Taking Control: How to get on top of things that get on top of you

This week we offer antidotes to 1998-style anxiety. Day One: Jane Clarke and John Nicholson consider the mechanisms of success.

What does it mean to be in control? Understanding what is going on in your immediate world, and being able to make happen a good proportion of what you want to happen. But different people's needs vary enormously. What matters is the level of comfort/discomfort you feel about your ability to influence the things which you regard as important to you. So, you may seem to others to be completely out of control, but actually you're happy that way - you thrive on the ambiguity and excitement of your existence. Alternatively, while other people could see you as a complete control freak, you are perfectly content with the level of control you are exercising. Indeed, you regard it as what makes you the practical and efficient person you are.

Is there a mismatch between the degree to which you influence the world around you and the amount of control you'd like to have? There is a close link between this aspect of your psychology and your general confidence in your ability to change your life. You can see where you stand on this by considering 10 short questions. Answer yes or no to each:

Is there some habit, such as smoking, that you'd like to break but can't?

Do you feel your personality was laid down firmly by childhood experiences, so that there is little you can do to change it?

Do others seem to get all the breaks?

Do you find it a waste of time planning ahead, because something always seems to turn up to change your plans?

Do you find it difficult to say no to people?

Do you think it is not what you do, but whom you know that counts in life?

Do you often feel you are the victim of forces outside your control?

Do you find that other people usually get their way?

Do you wait for the phone to ring and then feel rejected when it does not?

Would your friends and colleagues like you to take more responsibility?

The more affirmative answers you have given to these questions, the more likely it is that you are a reactive rather than proactive person, in other words you let things happen to you, rather than influencing situations and taking control. But even if your answers do place you in this category, does it really matter? The short answer is yes, probably. Reactive people are more likely to feel oppressed by the flow of events; in extreme cases they are prone to free-floating anxiety (worry without a specific cause) and often feel like running away. They can even make themselves ill: the condition known as "learned helplessness" - characterised by the feeling that whatever you do, it won't make a difference - is a recognised symptom of clinical depression. Less drastically, they may also be frustrating people to have around, because of their apparent lack of drive and constant complaining.

By contrast, we tend to admire proactive people. They're the ones who work themselves into the best jobs, are full of self-confidence, appear to be on top of things and seem able to deal with anything that life throws at them.

You may well have decided that you would welcome a bit more control of your life. What can you do about it? The first step must be towards greater self-knowledge. Why are you feeling out of control - even helpless? Those who wake up in the morning with a sense of panic and general anxiety are particularly prone to allow different sources of worry to build up. Taken one at a time, the worries might not be significant - and certainly not insoluble - but the sufferer finds it impossible to separate them or examine them for long enough to find solutions. And yet it's essential to achieve a level of rational and objective thinking. One technique is to try to view yourself and your situation as someone else would - sit outside yourself for a bit. Or if you can face it, it's even better to get someone else to do it with you to give you some perspective.

Interrogate the situation. Are there particular occasions when you feel control slipping away? Do certain individuals do it to you? Is it worse at certain times of the week (lots of people have Sunday evening blues) or when you find yourself in specific situations. Once you're sure you have identified the cause(s), analyse them further. It may be just one small part of a much bigger element which is the root cause. Then you need to decide to tackle it.

As you strive to gain more control, you may be in for some pleasant surprises. Some of the doors you push will open easily. They may even be opened for you by other people who are only too delighted that you are now eager to contribute to the decision-making process. Some people may need to be reassured that you haven't succumbed to megalomania. Explain to them why you want more control - there are benefits to them as well as to you - and set out the limits of your ambitions.

Paradoxically, you may also find that the surest way to increase your sense of being in control is to ask others to relieve you of responsibility in some areas. ("I'd like you to take the girls to ballet on Saturday so that I can get the holiday arrangements nailed down.") Transfer of control doesn't have to be an all or nothing affair. Some of the most effective delegation exercises involve sharing accountability. Finally, you may discover that by taking your fair share of the decisions, increasing your sphere of control and exerting significantly more influence, you also find yourself with a less stressful existence and more time on your hands.

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