It can be difficult to put plans in place and take appropriate action when we are flooded with anxious thoughts. Shifting our focus to where we have influence and agency therefore has positive implications for our well-being and mental health. But this can be easier said than done when we feel angry, exhausted or hopeless about what is happening around us and to us.
There are many things outside of our control. Stephen Covey frames this within a “Circle of Concern”. Here are some examples of what could be placed within that circle.
How news is reported in publications and on social media platforms.
The decisions made by local and national governments.
The values and practices of your workplace.
What other people say and how they say it.
How other people choose to interpret what we say and do.
The underlying agendas and motivations held by other people.
How other people abide by rules and expectations in daily life.
The Circle of Concern has a reactive and negative focus. Covey argues that spending time and energy on factors which are outside of our control can lead to feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. We can be easily consumed by the need to blame and shame others for their failings. Instead, Covey recommends that we be more mindful of our “Circle of Influence”. These are things which we can do something about.
How you talk about yourself and others.
How you look after your body and make time for relaxation.
How you breathe when you feel worried.
How you challenge and reframe my thoughts.
The choices you make.
The habits and routines you set.
Where you get your news from.
The people you follow on social media.
When it is time to ask someone for help.
When it is time to say “No” or “Not right now”.
How kind you are to others and yourself.
The Circle of Influence is more proactive, and the energy centred around it is more positive. We can zero in on the things we can change and feel empowered by the many things which we do have some degree of control over. Here are some key principles for trying to broaden our Circle of Influence.
1. The goals we set for ourselves should be achievable. We can work towards them if we break them down into small steps, plan in advance and prepare ourselves for possible delays and setbacks when other priorities or barriers arise. Your outdoor exercise schedule might be completely wrecked by the weather or a family emergency. But it can be rescheduled for another day or planned around some events which we know are imminent.
2. When we make mistakes, we can acknowledge what went wrong, try to correct for them right away and strive to learn from them. If the same problem is occurring time after time, consider what can be done to make a different outcome more likely or side-step an all-too-familiar pitfall. It might help to make a list of “Golden Rules” – things which we know never to say or do again, based on the stress we faced previously, and alternatives to navigate similar situations in the future.
3. Worries are completely normal in amongst the many thousands of thoughts we have each day and they can be triggered by any number of things. But we can ask ourselves a series of questions to reframe our thoughts. How likely is the worry to come true? What is the evidence for and against? How did we cope with a similar situation in the past? Will we still be worrying about the same thing in a year’s time – if not, is it really a big deal in the grand scheme of things?
4. How we listen to others and empathise with what they are feeling and thinking can be the difference between being annoyed or exhausted by what they say and having a more positive and supportive conversation. We can turn from an emotional punching bag, soaking up the other person’s negativity, into someone who provides a safe space. Phrases such as “Wow that sounds so hard” and “I can understand why you’re so stressed” show that we are hearing and connecting with their feelings. Even our use of silence, and body language which acknowledges that we are listening, can be more powerful than offering immediate, quick-fix solutions.
5. We may find it hard to get through to a relative, friend or manager about a problem. They may be unaware of how their actions are affecting us and others and it might feel like we’re hitting our heads off a brick wall. But is there someone else we can talk to? Someone who is a better listener, more practical in weighing up situations or has the ear of the person we’re struggling to connect with? Can we talk about or show evidence of a different way of doing things, rather than fighting against the other person’s agenda and ultimately creating more stress in our lives?
I think that Covey’s Circle of Concern and Influence model is a nice template for thinking about self-care. It can be very deflating to focus on the wide range of circumstances which are outside our control. Especially when we’re bombarded by reminders of these issues through news, social media or daily interactions with people who bring us down. Proactively reflecting on the things which we can influence and adjust, by saying them out loud or drawing the circles on a piece of paper, may be a helpful technique for redirecting our focus away from negative thoughts. This is a nice quote from Rick Hanson: “Many things happen to a person. Still, we can experience a sense of agency in how we respond to them”.
References and Further Reading
Covey, S.R. (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: RosettaBooks LLC.
Hanson, R. (2018). Resilient: Find Your Inner Strength. London: Rider.
Hanson, R., McKay, M., Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., Seif, M.N., Winston, S.M., Carbonell, D.A., Pittman, C.M. & Karle, E.M. (2020). The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications Inc.
Rae, T. (2020). CPD Coffee Time with Dr Tina Rae 16: Self Care during the COVID-19 Pandemic. July 13th 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YqhsLVmR4w&t=1184s