feeling

It’s normal to feel all the feels (grief, sadness, anger, anxiety) when you’re faced with stress. Sometimes you can make it worse by judging yourself for feeling these emotions. We might think, ‘I should be happy all the time’, or ‘If I’m sad, something’s wrong with me’. It’s not super-surprising that this makes us feel even worse.

Talking to friends, family, or anyone else you feel comfortable with can help you feel less alone and that somebody else gets it.

It can be hard to start talking. You might be afraid that saying the thoughts aloud will make them real, or that the other person won’t understand. Often, though, once you start opening up, you realise that it’s totally fine to talk about what’s on your mind. In fact, it might be a relief for the other person, too, because they might be feeling something similar. Realising that other people are going through the same thing can help us feel like our emotions are normal, valid and okay to feel.

We’ve got two choices when something bad and out of our control happens to us. We can struggle with it and suffer because we can’t control it, or we can accept it and move on. Acceptance is something worth practising, like a musical instrument or playing sport. The better you get at it through practice, the easier you’ll find it when something bad happens, and the better you’ll feel.

What can I do now?

  • Think about something in your life that could benefit from acceptance and road test one of these tips for us.

  • Hear how other young people have practiced acceptance on the ReachOut Online Community.