banner image

There is Power in the Circle of Control

If you have ever been in therapy for any period of time, the topic of “control” probably surfaced. If you have not, you may still recall feeling frustrated by situations where you wanted a different outcome or for someone to act differently. We humans like to control things, but it is essential to understand what we can, cannot, and should not try to exert our power over.

In therapy, the concept of the “Circle of Control” is often used—particularly in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based approaches. This visual tool helps us understand and manage our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors by categorizing them into three main areas: things we can control, things we can influence, and things we cannot control. Here’s what the exercise looks like:

Understanding the Circle of Control

· Inner Circle (Control): This innermost circle represents aspects of life that individuals have direct control over, such as thoughts, actions, attitudes, and choices. Here, individuals have the power to make changes and exert influence. This area includes our responses to things in the outer circle.

· Middle Circle (Influence): The middle circle encompasses factors that individuals may not control directly but can still influence to some extent. This includes relationships, work environment, health habits, and social interactions. Through proactive behaviors, individuals can sway or impact these factors.

· Outer Circle (No Control): The outermost circle includes elements that are beyond individual control, such as external events, the behavior of others, global issues, or natural disasters. These are circumstances over which individuals have little to no influence.

Mastering Anxiety: Using the Circle of Control Exercise in Daily Life

By using the Circle of Control in therapy sessions, our clients are able to develop a more balanced and adaptive approach to dealing with life's challenges. Why? Because this mental exercise encourages a shift from focusing on external factors to directing our attention and efforts toward what we can actually influence or change. Rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) principles, it can help with the following:

· Naming the Concerns: Once a person has an opportunity to articulate their worries and stressors, they are then encouraged to categorize them into the proper circle based on their level of control. This process fosters self-awareness and clarity. It helps a client put a name on the source of their anxiety.

· Focusing on the Inner Circle: Therapy shifts the focus to the Inner Circle, where individuals can develop strategies to address controllable factors. This may involve setting realistic goals, practicing mindfulness, challenging negative thoughts, or developing coping skills.

· Building Self-Efficacy: The external factors of life can often feel as if they are controlling us. Bringing attention to the many options in the Inner Circle fosters a sense of agency and self-efficacy. Coming up with proactive steps to manage controllable factors allows an individual to feel empowered.

· Managing the Middle Circle: While some concerns may fall beyond direct control, therapy helps individuals find actionable steps within the Middle Circle to mitigate stressors. This may involve communication skills, problem-solving techniques, or seeking support from others.

· Acceptance of the Outer Circle: In therapy, we encourage individuals to accept aspects of life that are beyond their control. Through acknowledgment and acceptance, individuals learn to relinquish futile attempts to control the uncontrollable, freeing up their time and energy to focus on areas where they can make a difference.

Benefits of the Circle of Control Exercise

By focusing on what is within their control, individuals experience a significant reduction in anxiety levels. This shift from helplessness to empowerment brings about a sense of calm and confidence. Coupled with practical coping skills and strategies to navigate anxiety-provoking situations, we see our clients adapt and bounce back from setbacks and experience a greater sense of well-being in their daily lives. And that is a powerful thing!