How to Cope When Things Feel Out of Your Control

December 21, 2020

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

- William James

Approaching a new year always makes me reflective. 

As artificial as New Year’s day can be considering, on one hand, it’s just another day—I do appreciate the chance to reflect forward, individually and collectively.

There’s not much point in talking about how much of a let-down 2020 was for most of us, because that’s been done to death. 

Also, 2020 is finally behind us, and this post is all about moving forward.

After a year—or heck, even a month—like this, surrendering to melancholy is oh-so-tempting. 

Wallowing in self-pity can feel almost like relaxing into a warm, comfortable bubble bath.

In fact, if you want to take a few seconds to wallow before the year is out, go for it. I’ll wait.

Now that we’ve got that out of our systems, let’s take a good hard look at what’s going on here.

Sure, there are circumstances outside our control. No one CHOSE a global pandemic as the theme for 2020—it just happened that way.

And yet, the world isn’t happening TO you or me.

We can always create an insurmountable obstacle by heaping up everything that’s gone wrong this year, but that won’t get you anywhere.

It’s just like that pile on your kitchen counter or nightstand or closet floor—if all you can see is the totality of clutter, you’ll always be stuck.

But hidden beneath unalterable external circumstances (or any unruly pile) is something even more important: how you choose to respond to those circumstances.

If you’ve had a shitty year, it may not only be 2020’s fault. 

As painful as it might be, there’s a tremendous opportunity here to examine your choices in response to everything 2020 threw at you.

Chances are, there’s some faulty thinking on your side of the street that didn’t help you navigate the shit show. 

We’ve already explored gift ideas for others, so now, let’s talk about the best gifts you can give YOURSELF this holiday season. Namely, the gifts of reflection and considered action.


There’s a famous Zen parable about a farmer who responds to events that seem either obviously good or bad by saying: “Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?”

The point of that story is that external circumstances in and of themselves often get labeled as “good” or “bad.” But because we can’t see them in a larger context as we’re experiencing them, we don’t really know which is which until we look back with some perspective.

External circumstances are the things that happen to us, outside of our control. 

These are often things we can’t change, like COVID, natural disasters, or Tiger King’s almost victim/co-star Carole Baskin appearing on Dancing With the Stars ...

Believe it or not, external circumstances are NOT the deciding factor in how happy and mentally healthy we are long-term.

Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn’s research on stress shows as much—among hundreds of other studies.

If you’re not a TED Talk fan, here’s the gist: Blackburn studied caregivers of terminally sick children and found that the stress in their lives wasn’t the deciding factor in their long-term health.

It was whether or not they believed they had control.

In other words, perception makes all the difference.

And by the way, if you consider your financial situation an external circumstance that’s holding you back, it probably isn’t.

Just look at the lives of past lottery winners for evidence that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Or any of your wealthy friends who complain about things that seem, if not trivial, at least easily remedied with the resources available to them.

Time and time again, studies show that prioritizing TIME is what makes us happiest—not money.

Look, I’m not minimizing how challenging it may be for you right now. You could be out of work, facing eviction, caring for a sick relative, AND … (fill in the blank here).

In fact, I’ve had shit years of my own, albeit without a pandemic, like when I was laid off and locked out of a job in Seattle in the mid-90’s, just before Christmas.

Unemployment benefits didn’t cover rent, car payments, and groceries. I was devastated and demoralized. 

What I wasn’t, was passive.

So I moved to a small cabin in Michigan where I could avoid eviction, drastically reduce my expenses, and regroup. 

I created a daily structure that allowed me to rebuild my self-esteem and heal. 

I controlled what I could, which was how I spent my time and how I spent my money. And I built my life forward from there.

And while having no money and significant debt sucked, having a lot of time was an amazing gift. 

So if the worst has happened this year, it just means you have MORE opportunity to choose your thoughts and actions carefully, not less. 

Will it be hard? Sure. 

Is it worth doing? You bet.


So, whatever your circumstances are at the end of 2020—why wait to make a change in your life?

What about your relationships to people, things, or other circumstances are keeping you stuck?

Humans are creatures of habit, and it’s tempting to think, “I’ll change my life when …” When I make more money, have more time, move to a new place, get married, get divorced, have a kid, the last kid moves out, get a new job … the list goes on and on.

