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By Nathan Bailey, MA, LPC

Is what you’re trying to control, uncontrollable? You may have heard the expression “…it’s like herding cats.” I’ve never owned one cat, let alone many cats that require herding but I can only imagine that it’s nearly impossible. What cats are you trying to herd? What I mean is, are you trying to control things that can’t be controlled? Chances are, you have at least done this in the past and may still be doing it. 

You can’t control others

We can (and should) be authentic in our relationships. This means being honest, being clear on what we like, don’t like, advocating for ourselves etc. These are all good things. However, no matter how well you treat another person, you can’t control how they choose to react. Ever greeted someone with a cheery “hello” and a wave only to have them grumble and dismiss you? You can’t control their reaction. If you tried, you might find yourself upset that they were rude when you were trying to be nice. You might take their reaction personally and believe that you must have said or done something wrong. If you let it, it could really ruin your day. 

The illusion of control

Sometimes, we do this within our family relationships, professional relationships and even our intimate relationships. We might find ourselves trying to do everything in our power to avoid conflict or give them what they want to keep them happy. They might still choose not to be happy. I think of a line from the U2 song “So Cruel” that says “I gave you everything you ever wanted…it wasn’t what you wanted.” 

You can want healing and restoration, but they may not. You can put your best foot forward, only to have it ignored. We should take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, but we can’t take responsibility for others. We can’t control their reactions. 

Don’t go to the extreme

It’s important, of course, not to take this too far. You may know someone who loves to flaunt how abrasive they can be and announce “love me or hate me, I am what I am,” refusing to take any responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. This isn’t good either. As a mature, healthy person, we should present the best version of ourselves. Being emotionally mature means that we can recognize where we have made mistakes and own up to it. Not everyone operates from the same perspective and you will likely still find yourself in conflict with someone choosing not to respond in kind. 

Identifying the consequences

If you try to control others’ reactions, you are trying to do something that’s not possible. Ever try to beat gravity? Doesn’t really work does it? If someone tried to flap their arms and fly, we’d laugh. And yet, we might do everything in our power to make everyone like us or agree with us. It’ll never work and the end result is that you’ll eventually realize you’re herding cats. This can lead to anxiety, depression and even have negative physical side effects like poor digestion. When we can see the reality, maybe because you’ve sought out anxiety counseling, you’ll realize you’re investing a lot of time and energy in the wrong area. We simply can’t control how people choose to respond. This is a lesson worth learning as it will directly improve your mental and physical health. 

Make your own choice

This of course works in reverse. We can choose to respond in a healthy, positive way when we’re on the receiving end of negativity. So maybe if the person I mentioned before passes you with a grumble and a dismissive gesture, you choose to greet them with a sincere, genuine “have a nice day.” Will that change their disposition? Maybe…and maybe not. But, you’ve made the choice to respond to negativity with positivity. It feels great (as long as you aren’t letting sarcasm seep in). Sometimes around the holidays, people feel they’re getting lured into intense political debates around the dinner table. We can choose to respond with frustration (anger even) and with gritted teeth or we can see the futility of this type of conflict and instead make efforts to connect in other ways. 

Taking the next step

If you’re finding yourself herding cats, investing a lot of time and energy trying to control something that can’t be controlled, it’s likely you’re exhausted, anxious and feeling stuck. Reach out to Lime Tree Counseling for help. We offer anxiety counseling, trauma therapy, drug and alcohol counseling and marriage therapy. Reach out and schedule with one of our amazing therapists today.