Circles of control

Wouldn’t it be great if we could control everything? Imagine how much more secure and confident we might feel? As much as we’d like to do this it isn’t possible, especially during a pandemic and other turbulent times that you or those you care about may be facing. It’s probably not healthy to control everything either, as over-controlling everything can be exhausting for you and difficult for others.

This activity helps you note the things you can address, the things you can’t, and how it’s okay to let the latter go. It does involve facing your fears so if you’re not in a good place today, come back to this activity later in the month or whenever you feel up to it.

Feeling out of control or being subjected to things beyond our control can increase our anxiety and leave us feeling overwhelmed, particularly if we’re someone that needs clear instructions, boundaries and routines to feel safe; or if significant life events have made us temporarily or permanently insecure. We may find ourselves worrying about a growing range of things, some of which we are at risk of but others that will never affect us. This might leave us feeling fragile but also worried that we’re stressing too much or that people might judge us for our fears, or avoid or abandon us. If you’ve previously been rejected or mocked when help seeking that’s a reasonable concern, but equally you may feel at a time when everyone is struggling you have no right to be as worried as you are. And if you’re engulfed by fears and intrusive thoughts you may feel as if they cannot be stopped – which in turn might affect your sleeping and eating habits, your relationships with other people, and your ability to seek help. You may avoid asking others to assist you because you don’t want to be judged, or feed your fears with endless online searches for stories or information that only worsen your feelings of panic and distress. If you are prone to obsessive, compulsive, anxious, paranoid or depressive episodes, the stress of the pandemic and related issues may be exacerbating those and at this point you may want to pause and contact your GP or speak to your therapist or mental health team (if you have one) before reading further.

Circles of Control is a tool created by Stephen Covey, designed to help you differentiate between the things you have some control/influence over and the things you do not. Here’s how it works. Draw a circle and write inside it anything that’s bothering you which you have direct control over (things you have the power and ability to change or alter). This is your Circle of Control.  Next, draw another circle around the outside of the first, this is your Circle of Concern (also referred to as the Circle of No Control) these are things you have no control over and therefore are unable to directly change or influence and should avoid wasting time, money or emotional energy trying to fix.

Noting what you can’t control allows you to let go of that and focus instead on what you can do something about – either by yourself or with the support of others.

The Counselling Teacher has this helpful blog post explaining more about how Circles of Control work and ways you can make them in different, creative ways. I have adapted one of their ideas with the example below that you might like to use to identify what you can, and can’t control.


If we take the template above, what could you put in the inner circle or outside it? What things are worrying you that you might be able to do something about, and what will you let go of? For example, if you’re worried about passing an exam your Circle of Control might include the things you can do to help yourself – going to classes, taking notes, revising, ensuring you have the necessary equipment for studying and taking exams, requesting accommodations if those have not been provided, or asking a tutor for help if you don’t understand the work that has been set. You’re still going to feel nervous, but if you begin to take control you will be more prepared and have a better chance of succeeding.  In the Circle of No Control you might note what you can’t do anything about such as what will be on the exam paper (because unless you’ve bribed someone you won’t know what that will be!). You also have no control over whether other people are studying (their choice), and whether some people do better than you (some will, some won’t, that’s life). Noting what you can’t do anything about regarding exams gives you space to calm and focus on what you are able to do to give yourself opportunities to do well.

How about the pandemic? If that’s something that troubles you and you are not in a place to deal with it currently, practice control right now by skipping this paragraph.  Applying the Circle of No Control to the pandemic might involve you noting whether other people wear masks, get vaccinated, or practice social distancing; what other people believe about the pandemic (including conspiracy theories); news reporting about the pandemic and death statistics; what provisions are in the shops (including toilet roll); and how long the pandemic will impact on us globally.  You cannot control any of these things. You can’t make people wear masks (and some are rightfully exempt from doing so), you don’t make all the news coverage in the world, you can’t stop people getting sick, you have no influence over the entire country’s food chains and shop supplies, and you alone can’t change how long or how severely the pandemic will affect us all.

This might make you feel a bit wobbly or overwhelmed, but don’t panic! Now’s the time to use your Circle of Influence. You CAN control social distancing or shielding, you can wear a mask if you are able and you can also wash your hands and use sanitiser. You can switch off the news or limit your consumption of it. You may decide to avoid those spreading conspiracy theories, but give extra time to loved ones who make you feel supported. If you’re offered the vaccine you can take it (if no other health conditions prevent this), and you can identify safer shopping times or stores you feel comfortable in or ask someone to help with your shopping, or use a foodbank if you need to.  Note here that the things you cannot control you can give yourself very firm permission to ignore. Say “STOP!” or “GO AWAY!” in your head or even out loud if you find your thoughts spiralling. Switch off social media if it’s making things worse. The things you do have influence over may still be sources of worry because Covid-19 is scary, but you can reduce that with your own actions and by trying to calm or seeking mental health advice if needed. Self-influence doesn’t mean alone, it means drawing on all sources of care and information to ensure you feel more secure.

Some people find this a useful activity to do by themselves, others as a group activity as a means to identify key things people are worried about and offer practical solutions. You could also use this in pastoral care and teaching settings, or if you are supporting someone who struggles with anxiety and stress. You can be creative in different ways you make and complete your circles. Some people find making them digitally works, others transfer them from circles into lists. Still more draw their circles on paper and represent what they can or can’t control visually with their own illustrations, stickers or collage.  The act of creating these circles may be therapeutic in their own right. And if you feel unable to tell someone how you are feeling you can show them what you’ve recorded in your circles.

If you found this difficult
This can be a tricky activity to learn, and may take practice to get used to. You may need to adapt your Circles of Control to different situations or review them over time. You may also find it difficult to know exactly what to put write or feel self conscious or guilty thinking about your worries. Note these reactions and, if appropriate, seek help for them (see links above). When I’ve done this exercise with other people sometimes their response to their ‘Circle of No Control’ is ‘everything’ – indicating just how stressed and overwhelmed they feel. Equally when it’s time to think of ways they could manage issues in their ‘Circle of Influence’ they feel helpless and don’t know where to begin or are even resistant to the suggestion there might be some small actions to take to regain some control over their circumstances. This may be more acute if you’re depressed, are being bullied or abused, are in a precarious situation, are neurodivergent, or if you are fearful about asking for help. You may find all of Being Well In Academia but especially Chapter 3 helps you identify why you might struggle to seek or accept care you’re  entitled to. You may also find trying the Letting Go activity prior to creating your Circles of Control is a gentle way to approach things.

Instead of starting with two circles you might want to sketch out a list of what is troubling you. Then pick the most pressing thing. And from that noting what are the aspects of it that are bothersome? At this point you may be ready to break down what you can’t do about said thing, and what you can do now or in the future to help yourself.

Remember this is not an activity designed to excuse things that are happening in the world that are unequal, oppressive or unfair and nor does it come with the expectation that by identifying things you may have some control over that you accept abuse or harm.

The Red Cross have produced this video that explains more about Circles of Control and how to use them, alongside this guide and transcript of the video that you may find useful if you’re not quite sure how to apply this activity.

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