And yet, we never DO seem to make that change when we’re waiting for something external to happen first.

Because as our circumstances change, we adjust. In many ways, we are comfortable in our ruts. They’re familiar. They’re cozy. Just like that warm bubble bath of wallowing denial.

If you want something different in your life, you’re going to have to figure out what it will take for YOU to overcome inertia.

I can write and talk to you all day long. I can hand you the keys to the palace, but you still have to put them in the lock and turn them.

So, what’s stopping you?


Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m an introvert.

I’m a trained actor, and I speak for a living. But unless I’m on stage, I don’t like to be around crowds

I could have fallen back on the excuse of “I’m shy” to avoid a book tour for Unstuff Your Life!, or coaching inumerable corporate clients in person. 

But I didn’t, and my life is better as a result.

Which doesn’t make me special – it just means that I have found a way to live in alignment with my values more than focusing on my momentary comfort.

There’s something bigger and more important to do here than focus on my desire to stay in the cozy, comfortable headspace of “things I like.”

I want to connect with people and help them get not only unstuffed, but un-STUCK, too. Because clutter is just a symptom—it isn’t the disease.

I believe this is my calling… for now. Or more precisely, the form of my calling. It used to be making theater.

The “why” hasn’t changed—the method has.

Even writing these words right now feels a bit uncomfortable.

I hear the same voices in my head that you probably hear in yours—“Who do you think you are? Nobody gives a shit about what matters to you … you're not special.”

And that last part I agree with—I’m not special.

What I’ve managed to accomplish, I think anybody can accomplish. 

Show up, and things happen. Opportunities present themselves and you’re available to take advantage of them, in the best sense of the word.

I have certain abilities, but again, I’m not sure how unique those are. It also doesn’t serve me to spend a lot of time wondering how unique they are.

I think it’s enough to just acknowledge that they all live inside me and I’m here. 

And since I’m here, I might as well make myself and those abilities useful.

So as much as the world needs me, the world needs you, too. It needs your participation and your gifts more than it needs your comfort. 

It doesn’t care at all about your comfort, actually, just to be clear.

So if you find yourself complaining about the circumstances of your world, take a moment to consider whether you’re being a truly active participant in your own life.

If you are, and you’re not seeing the results you want, change your strategy. 

If you aren’t, well . . . get going. The world reflects your passivity. 

You don’t have to become a politician or an activist, but you DO have to act on your own behalf.


I’ll leave you with a bedtime story.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy taps her ruby slippers together to get back home.

They’re the same damn shoes she’s been wearing since Glinda gave them to her, just a few minutes after she landed in Munchkinland.

I’m sure you see the metaphor here. She had exactly what she needed the whole time.

The tin man, the scarecrow and the lion, too, had everything they thought they were lacking without the aid of the wizard.

What are YOUR ruby slippers? What skills, talent and ability are you overlooking because you’re too focused on what you think you lack to see what’s right in front of you?


Imagine that you’re on a sailboat in a high wind. You can get buffeted by every gust, shaking your fist at nature and your circumstances.

You might feel vindicated, but nothing’s gonna improve.

Unless you follow Plan B: get to work, hoist the sail, and USE that wind to get where you want to go.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying you always have agency.

Even when it seems like circumstances beyond your control are fully running your life, with you at their mercy.

You can always choose. Always.

This year, give yourself the gift of choosing action that propels you forward. Your Future Self will thank you and so will every person you encounter whose life you influence in large and small ways every day.

You’re not invisible and you’re not inconsequential, regardless of how you feel in the moment or the garbage you might be telling yourself.

You matter in ways you can’t even comprehend.

And if that scares you, act as if you matter until you can feel it.

That may be the best gift you can give yourself this year.

If you’re ready to propel yourself forward in a big way, join our FREE 5 Day De-Stress Your Mess Challenge, which starts on January 11. In just 5 days you’ll tackle the basics of home—and life—organization.
And if you’re ready for something even bigger, join Your Next BIG Thing. It’s our private coaching + mastermind group for people who are ready to take on—and finish—a life-changing project in 90 days.

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!